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Clay Matthews on Ron Padgett

“Nothing in That Drawer”:

Ron Padgett and the Postmodern Sublime

Whether or not you buy into one poetic school or another, or even the concept of poetic schools in general, I’ll venture out here to make this statement nonetheless: the New York School (or at least many of its appointed members) brings a vibrancy and humor to contemporary poetry while simultaneously maintaining a wit, intelligence, and historical sense of the poetic tradition. But for this essay, the discussion will be mostly limited to the work of one poet, as you may have guessed from the title, Ron Padgett. The comedy and imagination of a poet like Ron Padgett represents not an answer to whatever it is that is the postmodern condition, but a possible means of survival. And though I’m as tired of the term postmodernism as the next guy, I’m using it frequently here as a loosely historical period because I believe that Padgett is an historical poet, one for the books, as they say. This is also to say I want to speak in the language of a critic about a poet who deserves more criticism in my opinion than he has been afforded.

Padgett’s poetry never takes itself too seriously but deals with serious issues. He picks up on the old game of consciously working with a language that isn’t always working, and through his poetry he achieves (or allows we the readers to achieve) pleasure through sometimes painful circumstances, and in this regard his work culminates in an example of the postmodern sublime. I refer to the postmodern sublime both largely as it is explained by Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, and also as a reference to what Paul Hoover defines as the “comic sublime” in “Fables of Representation: Poetry of the New York School.” Hoover’s conscious mention of the sublime serves as a useful link between Padgett, often described as a second-generation member of the New York School, and Lyotard’s conception of the sublime as revised from Kant. Hoover’s treatment of the comic sublime deals most extensively with Kenneth Koch, and is never clearly defined in set terms, but he notes that “Koch’s comic mode offers a different form of the sublime, one based in invention…and discovery” (29). However, unlike other modes of the comic sublime such as satire, Hoover points out of Koch that he “is moralistic and didactic at heart, but he is not essentially a satirist. He stings mildly with parody, and his targets are usually works of art, not political situations or public figures” (29). Hoover goes on to note that the “lightness” of Koch’s poetry sits in opposition to the seriousness of an Eliot or Olson, or the demands from a writer like Matthew Arnold that poetry have a high seriousness. I would argue that all of Hoover’s definitions of the comic sublime as manifested in the poetry of Koch also apply, and perhaps even more so, to Padgett, of whom Koch was a teacher. Indeed, Koch’s influence on Padgett, as well as O’Hara’s, is often apparent, but Padgett is quite a different poet from both of these writers, and achieves the comic sublime in different ways, many of which Hoover points out in the introduction of his essay.

This is not to argue, however, that the comic sublime is strictly interchangeable with Lyotard’s sublime, although the two share similarities. Lyotard states that “The sublime sentiment…carries with it both pleasure and pain. Better still, in it pleasure derives from pain” (77). And although Lyotard isn’t necessarily speaking about comedy here, it should be noted that humor usually requires an element of pain or misfortune, and through another subject’s pain we often derive pleasure. As viewers of comedy, or of a figure like Chaplin, for instance, we both identify with the pain but are able to laugh because it’s not us the pain is happening to, so that comedy requires both empathy and distance. Central to Lyotard’s notion of the postmodern sublime, and not necessarily inherent in Hoover’s conception of the comic sublime, however, is a constant separation or tension between the idea and its representation. Lyotard writes of the sublime:

It takes place, on the contrary, when imagination fails to present an object which might, if only in principle, come to match a concept. We have the Idea of the world (the totality of what is), but we do not have the capacity to show an example of it. We have the Idea of the simple (that which cannot be broken down, decomposed), but we cannot illustrate it with a sensible object which would be a “case” of it. (78)

For Lyotard, modern art is that which uses its expertise in an attempt to “present the fact that the unpresentable exists” (78). Postmodern art, on the other hand, which is at once always a part of the modern, is

that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable. (81)

