Preface to Making It Up

By Ron Padgett

Featured Image: “Antique Illustration from The Grammar of Ornament” by Owen Jones

I don’t remember who suggested the idea of an evening of spontaneous poetry collaborations by Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Koch, but I think it came up during a taxi ride the three of us took, six or so months before the event, in which Allen and Kenneth started joking about and even parodying each other’s work. This playful conversation culminated in their public performance of Wednesday evening, May 9, 1979, at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project.

As the date approached, both Allen and Kenneth—who had never taken part in such an event—started to express some misgivings, as did I. A month before the event, I wrote to them, “I’ve been wondering about some details of your May 9 extravaganza here, and I thought I would ask you about the format of the evening. Do you want to set any rules? Or would it be better to set none and just let fly?” Both poets thought it best to have some structure to work with, but they left it up to me. So I drew up a list of poetry “assignments” to surprise them with.

  1. Poem with one-word lines (authors alternating lines)
  2. Poem with two-word lines (authors alternating lines)
  3. Poem with three-word lines (authors alternating lines)
  4. Rhymed iambic pentameter couplets

First line: Allen

Second line: Kenneth

Third line: Kenneth

Fourth line: Allen

Fifth line: Allen

Sixth line: Kenneth


5. Dramatic dialogue in blank verse

Suggested characters: Vladimir Mayakovsky, a carrot, Halley’s comet, a large pair of work shoes, a field of green corn, New Mexico, Woody Woodpecker, Georgia O’Keeffe, some mountains with fog, Hamlet the Dane, a typewriter with legs, Sacré-Coeur in Paris.

6. Blues

Suggested subjects: loss of identity, failure to become the richest person on Earth, mysterious loss of one’s  clothing, fear of being executed, the solitude  of the Earth in the Universe, lament on the body’s frailty, too many objects on Earth, too few objects on Earth, etc.

7. Sestina (authors alternating lines or authors alternating every three lines) Possible end-words: 1) hilarious, spirituality, although, gate-crasher, slam,

dreaming; 2) Denmark, throw, perpendicular, never, William Carlos Williams,

oink; 3) clouds, escape, protons, handwritten, great-grandmother, end.

8. Ballad

Suggested topics: 1) William Blake and Popeye have a disagreement, and fight to the death; 2) an unknown knight encounters a mysterious object in the woods of Arthurian England; 3) an old man is imprisoned for stealing a book of his own poetry; 4) a young lover discovers he is the reincarnation of Gertrude Stein, and fears this will damage his forthcoming marriage

9. Tetrameter couplets (same procedure as in #4) Possible subjects: ask the audience.

Other possibilities:

10. A poem that makes no sense.

11. A poem with each line contradicting in some way the line before it.

12. A poem that is deliberately no good; i.e., “bad verse.”

13. A verbal cut-up using (1) lines from books by Ginsberg and Koch, and (2) any written material.

14. A poem that has no rules.

May 9 turned out to be a hot and humid day. By eight o’clock that night, the parish hall was absolutely packed, with around 225 people. For fresh air we had opened the three big windows on the west side of the room, windows that were soon filled with the faces of those who had arrived too late to get inside. Others gathered behind them in the churchyard.

Allen and Kenneth were seated at a table in front of the parish hall’s fireplace. As master of ceremonies, I had a chair at one end of the table, next to an easel on which I had placed a 24 x 36 sketch pad. On it were the assignments for the poets, which I would gradually reveal. Maureen Owen was nearby, at the controls of the Poetry Project’s tape recorder. As the temperature in the room rose, I gave a brief introduction, and the evening began.

The text gives a good sense of what the evening was like. What might not be apparent is the role played by the audience. It was as if every person in the room were leaning forward, eyes fixed on the poets. The feeling of anticipation was enormous. And why not? No one, not even the participants, knew what was going to happen. Rarely, if ever, had two famous poets made themselves  so vulnerable in public. The spontaneity of immediate collaboration cannot be faked: both Allen and Kenneth were on the verge of laying bare not only their compositional patterns, but also, to some degree, their very minds. That night, the audience followed every rise and fall, every twist and turn, every bump  and run of this daredevil performance. They also laughed and applauded enormously. Their energy seemed to radiate into the poets, who loosened up and let their generous inventiveness burst forth in brilliant, entertaining, and friendly poetic combat.

[An audio recording of a portion of the Ginsberg-Koch event can be heard at: ]

Kenneth Koch: Listen, Allen, we have to get a little more warmed up.

Allen Ginsberg: Oh, we are, I think we are.

KK: Listen, how about a dramatic dialogue in blank verse? Ron has suggested some characters that we might be. I told him to control himself but he hasn’t. The characters are Vladimir Mayakovsky, a carrot, Halley’s comet, a large pair of work shoes. Want to read the rest?

AG: A field of green corn, New Mexico, Woody Woodpecker, Georgia O’Keefe.

KK: Some mountains with fog, Hamlet the Dane, a typewriter with legs, Sacré-Coeur in Paris. Ron, I’ve told you to put in some others for Allen—you’ve put in all Ron Padgett characters.

AG: We all lived in Paris, right? KK: We all lived in Paris?

AG: At one time or another.

KK: I don’t want to be Sacré-Coeur. I wouldn’t mind being the city of Paris. AG: You be Paris.

KK: All right, I’ll be Paris. What do you want to be? Or you can make something up.

