How to Be Perfect

How to Be Perfect

by Ron Padgett




“Ron Padgett makes the most quiet and sensible of feelings a provocatively persistent wonder.”—Robert Creeley

Ron Padgett has reenergized modern poetry with exuberant and tender love poems, with exceptionally lucid and touching elegies, and with imaginative and action-packed homages to American culture and visual art. He has paid tribute to Woody Woodpecker and the West, to friends and collaborators, to language and cowslips, to beautiful women and chocolate milk, to paintings and small-time criminals. His poems have always imparted a contagious sense of joy.

In these new poems, Padgett hasn’t forsaken his beloved Woody Woodpecker, but he has decided to heed the canary and sound the alarm. Here, he asks, “What makes us so mean?” And he really wants to know. Even as these poems cajole and question, as they call attention to what has been lost and what we still stand to lose, they continue to champion what makes sense and what has always been worth saving. “Humanity,” Padgett generously (and gently) reminds us, still “has to take it one step at a time.”

Ron Padgett is a celebrated translator, memoirist, teacher, and, as Peter Gizzi says, “a thoroughly American poet, coming sideways out of Whitman, Williams, and New York Pop with a Tulsa twist.” His poetry has been translated into more than a dozen languages and has appeared in The Best American Poetry, Poetry 180, The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, The Oxford Book of American Poetry, and on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. Visit his website at

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781566892032
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Publication date: 09/01/2007
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 6.02(w) x 10.50(h) x 0.37(d)

Read an Excerpt

How to Be Perfect




Copyright © 2007 Ron Padgett
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56689-203-2


Mortal Combat

You can't tell yourself not to think
of the English muffin because that's what
you just did, and now the idea
of the English muffin has moved
to your salivary glands and caused
a ruckus. But I am more powerful
than you, salivary glands, stronger
than you, idea, and able to leap
over you, thoughts that keep coming
like an invading army trying to pull
me away from who I am. I am
a squinty old fool stooped over
his keyboard having an anxiety attack
over an English muffin! And
that's the way I like it.


The slight agitation
of pots and pans
and a few dishes
in sudsy water
into which hands
plunge and fingers
operate like in
a magic act in which
bubbles burst
into flowers presented
to the blonde girl
who rotates on
a wheel that flies
up through the
ceiling and
The dishes
are sparkling.


When I was little I had a top
that spun on its point.
A lot of kids had tops,
I guess they spun them.
The tops went round and
around — but?
(The mystery
of centrifugal force?)
My top slowed down and
went crazy-wobble, and I
got up and spun
and staggered dizzy,
flopped and threw
the spin into the floor.

The Swiss Family Robinson

I never quite understood who
the Swiss Family Robinson were.
The inversion of their name
confused me at an early age,
just as the name of Mary Baker Eddy
sounded as though she started out
as a woman and turned into
a guy named Eddy. At Walt
Disney World there is an attraction
called Swiss Family Robinson that
involves a tree house, so I assume
they lived in a tree. Why they did
I don't know. It sounds rather
stressful to me, the fear
of falling out. I could look up
the Swiss Family Robinson
in a reference book, but
it's interesting not to know
something that everyone else knows.
However, I would like to know if there
are many people named Robinson
in Switzerland. If there are,
I would know something that
most people don't know.

Blizzard Cube

I'm going out to see the blizzard
that is approaching in the form of a cube.

I am in a children's book
where a blizzard won't hurt me.

After I have experienced the blizzard
to the fullest, to the very core of my being,

I will return to the house,
my head wrapped with the bandages

I put there to keep my brain inside my skull.
Later I will take them off, revealing

my mouth enough to tell you what
it was like inside the blizzard cube,

assuming, of course, that you will still
be there and interested.


