Ted Berrigan

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Here's a review I wrote of Berrigan's "Selected Poems" years ago, along with a preface/memoir added later.
                                                Ted Berrigan
I met Ted Berrigan in the fall of 1974. He was teaching in Chicago at the time, and I had just moved there to attend graduate school in art history. Berrigan was giving a reading at The Body Politic, an important venue of the local poetry scene. Berrigan had been the poet who had hit me the hardest in Paul Carroll’s anthology The Young American Poets when I was still an undergraduate in Texas. To get the chance to hear him read was something I had never imagined would happen, and driving up, I was excited.
After it was over, I hooked up with Simon Schuchat and Steve Levine, young poets who had told me about the reading. They knew Berrigan and were going to have a drink with him at a bar next door. I tagged along, still star-struck. Berrigan was holding court at a big round table. That makes him seem like King Arthur, but he was king of the scene, a hero to the younger poets, and he knew it. Alice Notley, his wife, was there with some others. Simon and Steve brought me before the great man, and in a moment of arrogant shyness, I simply said, “Upshaw” and shook his hand. He was amused. Turning to introduce me and some others to his wife, he said something like, “Alice, this is John Doe and Richard Roe. And this is Mr. Upshaw.”
My wife remembers me coming home depressed after the reading. I can’t remember why – was it simply that I found Berrigan a human being, flawed like everyone else, or was it that I suspected I’d never be hip enough to move in his circle? At any rate, I didn’t meet him again before he moved to New York a couple of years later.
After I moved to New York, my wife and I had supper with him and his family at the loft of a mutual friend. I can remember almost nothing about the event. He was moving inward; this was a year or so before his death, and the ebullience that is evident in his early poems was gone. Or perhaps we were simply never destined to connect. His poetry still has the power to move me, though. Freed from his body, Ted’s personality floats over his poems like a Platonic version of his ideal self: intelligent, humane, open to everything, generous, humorous in a wise-guy sort of way.
In the late 1960’s, Paul Carroll’s anthology The Young American Poets was an exhilarating introduction to the poets of the new generation. Perhaps the most striking work in the book was “Tambourine Life” by Ted Berrigan, which, from its cheeky beginning, “FUCK COMMUNISM,” swept on for 27 dizzying pages, now diaristic, now making literary allusions we had to look up, now funny, sometimes not immediately intelligible, but always entertaining.
His reputation has wavered in the years since his death at age 48. Norton, which had published his poetry in a 1973 anthology, dropped it in revised editions after his death. He is still spoken of fondly by the crowd around the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church on the Lower East Side of New York, where he lived, but I get little sense of a national interest.
Some of this was probably inevitable. Berrigan, though ambitious, understood that he would not be a mainstream star. In her introduction to his Selected Poems, Berrigan’s widow, the poet Alice Notley, speaks of his perception that “you would not get certain kinds of recognition in your lifetime if you had gone to Something State rather than Harvard; or if you hadn’t involved yourself in one of what he called ‘the serious jack-off scenes’.”
Berrigan’s Selected Poems makes a bid to change this state of affairs and will serve as an excellent introduction to the poet’s work. Aram Saroyan has chosen well from all periods of Berrigan’s career. My only quibble is that he did not include enough of the early “Personal Poems,” perhaps feeling that they are too reminiscent of the “I-do-this-I-do-that” poems of Frank O’Hara, an important influence on the young Berrigan.
O’Hara and Berrigan were both Irish Catholics from provincial New England towns, but O’Hara was from an upper-middle-class family and had attended a first-rate prep school and Harvard. Berrigan was from a working-class family and was attending the University of Tulsa on the G.I. Bill when he first read O’Hara’s poems. O’Hara’s upper-crust education gave him a familiarity with French and, by extension, with European modernism. Berrigan’s French was, by his own admission, not very good; when he tries to sparkle lyrically in O’Hara’s campy Frenchified manner, the results always seem a little flat-footed. There’s a meat-and-potatoes solidity to Berrigan’s early works that comes from his working-class roots.
In the concluding lines of “Words for Love,” written early in his career, Berrigan modifies some lines from a John Wieners poem in answer to that poet:
                                                . . . My poems do contain
wilde beestes. I write for my Lady
of the Lake. My god is immense, and lonely
but uncowed. I trust my sanity and I am proud. If
I sometimes grow weary, and seem still. nevertheless
my heart still loves, will break.
These lines show three important characteristics of Berrigan’s poetry. First are the literary allusions and the rewriting of others’ work (in this case, both Wieners and W.E. Henley). However provincial his formal schooling may have been, Berrigan put himself through an intensive poetic apprenticeship, studying everyone from Shakespeare to Richard Wilbur. Second, there’s a surprising amount of rhyme in his work, though it’s generally hidden internally. Last, there’s a sentimental streak of which Berrigan was unashamed.
