Padgett is a fine, venerable and very funny poet from New York City who read at the Carnegie Lecture Hall. But it was impossible to attend this March 11 event without recalling the Forum's own impending demise -- which seemed almost emphasized by the fact that neither Padgett nor Forum founder Sam Hazo made any formal mention of it.
They didn't have to. Everyone present knew that Hazo, citing the harsh funding climate, had said in February that this 43rd season of hosting world-class poets would be the Forum's last. That makes it the city's first major, established arts group to fall victim to the Recessepression. But other arts news this week, here and elsewhere, was similarly grim.
On Monday, the Pittsburgh Symphony laid off nine administrative staffers. The week also brought big layoffs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- which cut 74 positions, with more likely to come -- and the demise of groups including the 58-year-old Baltimore Opera and the 40-year-old Madison Repertory Theatre (that sizable Wisconsin's town's only pro theater troupe).
Adding to the pall over Padgett's reading: A friend I ran into was mourning the death of a loved one. Hazo then announced the death of Albert Labriola, an old colleague at Duquesne University. And Padgett described one new poem he read as an "elegy" for a friend who'd died in January.
The audience of about 100 for a relatively big name like Padgett seemed small compared to other Forum readings I'd attended, and you had to wonder whether some people in the community believed that Hazo had actually cancelled the season; I guess we'll see on April 14, when both season and series truly conclude, with a reading by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski.
Given all that, it was a testament to Padgett that his soft-spoken delivery of his wry, sometimes surreal verse drew as many laughs as it did.
Padgett, thin, balding and wire-rimmed, performs his poetry entertainingly. "Good thing bedrooms can't talk," goes one line, which he follows by dropping into a portentously gruff Ghost Voice: "Many years ago, in this very room ..."
He described one long poem as "99 pieces of advice," adding, "I couldn't think of a hundred!" Samples: "Make eye contact with a tree ... When you are old, be kind to children. Do not shake your cane at them when they call you grandpa. They are your grandchildren!"
A riff on similes went, in part: "At any moment, the similes can line up to form the log cabin Lincoln was said to have built with his own similes."
The occasional word of French aside, Padgett is quite accessible, even his strangest flights grounded in the everyday. At the same time, he's hardly lightweight. A meditation on human meanness includes lines like "The pointlessness of matter turns us into cornered animals that are otherwise placid and indifferent" and "Compassion is an exit from the prison each moment is."
Another favorite line is cunningly metaphysical: "Every moment is another line you're next in."
Musing in another poem about New York tourists, Padgett read: "People go to see the missing Twin Towers, and seem to enjoy experiencing the lack of something." But I doubt we'll feel the same about the International Poetry Forum when it's gone.