My path to Ron Padgett, my personal Quarantine 2020 Poet Laureate

I spent an hour or so reading poetry this evening because just today I realized, with April two-thirds gone already, that April is National Poetry Month. I felt like I had to catch up or something plus I’ve been running a poetry deficit lately since poetry deficiency is a co-morbid condition with Covid-19 anxiety.

I encountered a question on the r/poetry subreddit about favorite poems in moves and I remembered this Jim Jarmusch film called Paterson where Adam Driver played a bus driver/poet who scrawled spare, wry verse into a notebook on his lunch breaks. I got to wondering who wrote those poems and my Google-fu led me to Ron Padgett, who is my newly-minted quarantine 2020 favorite poet. This one made me chuckle out loud and earned me a justified side-eye from my wife:

How to Be Perfect

                                                  Everything is perfect, dear friend.
—KEROUAC

Get some sleep.
Don’t give advice.
Take care of your teeth and gums.
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.
Eat an orange every morning.
Be friendly. It will help make you happy.
Raise your pulse rate to 120 beats per minute for 20 straight minutes
four or five times a week doing anything you enjoy.
Hope for everything. Expect nothing.
Take care of things close to home first. Straighten up your room
before you save the world. Then save the world.
Know that the desire to be perfect is probably the veiled expression
of another desire—to be loved, perhaps, or not to die.
Make eye contact with a tree.
Be skeptical about all opinions, but try to see some value in each of
them.
Dress in a way that pleases both you and those around you.
Do not speak quickly.
Learn something every day. (Dzien dobre!)
Be nice to people before they have a chance to behave badly.
Don’t stay angry about anything for more than a week, but don’t
forget what made you angry. Hold your anger out at arm’s length
and look at it, as if it were a glass ball. Then add it to your glass ball
collection.
Be loyal.
Wear comfortable shoes.
Design your activities so that they show a pleasing balance
and variety.
Be kind to old people, even when they are obnoxious. When you
become old, be kind to young people. Do not throw your cane at
them when they call you Grandpa. They are your grandchildren!
Live with an animal.
Do not spend too much time with large groups of people.
If you need help, ask for it.
Cultivate good posture until it becomes natural.
If someone murders your child, get a shotgun and blow his head off.
Plan your day so you never have to rush.
Show your appreciation to people who do things for you, even if you
have paid them, even if they do favors you don’t want.
Do not waste money you could be giving to those who need it.
Expect society to be defective. Then weep when you find that it is far
more defective than you imagined.
When you borrow something, return it in an even better condition.
As much as possible, use wooden objects instead of plastic or metal
ones.
Look at that bird over there.
After dinner, wash the dishes.
Calm down.
Visit foreign countries, except those whose inhabitants have
expressed a desire to kill you.
Don’t expect your children to love you, so they can, if they want to.
Meditate on the spiritual. Then go a little further, if you feel like it.
What is out (in) there?
Sing, every once in a while.
Be on time, but if you are late do not give a detailed and lengthy
excuse.
Don’t be too self-critical or too self-congratulatory.
Don’t think that progress exists. It doesn’t.
Walk upstairs.
Do not practice cannibalism.
Imagine what you would like to see happen, and then don’t do
anything to make it impossible.
Take your phone off the hook at least twice a week.
Keep your windows clean.
Extirpate all traces of personal ambitiousness.
Don’t use the word extirpate too often.
Forgive your country every once in a while. If that is not possible, go
to another one.
If you feel tired, rest.
Grow something.
Do not wander through train stations muttering, “We’re all going to
die!”
Count among your true friends people of various stations of life.
Appreciate simple pleasures, such as the pleasure of chewing, the
pleasure of warm water running down your back, the pleasure of a
cool breeze, the pleasure of falling asleep.
Do not exclaim, “Isn’t technology wonderful!”
Learn how to stretch your muscles. Stretch them every day.
Don’t be depressed about growing older. It will make you feel even
older. Which is depressing.
Do one thing at a time.
If you burn your finger, put it in cold water immediately. If you bang
your finger with a hammer, hold your hand in the air for twenty
minutes. You will be surprised by the curative powers of coldness and
gravity.
Learn how to whistle at earsplitting volume.
Be calm in a crisis. The more critical the situation, the calmer you
should be.
Enjoy sex, but don’t become obsessed with it. Except for brief periods
in your adolescence, youth, middle age, and old age.
Contemplate everything’s opposite.
If you’re struck with the fear that you’ve swum out too far in the
ocean, turn around and go back to the lifeboat.
Keep your childish self alive.
Answer letters promptly. Use attractive stamps, like the one with a
tornado on it.
Cry every once in a while, but only when alone. Then appreciate
how much better you feel. Don’t be embarrassed about feeling better.
Do not inhale smoke.
Take a deep breath.
Do not smart off to a policeman.
Do not step off the curb until you can walk all the way across the
street. From the curb you can study the pedestrians who are trapped
in the middle of the crazed and roaring traffic.
Be good.
Walk down different streets.
Backwards.
Remember beauty, which exists, and truth, which does not. Notice
that the idea of truth is just as powerful as the idea of beauty.
Stay out of jail.
In later life, become a mystic.
Use Colgate toothpaste in the new Tartar Control formula.
Visit friends and acquaintances in the hospital. When you feel it is
time to leave, do so.
Be honest with yourself, diplomatic with others.
Do not go crazy a lot. It’s a waste of time.
Read and reread great books.
Dig a hole with a shovel.
In winter, before you go to bed, humidify your bedroom.
Know that the only perfect things are a 300 game in bowling and a
27-batter, 27-out game in baseball.
Drink plenty of water. When asked what you would like to drink,
say, “Water, please.”
Ask “Where is the loo?” but not “Where can I urinate?”
Be kind to physical objects.
Beginning at age forty, get a complete “physical” every few years
from a doctor you trust and feel comfortable with.
Don’t read the newspaper more than once a year.
Learn how to say “hello,” “thank you,” and “chopsticks”
in Mandarin.
Belch and fart, but quietly.
Be especially cordial to foreigners.
See shadow puppet plays and imagine that you are one of the
characters. Or all of them.
Take out the trash.
Love life.
Use exact change.
When there’s shooting in the street, don’t go near the window.

