Dear Poet: A Letter from Zachary Roubein to Ron Padgett
A letter from Zachary Roubein (Houston, Texas):
Dear Mr. Padgett,
I write this letter hoping it has the same impression on you that your poem, "Nothing in That Drawer," had on me. To be quite honest, I wasn't quite sure what you were going for by composing a poem in which you repeated the same line fourteen times. To be even more honest, I still don't know. That is why I am writing you. I could speculate that the speaker really didn't want anyone to know what was in that drawer. Even if it were the case, I also believe you had some story you were trying to tell in as few words as humanly possible. I want to know that story. When I read your poem, I stopped, paused, pushed my glasses up the brim of my nose, exhaled, and verbalized a question despite being alone in my bedroom. I asked no one in particular, "What? What did I just read? What does it mean?"
Mr. Padgett, I'm eccentric, quirky, mature, and I love good art, especially F. Scott Fitzgerald. But at the center of all that, I ask questions. I ask hundreds of them a day. I ask them ad nauseam. I ask unanswerable questions. Last semester, I seriously asked my English teacher why we have war, and I expected an answer. Now, I'd like to ask you why you repeated the same line fourteen times. What was your inspiration? What was in that drawer? Your poem grabbed my attention in ways that no other poem in the Dear Poet Project did. The other poems were all brilliant, but yours made me stop, collect myself, and attempt to answer a question I know I could not. I have to know the inspiration for this beautifully head-scratching work of art.
What is it like to be a poet? How often do you write? What is your writing process? What inspires you, and what inspired "Nothing in That Drawer"? Do you write stories, novels and songs, or are you exclusively a poet?
What is your opinion on the general health of poetry? Following the Presidential Inauguration, I read a blog from the Washington Post lamenting the death of poetry. If you Google "is poetry dead" it should come up. It was written by Alexandra Petri. I want to know if you think this madness, or if you think the author has a point.
I want to thank you for taking the time out of your day to read this letter. It means a lot to an aspiring young writer. I do hope that you write back. I leave you with a quote from my literary hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald: "You don't write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say." You clearly have a lot to say, Mr. Padgett. Thank you much.
Zachary Adam Roubein
Ron Padgett responds:
17 March 2013
I hope my response will be at least half as interesting as your letter, and I want to tell you at the outset that poets don't always know what's going on in their own work, so don't be surprised if I'm not the Ultimate Authority here.
Now that I've made some excuses in advance, I can say that I was very happy that you liked my "head-scratching" poem and that you took the trouble to write to me.
OK, now for some background. I wrote "Nothing in That Drawer" in 1964, when I was 21 or 22, a college senior. I had been writing pantoums (poems in which certain lines are repeated verbatim in a pattern) and thinking a lot about the repetitons in the writing of Gertrude Stein—I think she once said "You say something you like, so you say it again"—and the repetitions in the paintings of Andy Warhol (Coke bottles, Campbell's soup cans, dollar bills). For the previous several years my close friend Ted Berrigan had been focused on writing modern sonnets, and I had written some myself, working variations on the traditional form. But when I wrote "Nothing in That Drawer" I think my main impulse was to make fun of it all, partly by writing only one line and getting a whole sonnet out of it! So it took me about five seconds to write the poem. I thought of it as a conceptual lark, just fooling around. (I used to joke that it had a flawless rhyme scheme.) I liked the poem because it was a bit naughty, insofar as it didn't behave like the traditional poem in which the poet is supposed to tell the reader something important. My poem didn't tell anybody much of anything.
But people responded to it, coming up with all sorts of ideas about it. The best one was that the poem is also a visual poem, in which each line represents a drawer in a chest of drawers, and as one reads downward one is also opening and closing each drawer. Other people said that later they tried to imagine what might have been in those drawers. For them it served as an ink blot test. For others it was like crashing into a door in the dark.
So much for reading the poem silently. The other side of this poem (and most poems) is experienced only when it is vocalized. When I read the poem aloud for the first time, I noticed that it was impossible to say each line in exactly the same way—that there are instant decisions to be made as to pace and tone—and that I was using the voice of a person who is actually looking through a chest of drawers, becoming more and more frustrated and then finally resigned to finding nothing. Every future reading turned out differently. The lines look the same but they aren't the same: each one morphs slightly into the something else that is the next line. This experience reminded me a little of being a child and repeating the same word over and over and over until it lost all its meaning and became just a weird sound.
Is it a Great Poem? I don't think so. But it is a tough little guy I haven't been able to shake it off since I wrote it almost half a century ago. And now it's stuck on you!
Your other questions are a lot harder to tackle. "What is it like to be a poet?" I don't know. What is it like to be right-handed? What is it like to be a boulder? Interstellar space? The Bible? What is it like to be a question mark?
"How often do you write?" Sometimes very often, sometimes not for months.
"What is your writing process?" I try not to have one, perhaps fearing that it would trap me into writing the same kind of poem all the time.
"What inspires you?" The sound of a single word or phrase, a sudden rush of feeling, an oddball idea, or reading other poems. But you don't always need to be inspired: The Muse is very busy, she can't spend all her time with you. You can sit down and start scribbling any old thing, and if you let it unroll it can sometimes lead to something good. In other words, the act of writing can "inspire" writing.
"Do you write stories, novels, and songs?" I do write things other than poetry. (For a fuller answer, take a look at www.ronpadgett.com.) I wish I had written more song lyrics, but I've never known a composer well enough to make full songs. But in a lot of my poems (which are nothing like "Nothing in That Drawer") I try to let them have their own internal music, if it seems right for that occasion. That is, I try to allow them to sound good without calling attention to the fact that I'm trying to make them sound good.
"What is your opinion on the general health of poetry?" I'm not an expert on what is happening in poetry all over the world, but in the USA it seems that more poetry is being written, published, and read than ever before. People are no longer hesitant about saying "I write poetry," because poetry is no longer a code word for abnormality. If this is a sign of health, then poetry must be quite robust. And the best poetry of the past is eternally healthy. So I don't worry about the general health of poetry, which after all has taken care of itself for millennia. I just keep writing it. I suspect that you do too. Keep going.
With best wishes,
P.S. Because you like questions so much, I recommend a book of poetry by Pablo Neruda called El Libro de la preguntas/The Book of Questions.