Lyotard’s blurring of the separation between the modern and postmodern has been seen by Jameson, as noted most clearly in his foreword to The Postmodern Condition, as a nostalgia for high modernism. However, it seems to me that Lyotard’s own treatment of the nostalgic represents what he sees as the crucial difference between the postmodern and the modern. The modern sublime maintains a nostalgia for the “Idea of the world” which is unattainable, or the nostalgia becomes a nostalgia for the unpresentable. The postmodern, on the other hand, resists consensus and thus a shared nostalgia or taste. Because of this, the postmodern sublime is that which is at once constantly breaking the rules even while being reabsorbed, and therefore is postmodern “according to the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo)” (81). Unlike high modernism, the postmodern (sublime) doesn’t seek to use form to represent a return to some prior concept or idea, but rather attempts to point at form as form—to change it, dismiss it, parody it, etc.

And in the case of Ron Padgett, we constantly find this compulsion to treat form as such, to parody it, and to push the conceptions of the constructs of both poet and poem. Despite the accessibility of much of the language in Padgett’s poetry, there’s constantly a highly intelligent undertone, and an imaginative playful urge that illustrates the postmodern sublime. Consider Padgett’s poem, “Haiku”1:

Haiku

First: five syllables

Second: seven syllables

Third: five syllables

The subject of this poem is the form itself, as each line not only designates the required number of syllables for haiku, but also contains the required number of syllables. The structure of haiku in this poem, a Japanese form known for its difficulty in English, is opened up for viewing—thus exposing the form as form and on another level the form as translation, a concept which Padgett as a frequent translator is no doubt aware. So, in this poem we see Lyotard’s idea of the denial of “good forms,” as the language represents both the poem and the form, literally, and both the content and the form represent an alternate reference to the Japanese haiku, which becomes untranslatable as such in English. There’s a humorous exposure of arbitrary structure in the poem, and yet along with the humor we find a commentary on both form and language. By exposing the gears of the poem as machine (as outlined by Williams), Padgett’s “Haiku” comments upon the arbitrary nature of all structure and all language, and instead of representing a nostalgic attempt to translate the beauty of the Japanese haiku, the poem bares its form in place of content. The form thus becomes the content, and in this way the poem is also at once a unison of these two fields and a parody of that unison.

Similarly, in “Nothing in That Drawer,” another of Padgett’s poems in form, and one of his most anthologized, we find a sublime revelry in the sonnet and by extension poetry at large. In this poem, each of the fourteen lines that make up the sonnet is the same: “Nothing in that drawer.” The repetition becomes comedic, as we visually imagine a speaker looking in one drawer after another, or perhaps the same drawer over and over. And yet the move to search in this poem is also reminiscent of the postmodern sublime, as it constantly points to the failure of language and form to achieve an absolute unity—with themselves and with the Idea. We have in this sonnet the constant search, constantly postponed or deferred. We’re never sure what the speaker is even searching for, or if the movement of the poem is simply language, or boredom, even. We’re left with a sort of constant opening and disappointment, which in many ways is what poetry as postmodern sublime is—an opening on a thought or structure accompanied by a delight in the failure of the opening. And in the case of “Nothing in That Drawer,” because we’re never sure of the action, or even the context, it seems the poem is less about a nostalgia for the unpresentable and more about the loss as bliss, the sublime itself.

Instead of lamenting the gap between form and content, word and concept, Padgett places them in conversation with one another, allowing the form to speak to the content and vice versa. The sonnet form in this poem is wrapped in a contemporary humor, much like the Gehry house Jameson discusses in Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. And like the Gehry house, which features an older, traditional home renovated by postmodern architecture, Padgett’s poem allows the inside and the outside to converge. Thus, the form of the sonnet, the sonnet as move from proposition to resolution, offers a narrative to the very language that also works to deny that narrative and/or resolution.

