“’It’s alright, students, not to write’: What Ron Padgett’s Poetry Can Teach Us,” by Jeremy Over, Writing In Education 71 (2017)

Although the poet Ron Padgett remains less well known than his “first generation” New York mentor and friend, Kenneth Koch, his contribution to the field of Creative Writing teaching is significant. Padgett took Koch’s place in the New York classroom P.S.61 in 1969, where the previous year Koch had started a small revolution in the teaching of poetry to children, which resulted in Koch’s classic guides, Wishes, Lies and Dreams (1999) and Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? (1990) Padgett’s Creative Reading: What It Is, How to Do It and Why (1997) deserves similar recognition.

Creative Reading is, amongst other things, an instruction manual on how to misread. What follows may itself be a creative misreading of that book, and of some of Padgett’s poetry, but I hope it will demonstrate how the lessons Padgett draws from everyday mistakes in reading, and how to make creative use of them, can be seen to segue into an informal pedagogy of Creative Writing and, beyond that, into an even more informal source of advice on Creative Living.

Padgett’s poetry, while always playful, formally varied, inventive and witty, has, over the course of his 50 year career, become increasingly full of advice, partly mock serious (“How to Be Perfect”), partly seriously goofy (“How to Become a Tree in Sweden”), but also containing his unique brand of seemingly off-the-cuff, yet compassionate wisdom (“Advice to Young Writers”). The nature of this wisdom, though Padgett wouldn’t label it as such, seems both Buddhistic and outlaw-individualistic. Padgett’s father was one of the last Oklahoma bootleggers before that state turned “wet” and his personal anti-authoritarian influence runs through Padgett’s writing, particularly the stubborn refusal to obey rules, follow instructions, or even to follow his own emerging patterns. In interview Padgett has said, “the only consistent plan I’ve ever had is to try to break my patterns, my habits, my kneejerk tendencies in writing” (Lorberer 2014: n.p.). As the protagonist in Padgett’s poem “The Mediterranean” says, “what / if we all turned just slightly and did / the other thing that is always there”(2013: 772).

Much of the advice in Padgett’s writing is about how to look out for and do “the other thing” and, in the process, read, write and live more creatively. The boundaries between these activities should be fluid, with one thing leading to, being affected by, or included within, another. To write creatively one should read creatively, and in order to do either, of course, it helps to be alive. In Creative Reading, however, Padgett (1997: 3) goes beyond this to suggest that reading is itself a part of the writing process; neither activity is “unidirectional” and there is always an ongoing conversation between them.

Padgett has no monopoly over the term “Creative Reading” and certainly didn’t invent it. Emerson was one of the first to use the phrase in his speech, “The American Scholar” (1983): “Tis the good reader that makes the good book. […] One must be an inventor to read well. […] There is then creative reading as well as creative writing.”

And the term is now quite familiar; “Creative Reading” features as a first year module on several Creative Writing undergraduate courses. The aim of these modules is essentially to encourage “reading as a writer” and reading specifically with a view to learning by imitation, which, according to David Morley, in the “Creative Reading” section of his Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing, is “an honourable and ancient tradition in writing, and the arts, as it is in science and other forms of knowledge”(Morley 2007: 28). For Morley though, it is the anti-hypnotic effects of creative reading that are paramount, where reading is “used as a type of caffeine, rather than a lotus blossom. It is a form of waking up and paying attention” (29).

Derek Attridge (2004: 79–83) suggests that reading may be termed creative when it “succeeds in apprehending otherness” and “in registering the singularity and inventiveness of the work”. This is reading in which the reader undergoes “an encounter with alterity, which is to say the shifting and opening-up of settled modes of thinking and feeling”. Attridge’s work emphasizes the responsibilities of reading and the ethical implications of being open and hospitable to the otherness that works of literature introduce, or allow to erupt, into the world when they are “performed anew each time by the reader”.

Ron Padgett’s version of creative reading goes beyond seeking creative role models to imitate. He shares both Morley’s preference for reading that awakens and Attridge’s views (2004: 84) on the importance of being open to otherness, newness and the “lasting surprise” that is wonder. Padgett and Attridge also both develop the possibilities of reading as invention. Attridge writes: “A creative reading often moves to an articulation in words, as if the work being read demanded a new work in response.” (2004: 92) Where Padgett departs from Attridge is in the latter’s emphasis on the responsibility of the reader. Padgett’s Creative Reading is predominantly a promotion of the rights of the reader. Predating Daniel Pennac’s The Rights of The Reader (2006), it advocates in particular, the right to creatively misread.

