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Photo by Chris Felver

It’s been a long time since poets took seriously Horace’s maxim that the point of poetry is to delight and instruct. I doubt Ron Padgett set out to challenge that trend with his new book of poems, How to Be Perfect. But there’s much to suggest he’s doing so anyway.

Still, you might not know you’re being schooled; you’re too busy chuckling. “Mortal Combat,” for instance, is a cheeky title whose cheekiness is clear only at the end. The speaker battles the idea of eating an English muffin. Telling himself not to think about the idea of eating a muffin doesn’t work, because he’s already thought about it. But he’s stronger than the idea. It can’t change who he is, a “squinty old fool stooped over / his keyboard having an anxiety attack / over an English muffin! And / That’s the way I like it.”

Padgett, a New Yorker who visits the International Poetry Forum on March 11, has mastered the art of surprise. He leads you down avenues of free association, and you can’t see where he’s going until he gets there. The effect is a cloud of uncertainty zapped by a delightful snap of light, as in a seasoned comic’s polished standup routine.

Rather than being merely witty or self-effacing, Padgett’s comic sensibility is often leavened with a pinch of bittersweetness — as when he muses on his dead mother or on a friend, the poet Kenneth Koch — or a dollop of alienation. “Country Room” seems at first a clever play on the slipperiness of language. But on a deeper level, it appears to touch on the fundamentals of the universe — matter, space and time — while addressing humanity’s struggle to find meaning amid evident meaninglessness.

Padgett isn’t a nihilist. He’s not an optimist, either. A poem called “Why God Did What He Did,” in which he explains why the Almighty hates us, suggests he’s far from cockeyed. Rather, Padgett seems likes a Stoic philosopher eager to peel away the vanities and strip his poems to their bare essentials in order to get to the heart of it all.

Yet it’s hard to say what that heart is. Padgett is an elusive kidder. Even the poem about God’s hate might be an existential put-on. His title poem, “How to Be Perfect,” might be a joke, too. After all, the second item in this list of advice is “Don’t give advice.”

His sincerity, however, is abundant. Enjoy simple pleasures. Be friendly; it will make you happy. Progress, he says, doesn’t exist. So live in the present. Reread great books. Brush your teeth. Grow something. Rest when you’re tired. And for heaven’s sake, don’t walk around train stations saying “We’re all going to die!”

It’s clear that How to Be Perfect aims to delight. Perhaps another aim is to offer wisdom on how to live.

John Stoehr
Pittsburgh City Paper