In “Foreign Language,” an essay originally printed in Blood Work and later reprinted in The Straight Line, Padgett reveals his curiosity of language in all its forms:

I had a corollary taste for Pig Latin and for nonsense talk, and I was always amazed how an ordinary word gradually loses its meaning when repeated over and over. Car car car car car car car car car car car car car car car car car car car car car. (26)

I noticed just typing the word over and over how much it became a physical monotony of hand movement and for a moment lost attachment to any sort of traditional signification. Padgett’s repeating of the word “car” here is similar to his repeating of “Nothing in that drawer.” The word is not sacred for him (as absolute symbol), but neither is a postmodern nihilism. By repeating “Nothing in that drawer” the postmodern sense of loss of the attainable moves into a sort of chant, divorced from the original thought, so that “Nothing” doesn’t come to stand in as an answer (scientifically), but a refrain, a music, and a fleeting one at that. If Lyotard’s sublime is that which consistently escapes, consistently changes the rules, then the repetition of a line like “Nothing in that drawer” is at once able to create a conceptual narrative, undermine that narrative, and also undermine the line itself, so that it becomes a chant for a moment, and then an echo of the already forgotten the next moment. We find often in Padgett’s work in form, then, a heightened awareness of the form as form, and ultimately of language as form, a theme he addresses more explicitly in other poems.

For example, in the poem “Who and Each,” in which the speaker consults the OED in an attempt to see if “which” might have come from “who” and “each,” Padgett foregrounds the absurdity of language in a long passage of the etymology of “which”:

“Hwelc, huelc, hwaelc, huaelc, huoelc, hwaelc, wheche, weche, which, qwech, quiche, qheche, qwel, quelk, hwilc, wilc, hwilch, wilch, whilc, whillc, whilk, whylke, whilke, whilk, wilke, whylk, whilek, quilc, quilke, qwilk, quylk, quhylk, quilk, quhilk, hwic, wic, which, wyche, wich, hwych, wiche, whiche, whyche, wych, which, which, quiche, quiche, quich, quych, qwiche, qwych, qwyche, quhich, hwylc, hwulch, hulch, wulc, whulc, wulch, whuche”: Teutonic belching.

The poem is quite humorous throughout, but makes a surprising turn at the end with the final two lines: “Thus I spend my days, / waiting for my friends to die,” which is perhaps still humorous (darkly), but in a much more painful way. In a poem like “Who and Each,” we become aware of the absurdity of language, and also history, in the context of life’s larger preoccupations, such as death. And yet the poem is also about the constant death of a word, as it slowly becomes something else. Even if we don’t spend our days with the OED, we unavoidably spend them with language, which in this poem becomes both arbitrarily useless and sublime in that it offers an escape from the waiting. This diversion is a subject of many of Padgett’s poems, and of the New York School in general. Matthew Rohrer notes of Padgett’s poetry that “There is no pretense that the poems are going to change the world, or end police brutality—they’re against that of course, but they never lose sight of their reality: they’re poems” (192). Hoover closes his aforementioned essay referencing a talk given by Ted Berrigan at the Naropa Institute in which Berrigan points out that the root of the word amusement is muse (30). This, I think, is where the comic sublime intersects with Lyotard’s sublime. One characteristic of the comic sublime is that it never imagines itself in search of an absolute Truth or Idea—its goal, rather (or one of them), is amusement, diversion, and a sort of joy in uncertainty. By dropping the need to know the unpresentable as an absolute, the postmodern sublime also drops the nostalgia for the unpresentable, and thus exists, however briefly, in a moment of indescribable gratification in not knowing and not needing to know. By abandoning a methodical search for the unpresentable, the postmodern sublime approaches it from an ever-increasing variety of angles, never exposing an answer but through its various and changing perspectives perhaps coming to terms with the unpresentable as a sort of gestalt.