For Padgett, Creative Reading is above all a shared act of creation with the writer. He even goes so far as to say:

… reading creatively involves an aggressive attitude toward the material at hand: the book is there for you to use as you see fit… the book is raw material for you to shape. When you come to it ready to take it apart and put it back together, it has lost its inviolability, its implied claim to immutability, its intimidating authority. You become the new author. You assume authority. (Padgett 1997: 56)

Padgett’s “philosophy” of creative reading combines this aggressive approach with an openness to the creative potential of mistakes. At the heart of his book (ibid.: 46-55) is an analysis of nine “everyday mistakes” that people commonly make when reading. These include the “single word error”, where one word in a sentence is simply misread; “line skips”, where the reader inadvertently jumps a line when returning to the left hand margin, and “page skips”, where two or more pages are turned by mistake; “line repeats” and “page repeats”, where the reader inadvertently re-reads the same line or page; “transposing up”, where a word from the line below (in one’s peripheral vision) is read into the line above; the “eye-mind split”, where “the eyes move along the words, but the mind is elsewhere”, in other words, unmindful reading; and also “column confusion”, where one reads inadvertently across columns from different articles in newspapers or magazines.

Seeming to draw on the language of meditation instruction, Padgett writes: “All nine of these reading errors can be minimised by practising mindfulness: gently but firmly drawing one’s attention back to the material at hand” (ibid.: 55), yet conversely he also advocates learning how to use the errors creatively. Padgett’s ambivalence towards mindfulness is a recurring theme in Creative Reading.

Some of Padgett’s creative ways to exploit reading errors are quite well known now in the context of experimental and linguistically innovative writing. In fact, they could be seen as a compact toolkit for that approach. William Burroughs’ ways of arriving at new writing through cut-ups and fold-ins can be seen as deliberate “column confusion”. Tom Phillips’ A Humument, and Ronald Johnson’s Radi os, are examples of work in which source texts have been partly obscured or erased to reveal a new text within the original, and can be regarded as a variation on Padgett’s “transposing words up and down”. The OuLiPian parlour game N+7, in which all the nouns of a given text are replaced by the 7th noun after them in the dictionary, involves deliberately making “single word errors”. The juxtapositions of words in collage practice also can appear to have arisen out of misreadings such as “line” and “page skips”. Indeed some of Padgett’s own poems provide examples.

“Arrive by Pullman”, (Padgett 2013: 317–326) looks like a “page skip” extended, so that instead of just skipping over a few pages, the poem skips from book to book, rather like the surrealist practice of making large-scale “collage” by moving from cinema to cinema viewing fragments of different films, and creating out of the process a personal composite film.

“Arrive by Pullman” is laid out in short carriage-like chunks of prose over 10 pages with each page break coinciding with the next apparent skip to new source material. It begins by praising clarity and sustained concentration:

How admirable to feel clear! To perceive without distraction or vagueness. To be in direct rapport with something. With what? Could be lots of things… And to sustain this clarity for more than a few seconds. Usually such moments are doomed. (ibid.: 317)

But what actually becomes clear is that the poem is in fact an exploration of the pleasures – even the virtues – of distraction, of being in indirect rapport with something, of falling into trances and sustaining, rather than clarity, an imaginative openness to interruption. This is achieved through a series of pratfalls beginning with the “moments” of the first paragraph being “doomed” not to failure, as expected by the reader, but “to destruction by a wicked bolt of lightning that came out of nowhere” (ibid.: 318). Further flashes of lightning are delivered by the poem in which various figures, and scenarios (for example, Samuel L. Goldwyn, Sir Walter Raleigh, rain falling on the surface of a pond, a university rowing contest and a tea pot) are briefly brought into focus and then dissolved into one another until, ultimately:

Beyond us the city, wreathed now in the golden light of the setting sun, kept its granite face turned toward the sky which would soon arrive by Pullman. (ibid.: 325–326)

At the opposite end of the spectrum of attentive misreading and writing is a sonnet that looks like the result of an extreme version of “line looping”. The title “Nothing in That Drawer” (Padgett 2013: 23) is simply repeated unchanged 14 times, apparently poking gentle fun at the form at the same time as it wittily mimics, visually and aurally, a chest of drawers being opened and closed, perhaps with increasing frustration. Padgett has himself said that it was written during a period when he was reading a lot of Gertrude Stein and it does seem, especially if read aloud, to bear out Stein’s observation that there is no such thing as repetition, only insistence (Stein 1971: 100). Reading the poem we begin to sense that, just as one supposedly cannot step into the same river twice, one cannot read the same line identically twice. Minute variations occur. There seems to be no such thing as “nothing”, or rather, each “nothing” is in fact a new something.

