Ron Padgett's "Method"
Sometimes Kenneth Koch's method I guess you'd call it
was to have a general notion of the whole poem
before he started
such as the history of jazz or the boiling point of water
or talking to things that can't talk back
(as he put it) that is apostrophes
whereas my method I guess I'd call it
is to start and go
wherever the poem seems to lead
Sometimes it doesn't lead anywhere
other than to a dead end, and when I turn around
the street has disappeared and I find myself
sitting in a room.
Sometimes it leads somewhere
I have no interest in being
or the way I get there is contrived or silly
I have a face
that stays mostly on the front of my head
while inside my head wheels
are turning with a sound like music heard across water
over which a breeze rises and falls
cooling my face.
I should be nicer to my face
send it on vacation or just let it go relax
over there under that shady maple
Instead I let it carry all kinds of packages
back and forth from my brain to the world
though of course my brain is a part of the world
I should send my brain on vacation too
though it tells me now that I should consider the possibility that it
has always been on vacation
Tricky brain! in which
the personality skates around
and the moral character rises and sits, rises and sits
and whose doorway at the bottom has a sign
that says . . . there's not enough light to read it.
I wish there were.
Kenneth said Write a poem in which each line begins with
"I wish . . ."
I wish gorilla
I wish squish
I wish deux-tiers
I wish onrushing cloudburst
and the hundred thousand one-second-old wishes came pouring
and still are pouring forth
like babies in trees and all over the place
in French postcards after World War I
like water streaming down Zeus
like the concept of optimism when it entered human history
like the simile when it said Do not end your poem with me
I am not like The End I am like a doorway
that leads from one thing
to Cincinnati, and who
am I to argue with a simile
I am a man of constant similes
that buzz and jumble as I walk
then shift and ramble as I buzz and jumble
At any moment the similes can line up
to form the log cabin Lincoln
is said to have built with his own similes
I am like a president
I am like a stove
I am President Stove I will chop down
the cherry tree over there on that page
But someone else is already chopping it down
a boy with a mad grin on his face
a glint of impish fire atop his head
Those cherries were too red!
So much for history
History that rolls above us like an onrushing stormcloud
while we below knit booties and adjust our earmuffs
Young Bentley bent over his microscope
and clicked the shutter of his box camera
thus taking the first photographic portrait of a snowflake
which is how he became known as "Snowflake" Bentley
Outside the blizzard came in sideways
like a wall of arrows
That is all you need to know about Snowflake Bentley
Who else would you like to know about?
Whom! Whom! not Who!
There actually was a great Chinese actor named Wang Whom
who immigrated to the United States in the mid-nineteenth
and found fame and fortune in the theaters of San Francisco
due mainly to his ability to allow his head to detach
from his body and float up and disappear into the dark
The curtain would close to great applause
and when it opened his head was back
but his body was in two halves split right down the middle
Wang Whom never revealed his magic secrets
even to the beautiful young women who lined up toward him
like iron filings toward a magnet
powerful enough to lift President Stove out of his chair
and give him life again as a mountain
struck repeatedly by lightning
That is all you need to know about Wang Whom
Now for some commentary on things that are always horizontal
The earth is always lying down on itself
It is totally relaxed and happy to let everything happen to it
as if it were the wisest person who ever lived
the one who never got up from bed
because the bed flew around everywhere anyone would want
and had arms and hands and legs and feet
that were those of the wise horizontal bed-person
Lines indicating very fast movement are horizontal
because the horizon is so fast it is just an idea:
Now you see it now you are it
and then 99 per cent of every beautiful thing you ever knew
escaped and went back out into the world
where you vaguely remembered it: your mother's smile
in the glint of sunlight on the chrome of a passing car,
her tears in a gust of wind, her apron in the evening air
as if she were a milkmaid standing in Holland
with those silver and gray clouds billowing across the sky
over to scarlet and burning violet tinged with gold
just for her and that one moment.
You are next in line, which is exciting,
which is why life is exciting: every moment is another line
you're next in. Or maybe not, for what about when
you don't know what "line" is and "next"? A goat
comes up close and stares at your sleeping face.
The instant you wake up it turns into a statue
that starts out a goat and ends up a banjo,
something you can neither milk nor play.
But it doesn't matter because you started out a man
and ended up a pile of leaves in a different story.
In the library the other piles are saying Shush, they know
it is late autumn, they can tell by the ruddier cheeks
of the girls who come in and, when they see their books are
stamp their feet in a fit of pique.
They are so cute
that some of the leaf piles shamble across the floor toward their
but the girls laugh and throw their hair around and dash away.
If only you weren't a pile of leaves, you would run after them and
throw yourself on them
like a miracle! That's what it used to be like to be fourteen and surrounded
by miracles that never happened.
At fifteen the miracles started to crackle and at sixteen
they were positively scary—Look, a miracle on the ceiling!
By seventeen a miracle was a car you could ride in
and then one year later drive beyond the limits of consciousness.
The tapioca pudding was there.
You ate it.
The tapioca pudding was gone
but there too.
May I have some more anything?
Why, my fine young man, you can have anything
you want. Here, have this mountain!
Oof, it's too heavy! Do you have a smaller one?
No, only a larger one.
Then no mountain will I have today
and as for the future I cannot say
because I have no idea where I would ever put a mountain.
But, young man, you will become President Stove!
I will? But I don't want to be a president or a stove,
I want to glue a president to a stove.
Then go right ahead. Here is the glue.
Now go find a president and a stove.
A Note on "Method"
My poem grew out of my thinking about a new dishwashing soap that I had discovered in a supermarket, a nicely colored liquid in a curvy bottle with an unusually abstract name—Method—which I associated with Descartes' Discourse on Method. At that time I was pondering the introduction I was writing for the Library of America edition of Kenneth Koch's Selected Poems. The confluence of discovery, the beautiful soap, Descartes, and Kenneth seems to have made me want to write.
Ron Padgett's books include the poetry collections How to Be Perfect, You Never Know, Great Balls of Fire, and New & Selected Poems, as well as three memoirs, Ted: A Personal Memoir of Ted Berrigan; Oklahoma Tough: My Father, King of the Tulsa Bootleggers; and Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard. Padgett is also the editor of The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms and World Poets. His translations include Blaise Cendrars' Complete Poems, Guillaume Apollinaire's Poet Assassinated, and, with Bill Zavatsky, Valery Larbaud's Poems of A. O. Barnabooth. He received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America in 2009. For more information, go to www.ronpadgett.com.
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Poem copyright © Ron Padgett from How to Be Perfect (Coffee House Press, 2007). All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of the author.