Nationality: American. Born: Tulsa, Oklahoma, 17 June 1942. Education: Columbia University, New York (Boar's Head poetry prize and George E. Woodberry award, 1964), A.B. 1964; Fulbright fellow, Paris, 1965–66. Family: Married; one son. Career: Taught poetry workshops at St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery, New York, and poetry writing in New York public schools, 1969–76; writer in the community, South Carolina Arts Commission, 1976–78. Associate editor, Paris Review, 1968–70; founding editor, Full Court Press, 1973. Since 1981 director of publications, Teachers & Writers Collaborative, New York. Awards: Gotham Book Mart prize, 1964; Poets Foundation grant, 1965, 1968; Columbia University Translation Center award, 1976; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1983; Guggenheim fellowship, 1986; New York Foundation for the Arts grant, 1990; Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts grant, 1996; American Academy of Arts and Letters grant, 1999. Address: 342 East 13th Street, New York, New York 10003, U.S.A.
Some Thing, with Ted Berrigan and Joe Brainard. Privately printed, 1964.
In Advance of the Broken Arm. New York, "C" Press, 1964.
Sky. London, Goliard Press, 1966.
Bean Spasms: Poems and Prose, with Ted Berrigan. New York, Kulchur, 1967.
Tone Arm. Brightlingsea, Essex, Once Press, 1967.
100,000 Fleeing Hilda, with Joe Brainard. New York, Boke, 1967.
Bun, with Tom Clark. New York, Angel Hair, 1968.
Great Balls of Fire. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1969; revised edition, Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1990.
Sweet Pea. New York, Aloe, 1971.
Sufferin' Succotash, with Joe Brainard, with Kiss My Ass, by Michael Brownstein. New York, Adventures in Poetry, 1971.
Poetry Collection. Penfield, New York, Strange Faeces Press, 1971.
Back in Boston Again, with Ted Berrigan and Tom Clark. Philadelphia, Telegraph, 1972.
Oo La La, with Jim Dine. London, Petersburg Press, 1973.
Crazy Compositions. Bolinas, California, Big Sky, 1974.
Toujours l'Amour. New York, Sun Press, 1976.
Arrive by Pullman. Paris, Generations, 1978.
Tulsa Kid. Calais, Vermont, Z Press, 1979.
Triangles in the Afternoon. New York, Sun Press, 1980.
How to Be a Woodpecker. West Branch, Iowa, Toothpaste Press, 1983.
How to Be Modern Art, with Trevor Winkfield. West Branch, Iowa, Coffee House Press, 1984.
Light as Air. Paris, Aldo Crommelynck, 1989.
The Big Something. Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Figures, 1990.
New & Selected Poems. Lincoln, Massachusetts, Godine, 1995.
Seventeen: Collected Plays, with Ted Berrigan. New York, "C"Press, 1965.
Chrononhotonothologos, with Johnny Stanton, adaptation of the play by Henry Carey. New York, Boke, 1971.
Antlers in the Treetops, with Tom Veitch. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1973.
2/2 Stories for Andy Warhol. New York, "C" Press, 1965.
The Adventures of Mr. and Mrs. Jim and Ron, with Jim Dine. London, Cape Goliard Press, and New York, Grossman, 1970.
Among the Blacks: Two Works, with Raymond Roussel. Bolinas, California, Avenue B, 1988.
Pantoum. New York, Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1988.
Blood Work: Selected Prose. Flint, Michigan, Bamberger Books, 1993.
Ted: A Personal Memoir of Ted Berrigan. Great Barrington, Massachusetts, The Figures, 1993.
Creative Reading. Urbana, Illinois, National Council of Teachers of English, 1997.
Albanian Diary. Great Barrington, Massachusetts, The Figures, 1999.
Editor, with Ted Berrigan, Literary Days, by Tom Veitch. New York,"C" Press, 1964.
Editor, with David Shapiro, An Anthology of New York Poets. New York, Random House, 1970.