The poem also bears some relation to the discovery, which most children make at some point, that if you repeat out loud a word or short phrase enough times the physicality of the words – the feel of them in your mouth, the sounds they make and the look of the squiggles on the page – starts to dominate while the meaning floats free like an untethered balloon. One of the beliefs underlying Padgett’s creative misreading exercises is that “All words have magical properties that we should experience and explore” (1997: 58). When talking about another way in which the reading experience can be made strange, he writes: “In reading backwards, that alien sound is exactly what I’m looking for, because it’s this feeling of differentness that activates one’s feeling for the magical nature of words.’ (1997: 71)

The surprising discovery of otherness is, Padgett believes, one of the main benefits of creative misreading. The discovery, he says, can lead to an experience of awakening, deeper than simple surprise. Padgett (ibid.: 60) refers to a passage by Wolfgang Iser in the Act of Reading (1978) that describes the kind of awakening one experiences after putting down an engrossing book. Engaged reading involves:

[an] image-building process … whose significance lies in the fact that image-building eliminates the subject-object division essential for all perception, so that when we “awaken” to the real world, this division seems all the more accentuated…. so that we can view our own world as a thing “freshly understood” (Iser 1978: 140).

Padgett goes on to compare this to the OuLiPian N+7 exercise:

The image-building that is required by the noun-substitution process [in N+7] takes us one step away from the “reality” of the original text, to which our return is a kind of awakening. (1997: 60)

It is being involved in, and absorbed by, the actual writing and dictionary-searching process that leads to this experience.

The original texts (both the subverted text and the dictionary) when returned to after such a strange detour of creative misreading can appear unfamiliar yet somehow more themselves. According to Victor Shklovsky in his 1917 essay, Art as Technique (1965), art that uses the technique of defamiliarization removes an object – or process, in this case the reading of a text – from the automatism of habitual perception, so that “one may recover the sensation of life” and “make the stone stoney” (1965: 12).

In some of Padgett’s poems he recovers “the sensation of life” through an apparently “straight” mindfulness approach. For example in the poem “The Sweeper” (2013: 433) the language pays a Zen-like attention to the detail of ritualistically sweeping the floor. Mindful writing mirrors mindful action. There’s also just a pinch of Dr Seuss:

            And when I have a pile

that’s big enough. I nudge it

in the dustpan, this way

and that, until it’s all aboard,

except a thin line of dust

that can’t be smaller.

Tough little dust! I raise

the broom up high and bring

it down and past the line

to make a gust and then

the tiny dust is gone. I love

my pan of big new dust.

But in several other poems he seems to go beyond this by applying mindfulness paradoxically towards the ability of the mind to be distracted. He touches on this approach in Creative Reading when discussing the possible benefits of the reading error he labels the “Eye-Mind split”. He writes:

One of the least productive things you can do—in terms of traditional reading—is to let your mind wander. Your eyes keep moving along the words while your mind moves elsewhere. How many times were you exhorted as a child, “Pay attention!”? But pay attention to what? When my mind wanders, it’s usually paying attention, but to something else. In creative reading, wandering is used as a positive technique that puts the reader in closer touch with where the mind is when it wanders and what it does there. (1997: 72)

What Padgett recommends is not simply daydreaming at will when reading but trying, on some level, to remain mindful when being transported away from the text into a fantasy. He suggests then “creating a segue (or ‘bridge’) between your fantasy and the words as you re-enter the text” (1997: 73). It is, in effect, a practice of creative, mindful daydreaming. And one which is gentler towards the wandering, childlike mind.

“Oswaldo’s Song” (2013: 401) is one of many poems by Padgett that demonstrate this practice beautifully:

Oswaldo’s Song

Be glad that, as the world is in various forms of turmoil, you don’t have to worry about anything, for a moment. You lean back in your chair and let your head fall back, and you notice a spot on the ceiling. What is it? It looks like a miniature South America. It wasn’t there before. The tingling in your feet was there, but you didn’t notice until you had stopped thinking about South America, how romantic it might have been under certain circumstances. It is 1948 and you are standing on the veranda of a large manor house perched on the side of a cliff above which the moon has parked, and off in the distance an old man is gently strumming a guitar and singing about the day he met his young bride in their village. She was seven, he was barely eight. They ran through the village until they got larger and larger, so large their shoes didn’t fit, and when they went to their respective homes that night, they dreamed of some day coming to America, North America. “That’s enough, Oswaldo,” says a man standing in the shadows, and the singing stops. A light breeze rustles the banana palms.

