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How to be Perfect

It’s a good idea to read a book of poetry now and then. This is especially true if you’re not a poet. If you are a poet, I imagine you’re already used to seeing the world in meaningful fragments, used to playing with language, used to turning the mundane into the sublime. Or, if you’re not already doing that, you’re training yourself to do that just as a photographer trains themself to see time frozen into a four-by-six frame. For those of us who aren’t poets, reading a book of poetry can help us see the world differently, if only for a moment.

Such is true for Ron Padgett’s How to Be Perfect.

I did not pick up this collection to learn how to be perfect. I gave up on that dream decades ago. But if I had, Padgett has a poem telling me how to be perfect. He starts it with the most practical advice anyone could give: “Get some sleep.” He gives further basic pointers. “Take care of your teeth and gums.” “Eat an orange every morning.” It would seem like less of a poem and more of a collection of inherited wisdom if not for his second piece of advice, which is, “Don’t give advice.” By the time he gets around to telling you to “Make eye contact with a tree,” you realize you’re in a whole different how-to realm. By the time he gets to, “Meditate on the spiritual. Then go a little further, if you feel like it. What is out (in) there?” you realize you’ve unconsciously been doing that for a couple of pages.


This is a good introduction into the world of Ron Padgett. He starts off with the quotidian. Many of his first lines seem so basic that it feels like you’re not reading a poem at all. One poem begins, “Just sitting here;” another tells you, “You are in a room.” Sometimes he starts with questions: “What will I have for breakfast?” or “What makes us so mean?” or “How did people trim their toenails in ancient times?” Sometimes first lines tease you: “Nelly was a girl I once knew in Brooklyn,” or, “Up goes the mad scientist to the room in his tower.” But always, the first lines are a gentle invitation into a poem. Padgett seems hyper aware of the tendency of poetry to intimidate its readers, to pressure readers to “get it,” to make readers feel stupid when they don’t. So Padgett leaves the front door of his poems open. He leaves a light on in the room. He tells us, “Come in, come in. You’re welcome here.” He lets us drift through the poem by drifting through it himself, and when you reach the end you’re ready for something more. Take the aforementioned poem about toenails. Padgett wonders first how toenails were trimmed before clippers were invented. He takes this to the groomed toenails of the Virgin Mary in Renaissance paintings, then to the toenails of Jesus hanging on the cross, then to the concluding lines, “Cruelty is so graphic and hard to understand/ whereas beauty, even the beauty of a toe/ makes perfect sense. To me, anyway.”

In Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson, Adam Driver plays a bus driver who also writes poems. It begins with the bus driver studying a box of matches, then going through his day writing a poem inspired by the matches. The poem starts so mundane, just describing the box and why it’s there. As the bus driver drifts through his day, the matches and the words build into something deeper, into a poem that helps him make sense of his love for his wife. When I first watched the film, I was surprised as how good of a poet this bus driver was. Then I realized, about halfway through, that this bus driver poet wrote just like Padgett. And I realized during the end credits that the poems the bus driver wrote in the film were poems that Padgett had written for the movie. The poems don’t make the movie, though there is a lot to love about Paterson,but the film would fail without Padgett’s poems.

How to Be Perfect won’t really teach you how to be perfect, but reading Padgett’s book of poems will infect you. You’ll drift through your days contemplating simple objects and finding them tethered to the universe.

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Sean Carswell is the author of the 2016 short story collection The Metaphysical Ukulele and five other books. He is an assistant professor of writing and literature at California State University Channel Islands.


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