By extension, I would say the postmodern sublime is also that which is constantly turning on itself—never settling, bouncing from one structure to the next. The moment the sublime settles it is absorbed by the modern (as the current), and no longer achieves the postmodern sublime, or at least not in the same manner. In many of Padgett’s poems there’s a move somewhere, a surprising shift, as witnessed at the end of “Who and Each.” Clayton Eshelman notes of these shifts that they “are constructed on the basis of associational shifts (puns, correspondences, off-the-wall notions) which layer and densify the writing in a way that defies calling it either serious or humorous. It is emphatically both” (11). In this article by Eshelman, “Padgett the Collaborator,” he also deals extensively with Padgett’s many collaborative poems written over the years, especially Padgett’s book of collaborations with Ted Berrigan, Bean Spasms. Padgett states about collaboration in the article that “It showed me ways to write while being simultaneously in control and out of control of the piece at hand” (17). The collaborative method, which Padgett states can even go on within one person, closely aligns itself with the postmodern sublime because insomuch as the writing is a form of competition, there is a constant urge to push the rules, barriers, possibilities to their limits, as well as the conceptions of the poet. Indeed both Padgett and Berrigan often refer explicitly to the competitive nature of collaboration over the overtly cooperative. Through their example, collaboration is not about consensus between two (or more) authors, but rather about pushing the boundaries of language and form. Structurally, the collaborative writing process dismantles the romantic notion of the poet as divining rod of truth. Poetry instead becomes an ever-changing process, and the writing becomes an interactive social situation. By deconstructing the poet as the sort of divine translator, Padgett, in both his collaboration and his own poetry, constantly works to resist the proposition that he is offering a form or voice that captures the essence of the unpresentable.

This collaborative method as method thus carries over into much of Padgett’s poetry, and fosters the shifts that Eshelman mentions inside a majority of the poems. In “Louisiana Perch,” for instance, a large segment of the poem deals with the meaning of words, and the ways words disappear, stating that

great words are those without meaning:

from    a    their    or

Or    the    for    a    the

The those

The rest are fragile, transitory

However, immediately after this the poem makes its turn, and drops the meta-commentary on language for a sort of revelry in possibility:

like the waitress, a

 

beautiful slender young girl!

I love her! Want to

marry her! Have hamburgers!

Have hamburgers! Have hamburgers!

As soon as the poem begins to near a thesis about language, it abandons its previous line of thought for a humorous shift in which the speaker imagines a life with the waitress in which instead of having children he will have hamburgers. But because of the context of the rest of the poem, the hamburgers at the end are “fragile, transitory,” in the same manner as Lyotard’s sublime. By all appearances, the end does seem to achieve a sort of sublime—but it reaches it only to also realize it is constantly fleeting. The postmodern sublime is thus that which is deferred upon achievement—it constantly refers back to another unknown referent, and Padgett seems to aptly tackle the phenomenon in this poem. The repetition of the exclamatory sentence “Have hamburgers!” represents in writing the ghost of the postmodern sublime—it is a moment cut off from the metaphysical preoccupations of the rest of the poem, cut off from any need to know, and it delights instead in a humor and escapism through thought and food, and also through the repetition of language.

And Padgett is ultimately aware of his position in regards to the postmodernism condition. He often makes explicit gestures that allude to larger postmodern questions, as made clear in “Poem.” In “Poem,” Padgett considers his legacy as a poet after his death, though as usual he approaches the subject with a humorous reflection:

When I am dead and gone

they will say of me,

“We could never figure out

what he was talking about,

but it was clear that he

understood very well

that modernism is a branch

that was cut off decades ago.”

The irony of this poem begins with the first word of the poem, “When.” Since Padgett is not yet dead and gone, the statement by the “they” has yet to occur, and thus the linear distance of modernism is constantly moving, too, in much the same way that modernism for Lyotard is always with us both as an historical (and literary) period and as the moment recently passed in which things are arranging themselves into order. But rather than gesture toward some self-reflection on the state of literary affairs, Padgett quickly turns the poem to the comics, and thus his own comedy:

Guess who said that.

