Cross-posted to Baltimore Book Talk.
“I’m pretty grim for a comic poet,” remarked Ron Padgett after reading one of his more morbid pieces as this year’s guest of the Joshua Ringel reading series. Padgett’s work is permeated by the influence of his teacher Kenneth Koch, his gentle aphorisms and low-grade epiphanies. “Take out the trash/Love life,” Padgett writes in his How to Be Perfect, then disarms his own oracular tendencies with “Use exact change,” and even – elsewhere – “Don’t give advice.”
While Koch seems always to bounce back and forth between the poles of advice and aw-shucks, Padgett has an appetite for the metaphysical, even the memento-mori. “Don’t be afraid of anything beyond your control. Don’t be afraid, for instance, that the building will collapse as you sleep, or that someone you love will suddenly drop dead.” Grim indeed, and perhaps not comic to the sponsors of the series, in memory of a talented young man who died in a car accident in his 20s – himself a poetry student of Koch’s. But for all that, Padgett provided the right metaphysical aspect: engaging, friendly to the audience and their questions, and without an ounce of the preening self-regard that clings to many illustrious literary figures.
The fifteenth reader in the annual series (Koch was the first), Padgett was well received by those in attendance in the half-full auditorium of the Baltimore Museum of Art. A successful career as a metaphysical comic poet might be worth aiming for, like something out of ancient philosophy. Walking out into the rainy afternoon after the event, one could sense in each Baltimore moment both the certainty of death and the calm comedy of self-effacement.