Editor, with Bill Zavatsky, The Whole Word Catalogue 2. New York, McGraw Hill, 1976.
Editor, with Nancy Larson Shapiro, The Point: Where Teaching and Writing Intersect. New York, Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1983.
Editor, The Complete Poems, by Edwin Denby. New York, Random House, 1986.
Editor, Handbook of Poetic Forms. New York, Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1987.
Editor, The Teachers and Writers Guide to Walt Whitman. New York, Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1991.
Editor, with Christopher Edgar, Educating The Imagination. New York, Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1994.
Editor, World Poets: An Encyclopedia for Students. New York, Scribner, 2000.
Translator, The Poet Assassinated, by Guillaume Apollinaire. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1968; enlarged edition, as The Poet Assassinated and Other Stories, Berkeley, California, North Point Press, 1984; Manchester, Carcanet, 1985.
Translator, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, by Pierre Cabanne. New York, Viking Press, 1970; London, Thames and Hudson, 1971.
Translator, with David Ball, Rldasedlrad les Dlcmhypbdf, by Valery Larbaud. New York, Boke, 1973.
Translator, with Bill Zavatsky, The Poems of A.O. Barnabooth, by Valery Larbaud. Tokyo, Mushinsha, 1974.
Translator, Kodak, by Blaise Cendrars. New York, Boke, 1976.
Translator, Complete Poems, by Blaise Cendrars. Berkeley, California, University of California Press, 1992.*
Critical Studies: "The New American Poetry" by Jonathan Cott, in The New American Arts, New York, Horizon Press, 1966; "Reverdy in New York" by Mortimer Guiney, in World Literature Today (Norman, Oklahoma), 59(4), autumn 1985; "Supernatural Diet" by Stephen Ratcliffe, in Talisman (Jersey City, New Jersey), 7, fall 1991; "A Night Painting of Ron Padgett" by David Shapiro, in Talisman (Jersey City, New Jersey), 7, fall 1991; "The Tulsa Kid" by Karen Volkman, in The Voice Literary Supplement, September 1996; "Padgett the Collaborator" by Clayton Eshleman, in Chicago Review, 43(2), spring 1997; "Ron Padgett's Visual Imagination" by Alice Notley, in Arshile, 9, 1998.* * *
Ron Padgett writes in a loose tradition begun by Charles Henri Ford in the 1930s and carried forward by Frank O'Hara and Ted Berrigan. It is a New York school or a New York surrealism—polymorphic, a confluence of modernisms of all kinds, anticonventional in almost every way. Like his predecessors, Padgett modulates poems beyond traditional limits. In his 1969 poem "Wonderful Things," for example, he varies the diction from the language of formal elegy—"Anne, who are dead …. "—to that of insanity—"Seriously, I have this mental (smuh!) illness …" Then, taking a new direction, he retroactively wraps the whole poem in the disarmingly ingenuous diction of a storyteller ("and that's what I want to do / tell you wonderful things").
A naive world surfaces in Padgett's poetry: mysterious appearances, holes in the sky, falling clouds, ghosts, secret notes, funny animals, elvishness. These lines are from Great Balls of Fire:
I will sleep
in my little cup.
At its purest the effect is wonder: "A child draws a man and the earth / is covered with snow." Padgett's power comes from his voice. When it speaks directly, it is the clearest voice of a child in modern poetry. (See "Buckets" in Great Balls of Fire as an example.) When it speaks otherwise, as in these lines from How to Be a Woodpecker, it is a whole other game:
I would rather not participate in this society
anymore, hello, but I must because I do not have
the money to live outside it, on my yacht. This
paragraph is a verbal checkerboard. It's your move.
Behind his irony Padgett grows full of Dada ("What modern poetry needs / is a good beating"), ready to parody anything established ("When I see birches / I think of nothing …. One could doworse than see birches"). Like the dadaists, he can pit art against life with ease, as he does in "Tone Arm":
Let's take a string quartet
Playing one of Beethoven's compositions
We may explain it as the scratching
Of a horse's hair against a cat's gut
Or we may explain it as the mind
Of a genius soaring up to an infinite
Horse's hair scratching against an infinite cat's gut.
