I want to begin by thinking aloud about a few Ron Padgett poems, the first of which is called, beguilingly, “Except at Night.” I want, in doing so, to argue that Padgett is interested in ironizing convention, pushing open the boundaries of the expected, complicating and problematizing notions of realism, and tickling us exactly where our expectations are subverted, so that we are enchanted rather than irritated by this playing with (if not exploding of) the familiar. Here’s the first poem:
Seurat and Gris do meet
Walking down the street.
How do you do, Seurat,
Says Gris, and How do you do,
Says Seurat, too.
The poem’s brevity, and its anecdotal nature, suggest a kind of joke with a missing punch-line, unless the punch-line is the utterly banal, “How do you do, / Says Seurat, too,” in which case we are presented not with a punch-line so much as an expectation for a punch-line that never comes. But the poem, again because of its pithiness, does present itself as an enjoyably banal, stimulating puzzle, something that we are meant, if not to solve, then at least to think about.
But what is there to think about, and is the poem even banal? For it is about two hugely important painters of the 20th century – Georges Seurat and Juan Gris. And what happens in the poem? They actually meet, meaning they encounter one another and say, in effect, “hello, how are you doing?” And perhaps shake hands and give each other an affirmative, acknowledging nod. But there are other implications as well to this meeting, and the poem seems to be playing with these implications. What are they? First, there is the suggestion that something largely important, though banal, is taking place – a kind of stylistic coming-together, a synthesis of sorts – purely in the meeting of these two men. The poem seems to be saying, “Look! Even the representatives of Cubism and Pointillism do meet, do shake heads, do acknowledge each other!” Therefore, secondly: that there is a certain hybrid character of life and art, a certain way in which opposing, alternative and perhaps incommensurable styles do meet, do acknowledge each other, do mingle and, in their mingling, produce new styles. And yet all of this lurking importance is presented in the banal context of the poem.
Padgett’s poems frequently portray hilariously banal circumstances with hilariously sublime flashes, or funnily sublime circumstances with funnily banal flashes. Look at “Framed Picture”:
The baby Jesus
was born in the corner of a cardboard box,
my cowboy boots came in,
all sparkling with rhinestones
and echoing with the voices of German maidens
off in the hills behind the castle:
the red rose blooms her cheek
and she smiles to the blue heavens.
It is 1819.
What am I doing here?
Tending the trellises, culling a few yellow roses from the vine,
carefully wiping the watercolor pigment off my hands,
heading back up toward the house.
Baby Jesus is born “in the corner of a cardboard box.” But not just that – it is, rather wonderfully, the same exact cardboard box that the speaker’s “cowboy boots came in, / all sparkling with rhinestones”. And it is the rhinestones which presumably open up a portal in and to the poet’s imagination, a kind of stairwell, down or up which the poet walks, leading him to find the stereotypically sublime convention of “voices of German maidens / off in the hills behind the castle”. For what is more expectedly sublime than a certain kind of German mystical idealist viewpoint, one part Wagner, one part Hegel? The poet is poking (fun) at convention, nudging cliches, having a rather sparkling time stretching our conception of what is to be allowed inside the poem. And the poem is fun, unexpected, and marvelously funny, as when suddenly we find out “It is 1819,” and the poem asks, again hilariously, “What am I doing here?”
What is the speaker “doing here”? “Tending the trellises, culling a few yellow roses from the vine, / carefully wiping the watercolor pigment off my hands, / heading back up toward the house.” Padgett knows that, no matter what happens in the poem, he can end it with a lovely image (and the ending is certainly lovely, if deliberately romantically clichéd, with the images of “culling….yellow roses” and “carefully wiping the watercolor pigment off my hands”), and suddenly we are like putty in his hands. In other words, despite all the scene-shifting in the poem, from baby Jesus to a shoebox to German maidens to watercolor pigment, Padgett ends the poem “conventionally” – “heading back up toward the house” – even though what preceded this conventional ending was utterly confusing, funny, and weird. It is in that sense that we can peg Padgett as a wondrously ironic poet; what he ironizes is the conventions of poetry.
This irony, however, is not just something which Padgett plays with now and then, like a well-meaning and frisky dog. It is tantamount to the line that circles through Padgett’s vision, some kind of underlying sentiment or overarching mood-thrust. It is as though, at every corner, at every instant, Padgett is interested in shucking off the yoke of the conventionally Romantic poem, with its linear development and certain grave assumptions and seriousnesses, with “spots of time” and radical epiphanies; and even if he doesn’t ridicule this seriousness, he can certainly make it more lighthearted. One poem in which he both ridicules and makes lighthearted the Romantic poem is called “16 November 1961,” a title that, with its mundane specificity, is already making irony out of a certain kind of lofty and aspiring work. The poem begins,
As this morning seemed special when I woke up
I decided, as is my custom, to go for a refreshing walk
In the street. Preparing myself for the unexpected, I
Combed my hair and generally made ready. I was ready.
