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August Provocation: How to Be Perfect

By Gillian Kessler:


It’s a word that makes my stomach turn a bit. It seems like such a ridiculous notion to someone as haphazard and breezy as I tend to be, yet it’s always somehow back there gnawing away.

How can I do all the things that will make me my strongest, most creative, most vibrant self today? How can I inspire my children, my students, to be their very best selves?

I wake up with a list of things I want to do each day to be better: begin with a steady yoga practice, write for thirty minutes, ride the ten-mile loop on my mountain bike, finish a book of poems, put stamps on the gratitude notes I wrote weeks ago and get them to their deserving recipients, make something with kale and chickpeas for my family to eat. The list is exhausting and endless and, quite frankly, mildly ridiculous. I will never meet all those standards. But, alas, they will always be there.

Ron Padgett’s poem “How to Be Perfect” is accessible, ironic, and the perfect portal toward a form that works when examining our need to, however ironically, be perfect.

After you’ve read the poem, begin with some concrete ideas of how you achieve “perfection” in your own life. From there, draft your own “How to Be Perfect” poem. Play with specifics and generalizations the way that he does. Also, try to throw in a line that’s surprising. He has a few lines that feel abrupt and quite disturbing; what do you want to add to your list that might be somewhat controversial? What keeps you up at night? Include those things as well—the creepy darks with all of the hopeful lights.

While it doesn’t have to match his in length, twelve to fifteen lines will help give it the substance it needs to work. Don’t think about it too much. Read his poem and then set your timer for fifteen minutes and bust out your own. As always, revise later. Often the raw juice brings forth the richest broth (or something like that!). It could almost be nothing more than a list you keep above your desk reminding you of lofty aspirations while also making you chuckle at, well, how imperfect we all are.


How to Be Perfect

By Ron Padgett

"Everything is perfect, dear friend."


Get some sleep.

Don't give advice.

Take care of your teeth and gums.

Don't be afraid of anything beyond your control. Don't be afraid, for instance, that the building will collapse as you sleep, or that someone

you love will suddenly drop dead.

Eat an orange every morning.

Be friendly. It will help make you happy.

Raise your pulse rate to 120 beats per minute for 20 straight minutes

four or five times a week doing anything you enjoy.

Hope for everything. Expect nothing.

Take care of things close to home first. Straighten up your room

before you save the world. Then save the world.

Know that the desire to be perfect is probably the veiled expression

of another desire—to be loved, perhaps, or not to die.

Make eye contact with a tree.

Be skeptical about all opinions, but try to see some value in each of


Dress in a way that pleases both you and those around you.

Do not speak quickly.

Learn something every day. (Dzien dobre!)

Be nice to people before they have a chance to behave badly.

Don't stay angry about anything for more than a week, but don't

forget what made you angry. Hold your anger out at arm's length

and look at it, as if it were a glass ball. Then add it to your glass ball


Be loyal.

Wear comfortable shoes.

Design your activities so that they show a pleasing balance

and variety.

Be kind to old people, even when they are obnoxious. When you

become old, be kind to young people. Do not throw your cane at

them when they call you Grandpa. They are your grandchildren!

Live with an animal.

Do not spend too much time with large groups of people.

If you need help, ask for it.

Cultivate good posture until it becomes natural.

If someone murders your child, get a shotgun and blow his head off.

Plan your day so you never have to rush.

Show your appreciation to people who do things for you, even if you

have paid them, even if they do favors you don't want.

Do not waste money you could be giving to those who need it.

Expect society to be defective. Then weep when you find that it is far

more defective than you imagined.

When you borrow something, return it in an even better condition.

As much as possible, use wooden objects instead of plastic or metal


Look at that bird over there.

After dinner, wash the dishes.

Calm down.

Visit foreign countries, except those whose inhabitants have

expressed a desire to kill you.

Don't expect your children to love you, so they can, if they want to.

Meditate on the spiritual. Then go a little further, if you feel like it.

What is out (in) there?

Sing, every once in a while.

Be on time, but if you are late do not give a detailed and lengthy


Don't be too self-critical or too self-congratulatory.

Don't think that progress exists. It doesn't.

Walk upstairs.

Do not practice cannibalism.

Imagine what you would like to see happen, and then don't do

anything to make it impossible.

Take your phone off the hook at least twice a week.

Keep your windows clean.

Extirpate all traces of personal ambitiousness.

Don't use the word extirpate too often.