Padgett's zany, ebullient wit often hides the intelligence and sensitivity that lie under the surface. Although he launches a bombast against intellectual history ("Tone Arm"), which, he explains,
Is now only an imitation of itself
Like a car
Driving towards itself in the rain
Only to be photographed from behind,
casual references to intellectual concepts fill his work. The rules of poetry get no attention they do not deserve, as in "Haiku" from Tulsa Kid:
First: five syllables
Second: seven syllables
Third: five syllables
Some modern art movements do not fare much better, as shown in "Ode to the Futurist Painters and Poets":
You, Futurists, thought the airplane and telephone so
Padgett knows both poetry and painting well. Scores of artists pass through his work. Horace, Ungaretti, Max Jacob, Jim Dine, Rilke, Gris, Reverdy, John Lyly, Mallarmé, Castiglione, Jasper Johns, Fairfield Porter, and Thomas Hardy exist alongside Gabby Hayes, Carl Yazstrzemski, and Mighty Mouse. Padgett himself has translated Apollinaire, Duchamp, Cendrars, and Larbaud. Yet he wears his knowledge lightly, as if to say, "Well, doesn't everybody know this stuff?"
Padgett's poems are made out of magic words, as shown in "Cufflinks":
But you never can tell
what might happen.
Jean-Baptiste Marie Alouette Francois-Jones
might be born any minute
to Mr. and Mrs. Arturo-Torres Helen Kafka
who are riding across the night sky
on shafts of silver light. Their
spurs jangle and glint like spurs
in the immensity of space.
Is space immense? Or is it fast?
Here today to discuss the question
is Mrs. Arturo-Torres Helen Kafka.
where is she? She was sitting here
in this chair
He often takes the question of whether a reality can exist without language and reverses it. Who did take the chair? He pushes this inquiry to its limit in Supernatural Overtones, a collaboration with Clark Coolidge that explores the edges of how meaning means.
Many of Padgett's poems celebrate paintings; some are collaborations with painters or graphic artists. Other poems surrealistically evoke a mood, an attitude, a complex of emotions. His later works have become intermittently darker. There is a limit, it seems to me, to what can be expressed through Padgett's method. But he can transcend it, as he does in the poem "Dog" from The Big Something, a powerful lament for two dead friends that is colloquial and conversational-
New York's lost some of its rough charm
—he says of Ted Berrigan and Edwin Denby:
And there's just no getting around it
By pretending the rest of us can somehow make up for it
Or that future generations will. I hear
A dog barking in the street and it's drizzling
at 6 A.M. and there's nothing warm
Or lovable or necessary about it, it's just
Some dog barking in some street somewhere.
I hate that dog.
The zaniness, the cuteness is gone; faced with death, cuteness just does not cut it. But an underlying seriousness has been in Padgett's poetry from the beginning; it just has not surfaced frequently. It is similar in this respect to the elegiac lyricism that arises only in the final four lines of "16 November 1964" or to the intellectual honesty of the final couplet of "When I Think More of My Own Future Than of Myself" (1969) or to the eloquence in this final section from "My Room" (1990):
I can hear a brook from my window now, and I think of it running into the little spot we call Wayne Pond, named after my son, who was named after my father. All this confluence in a room I didn't feel comfortable in until a few minutes ago, a room that, broken like a mustang, becomes a friend to man, we who are so desperately in need of friends among the plants and animals of this earth, and yes, the humans too, and the rooms we build around ourselves.
Padgett's poetry has bemused us, made us smile, even laugh out loud. After such a confluence one may wonder if the reflection in this new room marks the surfacing of lyrical, elegiac, thoughtful tones in this remarkable poet, who is, as Aram Saroyan has called him, "the grand old young man of the New York School of poets."
—Edward B. Germain