Not poetry as usual with Padgett

Poet Ron Padgett will read and discuss his poems this weekend.

Stephanie Dickrell

‘Imagine what you would like to see happen, and then don’t do anything to make that impossible.’

Ron Padgett didn’t come from a particularly literary family. Up until he began writing poems at the age of 13, he read comics. He read them with love for their clarity, and more importantly, he said, their colors.

Ron Padgett

WHEN: Nov. 18, 2 p.m..
WHERE: Virginia Street Swedenborgian Church, 170 Selby Ave., St. Paul, w/ Garrison Keillor
TICKETS: Free

“At one point, I sort of fancied, I thought I might also be a painter, an artist,” he said. “But I soon realized my artistic ability was severely limited.”

What he did have was literary talent. His poems have a distinct conversational tone that is on one level wholly relatable and on another wholly profound. In a poem entitled “Album,” he writes about contemplating death:

“I used to wonder why people seemed to think that life is tragic or sad. Isn’t it also comic and funny? And beyond all that, isn’t it amazing and marvelous? Yes, but only if you have it. And I’m starting not to have it.”

In this poem, titled “You Never Know,” Padgett explores memory through an imagined photo album filled with representations of family, and in turn relates that to his own mortality, and how memories fade. The poem’s featured in a relatively new book by Padgett, in which his assorted insights cover the range of his own human experience as only a man growing older can, from the life-changing to the mundane, from thoughts on a toothbrush to how he feels sitting next to one of his friend’s paintings.

‘Do not wander through train stations muttering “We’re all going to die!” ‘

In 52 years of poetry writing, Padgett has written more than a dozen books, collaborating with countless artists and writers, and has edited many more.

He hasn’t kept track of how many books he has had his hand in, but he estimates 35 to 45, ranging from poetry and writing instruction to memoirs such as “Joe, A Memoir of Joe Brainard,” which studies the life of the artist, a childhood friend of Padgett’s.

‘Contemplate everything’s opposite.’

He first started writing poetry at the age of 13 about puberty, girls and insecurity. His first poem was about a tree outside his window thrashing in the wind and the rain, and how that connected in his head with the thrashing that was taking place inside of him about a girl that didn’t share his feelings.

After pursuing his literary interests throughout high school, including editing the literary magazine, “The White Dove Review,” created by him and his friends, and publishing the likes of Jack Kerouac and Robert Creeley, Padgett moved from Tulsa, Oklahoma to New York City. There, he attended Columbia College for English and comparative literature and delved into the vibrant art community that is New York City.

‘Be honest with yourself, diplomatic with others.’

In addition to his poetry writing, Padgett spent 20 years working with the Teachers and Writers Collaborative in New York City. The nonprofit organization promotes literary arts education in schools, and in some cases, tries to change the way that literature and poetry is taught to children.

Now in retirement, Padgett acknowledges the perception of poetry by the United States public as boring, out-dated, high-brow and confusing – all of which his poetry is not.

“I’ve gotten old enough,” he said. “I’m not going to change the public’s perception very much.”

He blames both the way poetry is taught in schools and the popular media for the portrayal of poetry this way.

His work with the collaborative concentrated on changing how poetry was taught in school, including sending writers into schools to provide a different perspective on writing than teachers can give.

“Most people didn’t like it because they had a very narrow idea or small idea of what it was, from education and the popular media,” he said. So in his work, especially with the collaborative, he attempted to redefine what people thought poetry was, expanding their definitions to include more than just passages that rhymed.

‘Hope for everything. Expect nothing.’

Padgett talked about his own experience of being taught poetry, being handed packets of poems in class, with the instructions to figure out what the poem means. In his own experience, “they had no relation to the life I was living,” he said. “I was only interested so I could pass a test about it.”

To him, talking about poems in such a narrow manner was to make poems into a puzzle that needed to be figured out.

“Poetry isn’t a puzzle you’re expected to explain,” he said. “Poetry’s an experience you should have.”

More recent depictions of poetry being taught in schools by movies and television either follow the motif of the boring exercise, or, in an attempt to reach the kids of their level, an inventive teacher will use hip-hop, as in “Dangerous Minds” or “Freedom Writers,” which Padgett said is actually happening.

“Hip-hop is one doorway leading into the huge mansion of poetry,” he said. However, he said there is the danger of getting stuck on one type of poetry and not exploring other forms, like people who get stuck writing sonnets all of their lives.

‘Do not go crazy a lot. It’s a waste of time.’

At age 65, Padgett is officially retired, spending seven months of the year in New York City near his family and the other part of the year in Vermont, isolated from everything except for his wife and the woods.

To do away with the caricature of the eccentric poet, Padgett does what he calls “normal things,” like playing tennis, going to the movies, checking his e-mail and washing the dishes.

“Popular media often presents poets as being weirdo nerds or lunatics or oddball people,” he said.

But Padgett isn’t one of those writers who spend days agonizing in a chair about their writing, he said. He now has the luxury of writing when and how he wants to, and works hard on his poetry when he wants to.

“Although for me,” he said, “writing poetry is normal, too.”

NOTE: Quotations within the article are excerpts from Ron Padgett’s poem “How to Be Perfect” from the book “How to Be Perfect,” published in 2007 by Coffee House Press and “Haiku,” from the book “You Never Know,” published in 2001 by Coffee House Press.