Mutt and Jeff

who used to look so good

in the comics.

I especially liked their mustaches.

And the sense in it

that God is watching

from some untelevised height,

and sometimes

throws himself on the ground.

So, the poem moves quickly from literary criticism to the comics and then to God, who is no longer the god whose absence symbolizes his greater presence as Idea, but rather God as a structure unattainable from the television camera as postmodern perspective.

The unattainable, or the not yet attained, plays a significant role in the postmodern sublime in that it is structurally similar to the fetish, in which the end goal or Idea is not ultimately what is desired but rather the constancy of being near that threshold. The postmodern sublime represents a moment when the end goal is no longer sought out, when Lacan’s objet a is momentarily forgotten. It’s a moment of satisfaction, even in the face of the Rolling Stones. In “Chocolate Milk,” a poem somewhat similar to the last segment of “Louisiana Perch,” Padgett portrays the blissful moment of anticipation:

Oh God! It’s great!

to have someone fix you

chocolate milk

and to appreciate their doing it!

Even as they stir it

in the kitchen

your mouth is going crazy

for the chocolate milk!

The wonderful chocolate milk!

We find at the end of the poem not a frustration because of the waiting, the moment before, but instead a revelry in it. David Shapiro writes of Padgett’s poetry that it “is an astounding art of modesty and imperfection itself” (87). In this manner, a poem like “Louisiana Perch” becomes a fundamental example of the Padgett poem: the language is accessible, the topic is humorous, and the subject is not mastery but the delight of imperfection, of waiting, of anticipating—of the more frequent experiences in life.

Padgett does, indeed, make imperfection an art. His interests in Dadaism and surrealism are often apparent in poems as a way to break out of the nostalgia for a whole. “Clunk Poem,” for instance, begins with the attempt to put the perpetual Humpty-Dumpty together again:

I pick up the pieces

and stick them together.

They remain far apart,

so far apart I can’t

even take them apart again

And then, just as the poem appears to be nearing some sort of answer to the question of how to deal with the parts, Padgett answers, but in such a fantastic sense that the question loses its relevance:

I have an idea: I will

go down and make myself

a peanut butter, blueberry,

and banana effigy of Hitler.

That’ll show the bastards.

So, if Padgett is to put anything together, it will be on his own strange and bizarre terms. His project is not all-out fragmentation, but instead a way to deal with the parts of a world without having to arrange them in any perfect way. Padgett, like much of postmodernism, constantly rejects the Cartesian model of the world in which an objective truth is attainable. In “Famous Flames” Padgett confronts Descartes directly as well as the tradition of the scientific method, and seriousness. The poem opens with the speaker stating that “I respect the idea of the noble book. / (No kidding!).” But immediately thereafter it becomes all to clear the Padgett is also kidding: “I take seriously the works of Aristotle, although I do not usually like them.” For Padgett, seriousness (with a respectable outfit on) is a separate business, one that he can understand, and even respect, perhaps, but a project that lies outside of his tastes. To state that he takes these noble books seriously is at once to say just that, that he approaches them from a different (serious) perspective, and also to deconstruct that seriousness, as his tone reveals a sarcastic humor. The poem moves quickly away from seriousness and into an all-out attack of the serious historical figures through Padgett’s comedic voice:

These gentlemen are very interesting.

Take Montaigne. A peculiar guy, and

very interesting. Or Spinoza,

he of the face ugly

and geometry as divinity.

He looked in the mirror and said, “Ouch!”

and he looked into the ouch

and saw a perfect circle.

A leads to B and to C

and that explains the universe!

Unfortunately that face belonged to René Descartes!