Wonderment, confusion, and hope: My “Illative Sense” of the Resurrection

After reading all four Gospel accounts of the empty tomb this morning, I am struck by the common themes — running and telling, wonderment, confusion, and hope. This Easter morning, I’m right there with Mary, Paul, and John. I don’t know what I am seeing exactly, but my “illative sense” tells me it’s wonderful. And my natural urge is to run and tell.

I cannot fully apprehend with my rational brain the empty tomb and what “resurrection” means in my own “reality.”  It has always been difficult for me to let the God of Mystery take its place ahead of the proud demigods of Reason and Science in my own heart.

Over the last months, St. John Henry Newman (via my latest theological crush Bishop Robert Barron) has given me the great gift of  “The Grammar of Assent.” His epistemological ideas free me from the Kantian assertion that logical inference and intellectual certitude are the gatekeepers of rational belief. Newman constructs a path to rational belief that does not have to pass through the narrow gate of logical inference:

“In concrete life formal incontrovertible proof in favour of a decision (about belief in God) is not possible—the best one can achieve is converging probabilities in favour of a conclusion”

I quit looking long ago for intellectual certitude about God. I understand now that a God in which I can place my hopes and being cannot be small enough to fit in my own rational brain. I am happy to allow the kind of reason that “gathers up the fragments of experience into a single and unified judgment,” this “heaping together of tiny indications, not on which by itself is conclusive, produces certitude in ordinary human affairs.” to justify my certitude in God.

It’s been harder for me to do that for the Resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus sets before my rational mind a historical, verifiable proposition that goes against what my knowledge of science tells me is possible. It’s hard to give up old intellectual habits that drag me back to that narrow Kantian gate of logical inference. But I know as I pray today’s Gospel that I have enough “fragments of experience,” a large enough “heaping of tiny indications,” as well as the witness of the Gospels, the saints, and especially the martyrs to weave a “convergence of probabilities” in favor the resurrection of Jesus Christ (and my own, God willing.)

I assent because I have the illiative sense, not logical proof, that this present suffering and all future suffering will not have the last word. I know in my heart, even though my brain alone will sometimes fail to get me there, that the path to new life goes through suffering and the tomb. I know from my “fragments of experience” that “the only way out is through.”  I know this through a “convergence of probabilities” and, though not intellectually certain, I teach forms of this to engaged couples, Catholic converts, and my own children. And, most importantly, it is my “illative sense” of the wonderment, confusion, and hope in the resurrection that steels my will as I face whatever suffering lies before me. The only way out is through. And new life is on the other side of sacrificial suffering.

I believe Christ died and rose for a number of good reasons. Not the least of which are my own “fragments of experience” of my own little “deaths and resurrections.” None of them make for incontrovertible logical proof.  But they don’t need to. Thanks be to God.

Poem: Sticks

Wrote this one back in, like 2002. Channeling my inner James Tate? Maybe. Feeling a little silly for sure. Just found it again.

 

I eat my Chinese food with chopsticks

because I can and I want you to know it.

And it’s just fun eating food with sticks.

It’s a guy thing, liking sticks.

I know what Freud would say but it’s not like that (mostly.)

They’re just plan fun, those sticks.

They’re an extension of the arms.

A source of extra torque and,

as any guy’ll tell you,

more torque is a good thing.

Half the fun of sports is hitting stuff with sticks —

torquing off so to speak.

And your mother will cheer you on

instead of yelling “You’ll put your eye out!”

You can make a lot of money swinging sticks.

They have contests. People bet on them,

those powerful men swinging their sticks.

Sticks mean business. Sticks convey power.

Who’s that leading the parade?

Why it’s the guy swinging the stick!