When my mother said Let's go down to the Rialto
it never occurred to me that the name Rialto

was odd or from anywhere else or meant anything
other than Rialto the theater in my hometown

like the Orpheum, whose name was only a phoneme
with no trace of the god of Poetry, though

later I would learn about him and about the bridge
and realize that gods and bridges can fly invisibly

across the ocean and change their shapes and land
in one 's hometown and go on living there

until it's time to fly again and start all over
as a perfectly clean phoneme in the heads

of the innocent and the open
on their way to the Ritz.

Everybody and His Uncle

I was waiting to happen.
At a stoplight
the buildings curved up from my ears,
office buildings
with offices in them and people
doing office things, pencils
and paper clips, telephone rings —
Where is that report?
At Echo Lake the vacationers
have made the city only slightly
emptier, how did they get there?
By station wagon and dogsled
in the "old" days. The forest ranger
was Bob. He said we could spell his name
backwards if we wanted, then
our laughter vanished into his tallness.
I thought maybe he was not a forest ranger,
just a guy named Bob, but
it turned out he was part of the echo
of everything around there, which radiated
out a few short miles before the farmland set in.
The farmland had waited to happen
and then it did, just as it knew it would.
A farmhouse appeared and a front porch
and on it sat my Uncle Roy. He was very farmer.
"Get on this horse," he said.
But the horse said, "Don't."
"I would prefer to play baseball," I said.
Later we took Rena Faye to the hospital.
"Darn that horse," Roy said, "when his ears
laid back I saw trouble." The light changed,
my shoes went across the street
while I rose straight up into the high part of the air
so as to form a right angle
with the dotted line that lit up behind my shoes
as they turned into pots of gold
receding into that smaller and smaller thing
we call distance. But I was already there
in the distance, I had been waiting my whole life
to be wherever I should be at any given moment,
a ring around not anything. "Wake up, Rena Faye,"
said Roy, "we need to take you to the hospital."
She gave us the most beautiful smile
but it bounced off our faces and we forgot
to pick it up and put it somewhere safe.
It's probably still lying there on the road
in front of the house. Come to think
of it, I did pick mine up
as I looked out the back window of the car,
and as we skirted Echo Lake
everything got twice as big and then three times,
like laughter and hiccoughs flying among children
whose immortality has turned them
into temporary rubber statues of curvature in confusion
that slides into the appeasement of early evening.
That is, Rena Faye felt better, at least she was able
to know there was a bump on her head, and inside
the bump a small red devil running furiously in place.
"Rena Faye is going to be okay," said Roy,
but I wasn't so sure, there was a doctor involved
and a hospital with a lot of white in it.
The house hadn't changed, but the barn
was gone and the land stretched out flat
to far away. The horse was still waiting, for what
who knows? I was waiting at the light, and when it changed
I went on across the street
to where another part of town was waiting,
it was Europe and I was in or on it,
I had Europe touching my foot, the train
was pointing its big nose toward the Gare St-Lazare,
where you wake up even if you aren't asleep.
Rena Faye opened her eyes and said, "I don't think ..."
and then a funny look
came across the street toward me, the one big horrible face
of surging forward, but I was like whatever bends
but doesn't break because I didn't give a whit about any of it,
I was in the forest and my name was almost Bob and the trees
didn't care about any of it either because tallness can't care.
Roy wasn't really my uncle, we just called him that.
When the sun rose his new picture window could be seen through
to the lone mimosa tree, its pink blossoms smiling frizzily,
and a car went by, not a Chevrolet or a Ford,
not a green or blue car,
just a car, with a person driving it. My notebook
and its pencils were ready to go and I
moved toward them as if music had replaced the sludge
we call air. I.e., Swiss cheese had become Gruyère.
The car started, then rolled back and stopped.
We got out and looked, then kicked ourselves. Moon,
is that what that is, that sliver? I was thinking,
the car was not thinking, my pencils were almost thinking,
all three of them, but they took too long and so
time went on ahead without them.
Then an angel from the side touched my head inside
and my head outside surrounded less and less.
His wristwatch is a street, green, yellow, blue, and open
as a meadow in which your parents are grazing
because the fodder and forage are stored away
in the kitchen cabinet too high for them to reach
with their muzzles. And lo the other parents are mooing
plaintively, tethered to an idea they like to dislike:
The fox is free. Silly old cows, the fox is never free,
he is just running, and with good reason, and with good legs,
from the ooga-ooga. Brrrrring!
Waterfall of afternoon!