Despite the humor here, there is also a serious (sic) critique of the Cartesian tradition. Padgett equates Spinoza’s conception of perfection as a means of dealing with his own imperfection in the mirror, his méconnaisance, to throw in some more Lacan. Spinoza here takes the “O” of the “Ouch!” for complete perfection rather than absence and rather than arbitrary form. Then, Padgett further complicates the reflection by stating that it belonged to Descartes. Therefore, Spinoza as a post-Cartesian philosopher is far from a perfect image—he is rather a sort of social reflection of Descartes. In this poem, Padgett links the scientific method to humans, and once that link is made by Padgett the search for perfection or objective truth becomes an impossible, comical endeavor. Later in the poem, and until its end, Padgett picks up the critique again:

It is Christmas, 1944. The man

who invented the question mark

was laughing in heaven. Human beings

had turned into exclamation points

that threw skinny shadows across the earth

as it turned in space lit only by an old flashlight.

It was a pretty cheap production,

and when Tommy entered it in the science fair

Mr. Bushwhanger was embarrassed.

He ran and banged his head

against the wall of the faculty lounge

until his glasses fell on the floor,

burst into flame.

The movement of time and space in these last lines undermines traditional conceptions of these ideas while also keeping science as the object. Christmas, 1944, becomes a sort of nostalgic and terrifying moment before the end of WWII and before the atomic bomb drops at Hiroshima. In some ways, then, the Christmas at the end of 1944 is a sort of symbolic farewell to the idealistic and romantic notion of science as the savior of the human race, as “The man / who invented the question mark / was laughing in heaven.” The question mark becomes a man-made thing here—not something that is inherent in nature. It is part of a structure, a form, and in the same way human beings become forms, and the earth itself becomes a small reproduction at a science fair, lit by the sun which is an old flashlight. Although the postmodern sublime is perhaps less overtly apparent in this poem, the poem serves as an important context for understanding Padgett’s unison of Lyotard’s sublime and the comic sublime. In “Famous Flames,” Padgett deals with some very serious and painful issues. But through the lightness by which he treads, through the surrealism of the last lines in which “his glasses fell on the floor, / burst into flame,” we recognize an attempt to break with the image of Descartes in the mirror, and as Padgett states in the middle of the poem, kill “the dragon where he breathed / funny fumes on the pages of Literature.”

Because of Ron Padgett’s balance of intelligence and comic sublime, his poetry is a vital addition to contemporary poetry both as it competes to push the boundaries and rules while also contextualizing the history from which it came. The postmodern sublime in Padgett’s poetry serves as a useful means by which we can re-evaluate the role of the sublime in literature, and thus literature’s function in society. The beauty of the postmodern sublime is also what may be frustrating about it—the minute we begin to place our arms around it, it evades us. Padgett can help us be okay with that. He can make it easier and less embarrassing to try again. And best of all, he can make us laugh while doing so.

______________________________________________

Notes

1 Unless stated otherwise, references to poems are taken from Ron Padgett’s New & Selected Poems, 1995.

 

Bibliography

Berrigan, Ted and Ron Padgett. Bean Spasms. New York: Kulchur Press, 1967.

Eshelman, Clayton. “Padgett the Collaborator.” Chicago Review 43.2 (1997): 8-21.

Hoover, Paul. “Fables of Representation: Poetry of the New York School.” American

Poetry Review July-Aug. 2002: 20-30.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham,

NC: Duke UP, 1991.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans.

Geoff Bennington and Brain Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota

Press, 1984.

Padgett, Ron. New and Selected Poems. Boston: David R. Godine, 1995.

—-. The Straight Line: Writings on Poetry and Poets. Ann Arbor: The University of

Michigan Press, 2000.

Ratcliffe, Stephen. “Supernatural Diet.” Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry

and Poetics 7 (1991): 111-17.

Rohrer, Matthew. “Ron Padgett’s New and Selected.” Iowa Review 27.2 (1997): 190-96.

Shapiro, David. “A Night Painting of Ron Padgett.” Talisman: A Journal of

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics 7 (1991): 82-87.

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