AG: Woody Woodpecker.

KK: The title of this play is, “Woody Woodpecker Goes to Paris,” in blank verse. May I start?

AG: Yes, shall we play any of these parts or just these two?

KK: Well, let’s have the first scene be between Woody Woodpecker and Paris, and I’ll start the scene by being Paris. I think I have to stand up to do blank verse.

AG: Oh wow! I look about myself. Here’s Notre Dame.

KK: Maybe not one line at a time for blank verse. You could go on for awhile.


a blank verse drama

Woody Woodpecker

Oh! Wow! I’m here in Paris, Notre Dame sits on its haunches and looks down

I’ve never been in such a strange domain I think I’ll take a walk around the town

The City of Paris

What bird is this that on my ancient streets Doth so pursue his argument this day?

Woody Woodpecker

Some rhyming beastie from United States is come I’m here and though you may think I am dumb

No less—I’ll continue with my tourist peregrination, Seeing this town, coming from another nation

The City of Paris

I thought the dollar was too low in rate To let such lower class Americans

As this low scruffy bird doth seem to be Walk all around my lovely Paris streets I do not even think it is a man—

It seems to me some sort of awful bird

Woody Woodpecker

Make no mistake, sir, under my wings and in my bill I carry many a hundred dollar paper

Dear Sir, would you be interested in matching my color on the market?

I am black, as it so seems at the moment, but I wonder if you have Some francs to trade with me if I give you this gift of papers

Taken from the United States last night on the plane which I flew till morning bright

I came with thousands upon thousands of gold bullions represented here

With U.S. dollars. Is there a black market here?

The City of Paris

Lo, where the lofty spires of Sacré-Coeur

Do crown Montmartre with their shining domes! And I this night must speak to lowly things

And give my francs unto a woodpecker.

Woody Woodpecker

Monsieur, could you give me some Old World advice?

The City of Paris

Was it for this that Haussmann broke the streets To tiny pieces to build boulevards

To make this city like to ancient Rome? Was it for this that Baudelaire did weep? To see parts of the city all torn down?

Woody Woodpecker

More likely not. More likely I am one of the bedbugs

Thrown out of the window by your old dear friend, Rimbaud. Still I have this question I would ask,

Monsieur, where can I buy French fries?

The City of Paris

Why, knowst thou not that fried potatoes are in France, those French fries which in the U.S.

you call French fries?

However, ice cream, which is there called French Is better than the ice cream we have here.

Woody Woodpecker

Well, I have come to great ancient culture

For I have sought around the world for one pure brownèd bowl of potatoes

Boiled in oils which will suit my heavy stomach from Ohio.

The City of Paris

He mocks my birth, for I am Kenneth Koch And come from Cincinnati in Ohio

And am not Paris, and he knows it well.

Woody Woodpecker

I too am from Ohio.

The City of Paris

You’re from Ohio? From what city then?

Woody Woodpecker

From Cleveland, where I was a friend of d.a. levy’s, lately dead, But I have come to Paris not to see Kenneth Koch and

If you will please show me where I can get some fries where I won’t choke

I’ll gladly go with you to the restaurant next door

If this is a place you say is not too much of a bore for food which

Is like American that I’m accustomed to. I’ve come to France to taste The Old World country’s true cuisine immaculate, ancient

And severe, but French fries most of all is what I fear that I will miss If I stay out in Paris just like this, talking and not entering the


The City of Paris

Je crois bien qu’il serait bon à manger Il a l’air d’en être, il est bien gras

Et il me plaît comme ça! Viens avec moi Je te ferai voir un bon restaurant

Où on va te manger—

Woody Woodpecker

J’ai peur qu’il veut dire moi!

The City of Paris

I translate what I say:

I think this bird is very good to eat

In France we eat the songbird not U.S. He’s little and he’s fat and looks quite nice Come with me, we go to the restaurant.

Woody Woodpecker

I’m not sure I should go with this here French city-slicker I think I will be the restaurant tonight for dinner

I think I’ll be the dinner in the restaurant And he’ll be the winner

The City of Paris

I am not a city-slicker, I’m the city

And haven’t had a chance to speak of how Beautiful I am, how ancient and

How wonderful, and lately how expensive

Woody Woodpecker

I do adore your cock that like the Eiffel Tower rises when My eyes look out on all the rooftops that I see about

I do adore each breast of yours that rises like the Sacré-Coeur I do adore the shoulders that you wear

They have an ancient Île-de-Francey air

The City of Paris

He cannot keep away from certain rhymes Although he should be speaking in blank verse. In truth he is only a bird

And birds aren’t very good at poetry But he is very good, I think, in song

Won’t you sing something, woodpecker, for me?

Woody Woodpecker [sings]

An imitative bird

Who must always rhyme the word It cannot open its mouth

Without proceeding south

Or north where it finds rhyme I’ll do it every time

It’s just an old habit I got from my father And I don’t know how to stop it in time

The City of Paris

Without Americans I would be nothing!


Ron Padgett’s How Long was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in poetry and his Collected Poems won the LA Times Prize for the best poetry book of 2014 and the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. In 2017 the Poetry Society awarded him its Frost Medal. His translations include Zone: Selected Poems of Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars’ Complete Poems. Padgett’s poems were used in Jim Jarmusch’s film, Paterson.

Originally appeared in NOR 11.

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