The poem starts like a guided meditation, or hypnotic induction from a somewhat carefree practitioner, then swerves through several layers of fantasy until the initial surface “reality” is lost to view but an intimate mindfulness of the daydream continues to track all the subsequent movements of the mind as it spirals further and further away.

Allen Ginsberg, an early mentor and supporter of Padgett’s, advocates taking “a friendly attitude towards your thoughts” (Gach 1998: 197). Friendliness, or kindness, can start, and maybe has to start, in one’s attitude towards the contents of one’s mind. Moreover, as William Blake, one of Ginsberg’s own mentors, advises: “He who would do good to another [or to oneself or to one’s Oswaldo?] must do it in Minute Particulars” (2000: Plate 55, l.60). So the smallest movements of one’s mind, like daydreams about the shape of a spot on the ceiling, are worthy of mindfulness. Pay them some attention and write them down.

But it is alright not to as well:

Advice to Young Writers

One of the things I’ve repeated to writing

students is that they should write when they don’t

feel like writing, just sit down and start,

and when it doesn’t go very well, to press on then,

to get to that one thing you’d otherwise

never find. What I forgot to mention was

that this is just a writing technique, that

you could also be out mowing the lawn, where,

if you bring your mind to it, you’ll also eventually

come to something unexpected (“The robin he

hunts and pecks”), or watching the Farm News

on which a large man is referring to the “Greater

Massachusetts area.” It’s alright, students, not

to write. Do whatever you want. As long as you find

that unexpected something, or even if you don’t.

In mindfulness meditation one is encouraged to make oneself available to whatever experience arises regardless of one’s inclinations and personal preferences. Padgett (or the voice he assumes in this poem at least) similarly encourages regular practice in his students, even “when they don’t feel like writing”. But the aim is to be active, rather than simply receptive: to find “something unexpected” and “to get to that one thing you’d otherwise / never find.”

The final “or even if you don’t” is itself the crowning example, in this poem, of “that unexpected something”. The sleight of hand involved in that comic ending might at first distract us from the fact that the poem has in fact delivered, with a light touch, some good and friendly advice that is worth hearing, but the advice is, after all, about how to live and write attentively, staying open to surprise right to the end. The title of Padgett’s poem echoes Rilke’s famous “Letters to a Young Poet” and perhaps begs the question: whose advice would you rather follow?

Here is Rilke:

There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to the test. Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? … To feel that one could live without writing is enough indication that, in fact, one should not. (1992: 9)

No wonder that, a few letters later, Rilke’s correspondent, the “Young Poet” Franz Kappus, finally lays down his pen and joins the Prussian Army: “When a truly great and unique spirit speaks, the lesser ones must be silent.” (ibid.: 3)

Padgett’s more compassionate suggestion to the “lesser ones” is that we may choose not to be silent, either in the face of a book’s “intimidating authority”, or in the presence of “a truly great and unique spirit”, but instead to read, write and live in ways that enable us, creatively and playfully, to assume authority for our own unexpected lives.




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Lorberer, E. (2014) ‘Poetry Windows: An Interview with Ron Padgett’. Rain Taxi, Online Edition, Summer 2014. Available from: http://www.raintaxi.com/poetry-windows-an-interview-with-ron-padgett/ [Accessed 9 January 2017].

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Padgett, R. (1997) Creative Reading: What It Is, How to Do It, and Why. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Padgett, R. (2013) Collected Poems. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press.

Pennac, D. (2006) The Rights of the Reader. London: Walker Books.

Phillips, T. (2005) A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. London: Thames and Hudson.

Rilke, R. (1992) Letters to a Young Poet. San Rafael, CA: New World Library.

Shklovsky, V. (1965) Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Translated by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Stein, G. (1971) ‘Portraits and Repetition’ in Look at Me Now and Here I Am. London: Penguin Books


Jeremy Over is a student and poet. He is an AHRC Midlands 3 Cities Creative Writing PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham, researching a poetics of wonder in the work of Kenneth Koch and Ron Padgett. His poetry has been published in various magazines and anthologies, including Carcanet’s New Poetries II. His first two collections were A Little Bit of Bread and No Cheese (Carcanet 2001) and Deceiving Wild Creatures (Carcanet 2009). A third tentatively entitled Fur Coats in Tahiti is tentatively in the pipeline.



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