A clarinet is sometimes called a Licorice Stick

but that’s a swinging of a different kind

and no less fun.

Licorice is a tasty candy stick.

In fact all the best candies are sticks.

And it’s not a festival unless there’s food on a stick.

The best way to eat kielbasa!

The guy who invented the wheel gets all the attention,

but to make wheels work together, what do you need?

I think you can guess.

And nobody ever complains 

about reinventing 

the stick.

 

Poem: Prayer

teach me song, i
would sing, teach me
love. i would
i were open
to it. teach me
to pray
privately, praise
quietly
those things
i should. show me
the grace
of movement
& touch – that much
i would offer
to her. teach me
more – a way
for me
to reach her
who beckons
hesitantly. teach me
to be sure.

— BP Nichol

Poem: Perhaps The World Ends Here

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

Joy Harjo   The Woman Who Fell From the Sky  1994

Poem: Starfish

Starfish

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who says, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

— Eleanor Lerman, from Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds. © Sarabande Books, 2005

 

Poem: Let your God Love You

Last night I was making my holy hour (really, a half hour of contemplation but that’s what I call it anyway) and, because I could feel my ability to stay awake slipping from me, I decided to engage in contemplative abstract art. Using pastels.

About 15 minutes in a voice chided me and said, “This isn’t real prayer. You’re not directing your thoughts toward God. You are not being still. You’re using God as an excuse to play with crayons.”

Well, maybe so. God gave me this desire, this gift of being able to be satisfied to play with crayons for a half hour even at age 54, this childlike love of colors and art, this source of joy. And I decided to use it in His presence, being the Me He created me to be. Thankful for the space and time and the resources to do it. I wasn’t physically still, but with art keeping distraction and drowsiness at bay, my ever restless mind rested in 30 minutes of what God gave me to love.

I think about how I look at my own children when they are enjoying something, engaged in some activity they love, and they aren’t aware that I am watching. Like when Olivia moves to music she loves. I know that in that moment I couldn’t love them more, just for being who they are. Why would God not rejoice in watching me similarly?

And, in this morning’s meditation from JesuitPrayer.org, this wonderful poem:

Be silent.
Be still.
Alone.
Empty
before your God.
Say nothing.
Ask nothing.
Be silent.
Be still.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.
God knows.
God understands.
God loves you with an enormous love
and only wants to look upon you
with that generous love.
Quiet.
Be still.
Let your God love you.

Edwina Gately (b.1943), published in There Was No Path, So I Trod One

Poem: Small Kindnesses

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”

— Denusha Lemeris

 

Hat tip to this fellow blogger who was kind enough to post this first

Poem: Eyeball (circa 2001)

 

I wrote this back in 2001, just a year after graduating with a degree in Futures Studies (now called Foresight) from UH. Posting here because my brother wanted to use it and I couldn’t find it here. Since this is the “place for my stuff,” at least digitally.

Reading this after 18 years or so, it’s held up pretty well. Which I am not sure is a good thing.

I’m tired.
I’ve been cutting back on McLattes.
I’m saving up to turn off my shoes.
I saw some last week —
shoes that were just plain shoes.
They didn’t track where you go
and then beam ads up at you.
No motor oil ads while pumping gas
No cookie ads in front of the dairy case.
They’re expensive ’cause they’re not subsidized.
So I’m economizing to pay for something
That people are used to getting for free.
My friends think I’m nuts.
All these constant commercials,
they don’t bother my friends.
Just like wallpaper.
They say they can tune them out.
I should be so lucky.
They drive me crazy.
But it’s my fault —
I made them my job.
I’m an “Eyeball”.
Sounded like a good idea at the time —
just walk around and look at stuff.
When I see a logo or a commercial spot,
this chip at the base of my skull
lets the good folks at Nielsen
know my reaction before even I do.
This kind of information
is very valuable, they say.
Thanks.
Here’s your check.
I figured it’d give me more time to write.
But somehow I can’t concentrate.
I can’t write more than a paragraph at a time.
I get these uncanny urges to drop my work
And flip through a magazine.
I never order magazines but they come to me anyway.
I’m never sure when, or if, I’m off the clock.
I can’t tell what else I’m giving them.
Like, last week I had this “naked in public” dream,
and my landlady gave me an amused once-over look
the next morning.
Gave me the creeps.
I try not to dream if I can help it.
I saved for months to buy one blank wall in my apartment.
It’s in my bedroom opposite my bed.
No logo lamps, no meme marqees, no active windows.
The wall wasn’t subsidized, so my rent went up.
But it was worth it.
I sit and stare at that wall
like it were some kind of holy shrine.
It is holy to me, I guess.
One day I’ll be able to pay my own rent
And put what I want on all my walls.
For now I’ll just take refuge in this one blank spot.
But if I sit at the end of my bed and stare long enough,
say, more than half an hour, there’s this thing
Not a voice, not a thought, not an image.
Faintly, but clearly, it whispers
“Get to work.”
— Cody Clark, 2001