And I left.
I went east three miles and then
fifteen hundred more, and then
three thousand five hundred more,
and then I turned around
and came back five thousand and no hundred.
My mother was still in the kitchen
standing on the yellow tiles
as dinner rose up out of the pots and pans
and hung in the air while she adjusted it.
Soon Dad came home and we dined
but he didn't and neither did Mother
and neither did I. We put the food
in our mouths and chewed and swallowed —
it tasted good — and we drank liquids
that also tasted good although
they were across the room and on the wall.
The phone rang. It was meaningless
like a proton, but Mother laughed
and said words that were exactly the words
she would have said, total illusion
and total reality at the same time, just as
Dad coughed fifty years later, it was me coughing,
which is why I left, heading east, and stopped
after fifteen hundred miles, and coughed again.
So this is Echo Lake? Sure looks nice.
Ice had once gone by.
High overhead was an iceberg just checking on things,
wings folded and in flames.
The soul materializes in the form of an echo and says
"I've been following you."
"But you are a shadow and only a shadow!"
"Only in the dark am I a shadow," the soul replies.
"In the light I am a very good lightbulb!"
"You are a big nothing something," the soul says.
The light changes and I start across.


As the whisk broom
is the child of the ordinary broom,
which is cousin to the janitor's broom,
I am a toothbrush
when it comes to bristling,
insufficiently angry
or maybe too angry
to keep my bristles intact
since I know the debris
of the world is too great
for me to handle.
If I could save the world
by being crucified
I certainly would.
But who would nail
a toothbrush to a cross?

There Was a Man of Thessaly

There was a man of Thessaly
who jumped into a bush

and why, may I ask?
Because he was afraid of something?

Because he saw a bush and told himself
"I will jump into that bush"?

Maybe the fact that he had the idea
of jumping into the bush frightened him.

From great heights I have looked down
and thought "What if I went crazy for a moment

and found myself plummeting?" and stepped
back to remember who I am. I am

a man of Tulsa who jumps into his car
and by a miracle ends up somewhere else,

then jumps into the miracle and ends up

History Lesson

I think that Geoffrey Chaucer did not move
the way a modern person moves.
He moved only an inch at a time, in what
we call stop action. Everyone in his day moved
like that, so they could be shot into a tapestry,
but also because time moved in short lurches
and was slightly jagged and had fewer colors
for them to be in. But that was good. Humanity
has to take it one step at a time.

The Question Bus

What about your friend? Will he shoot flames from his nostrils
as he hurls you across the lawn? Or will he fall on his knees and
adopt you as his one and only god? Somewhere in between.

Somewhere in between a rock and a click, where the abstractions
roam about in their ghostly attire. They are haunting our
thoughts, we who wear human attire. When they ask you to
dance, you should refuse.

You should also refuse to pay the check when having dinner with
sunlight: it's evening, and he should be in bed! He might not
even be sunlight!

He might not even be a ghost. He may be the one you have
grown weary of waiting for, the last one off the bus at the end of
the line. He may be the bus itself, belching flames as all four tires
explode. Is he really your friend?

The Nail

Just sitting here,
stretched out,
dead as
a nail
bent over
and smashed
into the grain
of a door
carted off to
the dump
some years
ago, you
get sleepier
and sleepier at
the thought
of that nail,
buried in wood,
with no lips
to tell the tale.


    — There is no synonym for synonym

In the shtetl,
only the crowing
of two cocks
that sound alike.

