The Poet Laureate of Paterson

Very few poets find fame as well as fortune during their lifetimes; most reside in eternal obscurity. Not so Ron Padgett ’64. He is enjoying what he calls his “16 minutes of fame” as the author of poems spoken on screen by actor Adam Driver (Girls) as a bus driver named Paterson in the film of the same name set in, where else? Paterson, N.J.

The quirky, sad, funny little indie film reflects what The New Yorker in 2007 hailed as Padgett’s “plainspoken, wry” voice and has made him a rock star of poetry in his 70s. “Yeah, I’m still writing,” he says. “Just because I’m 75 doesn’t mean shit to me. Not in terms of my writing. It’s like somebody asking, ‘Ron, you’re 75, you still eat?’”

Ron Padgett '64 and Jim Jarmusch '75 both give two thumbs up.

Ron Padgett ’64 (left) and Jim Jarmusch ’75 in Padgett’s NYC apartment on January 4, 2017. The two were clowning around after having been interviewed by Jeffrey Brown of PBS’ NewsHour.

Patricia Padgett

Paterson — written and directed by Jim Jarmusch ’75 — features seven of Padgett’s poems, three written specifically for the film. The movie received critical acclaim when it opened in December. For Padgett, the response has been nothing short of astonishing: He’s been invited to give readings in Rome and Berlin, and his formerly obscure volumes of poetry have lately appeared in German, Portuguese, Italian and French editions. “Pretty far out,” he says, reverting to 1960s counter-culture-speak, “this sort of sudden onslaught of interest from other countries.”

Paterson is an homage to the working-class town that was home to famed poet-physician William Carlos Williams and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg ’48, whom Padgett came to know. Padgett has been identified as a member of the second generation of the New York School of Poets, a brand name that he says was created by an art gallery director for the first generation that included Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest and Kenneth Koch, who taught Padgett Literature Humanities (then called CC Humanities). “There’s a third generation, too.” Padgett says. “It’s like children having children, and they have children. It’s kind of a tedious label.”

Love Poem

We have plenty of matches in our house.
We keep them on hand always.
Currently our favorite brand is Ohio Blue Tip,
though we used to prefer Diamond brand.
That was before we discovered Ohio Blue Tip matches.
They are excellently packaged, sturdy
little boxes with dark and light blue and white labels
with words lettered in the shape of a megaphone,
as if to say even louder to the world,
“Here is the most beautiful match in the world,
its one-and-a-half-inch soft pine stem capped
by a grainy dark purple head, so sober and furious
and stubbornly ready to burst into flame,
lighting, perhaps, the cigarette of the woman you love,
for the first time, and it was never really the same
after that. All this will we give you.”
That is what you gave me, I
become the cigarette and you the match, or I
the match and you the cigarette, blazing
with kisses that smoulder toward heaven.

Ron Padgett ’64; from Collected Poems (Coffee House Press, 2013 ). This poem opens the film Paterson.

While Padgett has a son who lives in Vermont, he refers to his poems as his children. “I like them. I’ve written too many, actually.”

“It must have been hard/for the Romans to multiply—I don’t mean reproduce,/but to do that computation … ,” he wrote when he was 67. “I have a 6 and 7 that,/when put side by side, form my age./Come to think of it,/I’d rather be LXVII.”

Padgett’s poetry is often whimsical, sometimes serious, sometimes both. Mostly, it’s not political — at least not overtly. “The Absolutely Huge and Incredible Injustice in the World” begins: “What makes us so mean?/We are meaner than gorillas,/the ones we like to blame our genetic aggression on.” But not until much later are mean places — Rwanda, Sudan, Guantanamo, Rikers, Babi Yar — even mentioned.

An only child, Padgett grew up in Tulsa, Okla., the son of a bootlegger father, and a mother who took the orders and kept the books. His was a strictly blue-collar family on “a very middleclass looking street.” Inspired by a junior high school teacher, he began to read pretty much everything, which led him to the Lewis Meyer Bookstore, a local institution whose owner hosted a book review television show that ran for 42 years. Meyer hired Padgett to work afternoons and weekends and introduced him to poetry. At the store Padgett also browsed literary magazines, and later, he and some high school chums published their own, The White Dove. Audaciously, they invited people like Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac ’44 to contribute, and they did, for free. “We just sat down and wrote them letters,” Padgett recalls, still surprised.

Rejected by Stanford, Padgett came east in fall 1960 to Columbia. It was still the era of the Beat Generation, when Kerouac and Ginsberg were the freeform sirens of the avant-garde. Padgett had already begun a correspondence with Ginsberg, who invited him to meet. They became fast friends and later both took part in programs of The Poetry Project, a nonprofit founded in 1966 to encourage reading, writing and enjoyment of poetry.

Padgett directed the project for two and a half years starting in January 1978. Then he was publicity director for the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, a New York City-based nonprofit, and edited its books, designed its catalogue and oversaw its sales and rights. For 10 years and 100 issues, he edited Teachers & Writers Magazine.

While at the College, Padgett met now-longtime friend Phillip Lopate ’64. They worked together on The Columbia Review, a student literary publication the administration notoriously censored in 1963 for its seminal use of the f-word. In protest, the Review editors quit en masse and published a mimeographed The Censored Review, which quickly sold out, at 25 cents a copy. The following year, the Review was revived, with Lopate as the editor and Padgett a contributor.

“He’s kept the faith. And now he’s become sort of a grand old man of poetry,” Lopate says. “Ron is essentially a very kind, courtly man, and a lot of writers are essentially cruel bastards. Ron is really gentlemanly; there’s a sweetness to him.”

Does Padgett have a life lesson to share?

His poem “How to be perfect,” which takes the form of a 99-page illustrated guide, offers some. It begins: “Get some sleep … Don’t give advice … Take care of your teeth and gums.” It concludes with: “Take out the trash … Love life … Use exact change,” and, “When there’s shooting in the street, don’t go near the window.”