In the hall outside my door the lady from down the hall
Shouted my name to get my attention. I waited
As she came down the hall with a newspaper in her hand.
I expected the worst. On the other hand one can never tell
What mystery might spring up from the most commonplace,
For example, the lady and her newspaper. She wanted
To show me a headline which must have disturbed her,
Because her hands trembled as she read to me, “FIREMEN CHOP
THEIR WAY THROUGH SHED.” I thanked the lady
And started toward the stairs when I realized that
The headline she had read me was rather astonishing.
I went back inside and wrote it down.
The beginning of this stanza is remarkable, not because nothing happens, but because what does happen is so utterly banal. And yet there is somehow something special and important about this banality – notice the way the poem starts, suggesting that there is something of importance about that specific morning – and yet this importance immediately collides with the habitual, the speaker’s “custom” of going “for a refreshing walk.” Ever the satirist, Padgett seems to be satirizing the language we use to describe the typical “going for a walk,” and his satire is light, subtle, mild and comical. The speaker wishes to “prepare myself for the unexpected,” but in order to do so he does not put on a record of Wagner’s or open a large book of Rilke, but instead combs his hair. There is constantly this oscillation between high hopes and inevitable banality, so much that the two seem intertwined.
And as the poem continues, the banality of the poem’s theme and tone becomes ever more relentless, ever more wonderful (because unanticipated) and even somewhat uncanny. For it takes, within its quotidian sweep, the notion of fascination under its wing, rendering it completely innocuous, trivial, and even somewhat pointless. Padgett writes,
In the street a suspicious-looking fellow approached me
And gave me a handbill, which, had not one of its words
Caught my eye, would have been quickly disposed of. (30)
The speaker acknowledges the contingency of his interest, the way in which it all depends on whatever catches your eye, this chance-based melding of attention and environment. The speaker is “puzzled by the fact that the word they should be italicized,” this “they” referring to the handbill handed to the speaker, which reads, “Do you realize that they are undermining your existence?” And yet we have no idea why the speaker is fascinated; he never tells us. (The poem is filled with moments where we are expected to be told more, but are not told anything – a constant subversion of our expectations). What he does tell us, however, is utterly, weirdly telling:
Now, I have a small blue notebook which I carry with me
At all times, in case of any emergencies,
Such as the one I have just mentioned. I opened my book
To “T” and wrote down the word.
We are presented with the most seemingly mechanical action imaginable: the speaker is inventorying words, and so he inventories “they” under “T.” And when the speaker reaches the park, we read, humorously and strangely, “A, the red park! Where as a child I remember I had / Done so many things…But that was in the dim past…/ Right in the middle of my reveries I felt someone / Looking at me”. We are presented with essentially the opposite of the Wordsworthian emphasis on childhood; the speaker remembers doing “so many things,” but we are again told nothing, and the ellipses stands in for this apparent abundance of meaning and memory. Padgett, again, is subverting every Romantic paradigm and cliché of poetry available, and the effects are wonderful and feel closer to life.
After another baffling encounter, after which the poet fills in another entry in his notebook, this time under the word “they,” (the whole writing process in the poem seeming to be a satire on our obsession with categories and labels), the poet walks to a lunch counter; and to pass the time and alleviate his boredom, he glances through the “two-page menu,”
On the title page the word “MENU.”
Then it was that what had been happening to me all day,
This sudden illumination of the trivial, happened again.
Menu! How mundane, yet how miraculous! I wrote it down,
Under “M.” It made my fourth entry, and I hoped for many more,
Since I have a great desire to write a long, beautiful poem,
Though I have nothing against short poems. But sometimes
I feel as if short poems are sort of a hoax, don’t you?
Well, to get on, I finished the lunch, which was not
So bad as I had anticipated, and I once again met the air
With a light step.
The passage contains eruptions of voice and tone into the otherwise placid veneer of our banal flaneur ambulating around the city and having sublimely trivial experiences. It’s as though, with the question, “But sometimes / I feel as if short poems are sort of a hoax, don’t you?” the speaker has dropped any and all pretences, and is directly speaking to the audience now. (It’s hard to disagree with him.) And we find out that the speaker understands his experiences as “This sudden illumination of the trivial,” again suggesting a deeply intertwined notion of sublimity and banality. The experiences of the day, we find out a few lines beneath, “so exciting and wonderful,” are “still / Rather tiring,” so the poet goes into a theater to “see a movie and to rest / My eyes.” And suddenly the whole project of Padgett seems to be to capture a kind of realism, more inclusive of the boring and banal moments, that refuses to privilege the privileged moments over the more quotidian.