I bang into the water pail,
blue in the morning light,
though to tell the truth
I am blue in any light,

a powdery royal blue.
Our village does not fly
through the air — it is
nailed to the ground

and we hold on for dear life —
to each other, to the trees,
the cottage doors, whatever,
and we sing our local ditty:

O the cats and the wellsprings!
O the dogs and the birdbath!
O! O! O!

Why I Would Like to Have Been
a Twelfth-Century Christian

I see
in my mind's eye
the crush of the faithful,
shoving jammed
into the basilica
of St. Denis
so tightly
they were
according to Suger
"as marble statues,"
some of them
while others
burst into riot,
and the priests
through a window
and ran away
with the holy relics.

For Morris Golde

It might have been when
I was standing in front of
Kierkegaard's grave thinking
that his name means
churchyard that Morris
Golde was breathing his
last in St. Vincent's, where
Jimmy died too, and what
was I doing then — and
what am I doing now?
Death throws everything
into high relief, itself
the highest — its uppermost
crag is where we sigh,
relax, and stretch out as
far as the mind can go.
I'm partway there is
a "deep" thought I can do
without, though I just
had it. I wish it would
get lighter faster. If it
were two weeks ago it
would be bright outside
instead of blue-gray.
Morris, you old thing.

Now at the Sahara

Where are those books I ordered and what
were they, oh yes, the Divine Comedy in three volumes
which I keep telling myself I am going to read
in toto, although I wonder about the "divine" part
that Dante himself didn't even have in his title
and to us "comedy" sounds like Shecky Greene
at the Sahara, Shecky who was funny and actually
kind of sad though not tragic. What is tragic is
that I started out thinking about Dante and
ended up thinking about Shecky Greene!

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 ??? beats per minute for ?? 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

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 ice on it 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 ice and

Learn how to whistle at ear-splitting volume.

Be calm in a crisis. The more critical the situation, the calmer
you should be.


Excerpted from How to Be Perfect by RON PADGETT. Copyright © 2007 Ron Padgett. Excerpted by permission of COFFEE HOUSE PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 Mortal Combat,
2 Rinso,
3 Tops,
4 The Swiss Family Robinson,
5 Blizzard Cube,
6 Rialto,
7 Everybody and His Uncle,
13 Toothbrush,
14 There Was a Man of Thessaly,
15 History Lesson,
16 The Question Bus,
17 The Nail,
18 Mir,
19 Why I Would Like to Have Been a Twelfth-Century Christian,
20 For Morris Golde,
21 Now at the Sahara,
22 How to Be Perfect,
31 Sea Chantey,
32 Downstairs,
33 Nails,
34 It Is Almost Unbearable,
35 Country Room,
37 Jeopardy,
38 Sitting Down Somewhere Else,
39 The Art of the Sonnet,
40 The Alpinist,
42 Gothic Red,
43 Charlie Chan Wins Again,
44 Thinking about the Moon,
45 This for That,
46 Nelly,
47 Very Post-Impressionism,
48 The Absolutely Huge and Incredible Injustice in the World,
59 Afternoon,
60 All in White,
61 Dead or Alive in Belgium,
63 Whiz and Bang,
64 Standoff with Frosty,
65 A Train for Kenneth,
66 In Memoriam K.,
67 The Goldberg Variations,
68 Mad Scientist,
69 Hound Dog,
70 Fantasy Block,
71 Words from the Front,
72 Pikakirjoitusvihko,
83 To the Russian Poets,
84 Construction,
85 Why God Did What He Did,
86 The Idea of Being Hurled at Key West,
87 Judy Holliday,
88 Method,
95 Bed,
96 The Breakfast Nook,
97 The Stapler,
98 Different Kinds of Ink,
99 Sketch,
100 Aubade,
101 Do You Like It?,
102 Drive,
103 Slight Foxing,
106 Blink,
107 Bird's Eye,
108 Now You See It,
109 Hercules,
110 Bible Study,
112 Elegy for No One,
113 C Note,
114 Bastille Day,

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