How to Be Perfect (According to Ron Padgett)
In this poem, Padgett tackles ways to achieve perfection…
Ron Padgett (Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1942) gained notoriety in 2016 thanks to the Jim Jarmusch film, Paterson. This same Padgett later ironized in an interview, “I’ve become famous!” That very irony and sense of humor permeate all the poet’s work, and long before the film he’d already been indispensable to many readers.
It would be arduous to review the trajectory of a poet, essayist, translator, and narrator like Padgett who’d begun writing at the early age of 17 when he founded the literary journal, The White Dove Review. More interesting might be to attend to the essence of his poetry, receptive always to the quiet voices of everyday objects which, in his eyes, fall into a new and unexpected relief. Against this insatiable poetic instinct, the writer seems entirely reborn beneath a revelatory light, regardless of whether he describes a “vulgar” hammer or a “simple” box of matches (both words are within quotes because beneath the poet’s gaze, they’re held in an ostensible relativity).
Those who’ve seen Paterson will understand that Padgett’s point of view is full of irony and lightness, and a rejection of the solemn, transcendental forms of poetic activity. Recall that the film’s protagonist is but a “simple” bus driver, disciplined at work, driving the streets each day mechanically, apparently submerged in the languor of his existence. Paterson is a sleepwalker, but one who sleeps in this world while exercising his vigilance in another: the world of poetry.
Paterson and Padgett share the same astonishment at the finiteness of things, regardless of whether they belong to the elevated world of artistic beauty, or to that of ordinary objects. Both are equally subject to the erosion of time. Thus, in the poet’s view it may be equally transcendental to speak of a Rembrandt painting as it is to speak of a hammer stamped “Made in USA.”
From this poetic inventory of the world immediately-at-hand arises How to Be Perfect, a poem into which Padgett condenses all his irreverence and incisive sarcasm. But here is also his vital and profound wisdom. Climb a ladder, sleep, or eat an orange in the mornings; they cease to be banal acts but are converted into the true foundations of a successful life. Keeping windows clean can be as important to the author as overcoming fear or excessive ambition. The wearing of comfortable shoes as relevant as meditation on the spiritual world. Philosophical reflection and the resolution of small practical problems seem to melt into an indivisible whole in which “vulgar” and “simple,” as we’ve said, lose all significance.
Faced with these great disquisitions on happiness, the meaning of life, of being and not being, Padgett offers a simple direction: “Look at that bird over there.”
How to be perfect
Everything is perfect, my dear friend.
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
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
Wear comfortable shoes.
Design your activities so that they show a pleasing balance
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
Look at that bird over there.
After dinner, wash the dishes.
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
Don’t be too self-critical or too self-congratulatory.
Don’t think that progress exists. It doesn’t.
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.
Do not wander through train stations muttering, “We’re all going to
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
Learn how to whistle at earsplitting volume.
Be calm in a crisis. The more critical the situation, the calmer you
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.
Walk down different streets.
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”
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.
Use exact change.
When there’s shooting in the street, don’t go near the window.
Image: Public domain
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