Berrigan had moved to New York in 1960, where he settled into a bohemian, amphetamine-charged lifestyle. He became intrigued with the sonnet, a form considered passé, and wrote several somewhat conventional ones but found them stiff. In a 1971 interview with Barry Alpert, Berrigan described how he found a way out of his dilemma:
I seemed to be coming close, yet I had a brick wall all around me. I was
reading John Cage and Marcel Duchamp, and I was familiar with William
Burroughs, but it occurred to me to go back through them and take out lines
by a sort of automatic process and just be the typist. I had the poems right
next to me, and I decided to take one line from each page until I had six
lines. Then go back through backwards and take one more line from each
page until I had six more. That was twelve. By then I could see what the \
final couplet would be.
Thus was born The Sonnets, which many people consider to be Berrigan’s finest achievement. About half the original sequence is included in Selected Poems. Berrigan cannibalized his old poems and lifted lines far and wide from poets he admired, altering the lines to fit his needs. Sometimes the process is fairly mechanical, as in “Sonnet XV,” where he takes one of his personal poems and simply reorders the lines thus: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 14, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2. At other times, the selection is made in a seemingly random fashion.
It sounds easy, like something that could be done by anyone with a pair of scissors, so what makes The Sonnets special? The answer is in the raw materials from which the poems were constructed. “Constructed” is the appropriate word here, for Berrigan later described the process of using words as if he were laying bricks one row at a time. (Someone will doubtless do a study someday on poems written on an old manual typewriter, the kind where you really have to punch the keys down hard, versus poems written on a computer, with its ease in typing.)
The building blocks in Berrigan’s sonnets have a real musicality, the result of an ear that seldom makes a mistake. To this ear must be added Berrigan’s omnivorous reading. We find quotes or ideas from thinkers as different as Alfred North Whitehead and Ezra Pound. There are homages, pastiches, and a hilarious parody of Edwin Arlington Robinson, all of these becoming objects in the Glasperlenspiel that Berrigan plays. And for all the flights of abstraction, there’s a precise eye for detail: the unwashed bedding and bad teeth of bohemia or the beauty of a “cold, rosy dawn in New York City.”
The poems still hold up, forty years later. The juxtaposition of unrelated lines can tease us and reveal unexpected meanings, yet I suspect that the sonnets that will be most remembered are those is which each succeeding line is in some sense a logical continuation of the one before. Here is “Sonnet XXXVII”:
It is night. You are asleep. And beautiful tears
Have blossomed in my eyes. Guillaume Apollinaire is dead.
The big green day today is singing to itself
A vast orange library of dreams, dreams
Dressed in newspaper, wan as pale thighs
Making vast apple strides toward “The Poems.”
“The Poems” is not a dream. It is night. You
Are asleep. Vast orange libraries of dreams
Stir inside “The Poems.” On the dirt-covered ground
Crystal tears drench the ground. Vast orange dreams
Are unclenched. It is night. Songs have blossomed
In the pale crystal library of tears. You
Are asleep. A lovely light is singing to itself,
In “The Poems,” in my eyes, in the line, Guillaume Apollinaire is dead.
Berrigan once said, “My favorite poems are full of repetition – ‘Annabel Lee’ and poems like that.” In poems like the one just quoted, Berrigan uses the device masterfully. The thrice-repeated “You are asleep” establishes a state as dreamlike as Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (indeed, the words “dream” or “dreams” are repeated five times in seven lines). Floating in the somnolent atmosphere, the repetitions and recombinations become like lyrical change-ringing. And like the “Homage to the Square” paintings of Josef Albers, where the same color can appear vastly different depending on the colors with which it is juxtaposed, the repeated phrases reveal subtle or great shifts in their meaning as the context changes.
If The Sonnets represent what Lewis MacAdams has called Berrigan’s “wrestling his homage to his masters into his own statement,” then “Tambourine Life,” written in late 1964 and early 1965, shows the poet in the full flush of freedom. He began the work by writing his lines with conventional straight left-hand margins. After about 15 pages, however, Berrigan saw that he was really writing open poetry and went back to retype it in its current form, which sprawls all over the page from margin to margin and is divided into 70 not-quite-autonomous segments. An example:
                        Hello Lee                    Mr. Lee Crabtree
                                                                        of The Fugs
                                    just came in.
is what we make
out of our quarrels
with others.
                                                            out of
                                                            ours quarrels with ourselves
                                                            we make poetry
                        Yes, that is true,
In quick succession, we have a visit from a friend who was a member of a noted underground rock group and a quote from Yeats, if I remember correctly.
“Tambourine Life” has flashes of Berrigan’s daily doings, snatches of the Top 40 songs of the day, candidates from local elections, parodies of James Bond movies, quotes from everyone from famous writers to anonymous graffiti scrawlers – everything, including the kitchen sink. The poem is a triumph. Berrigan domesticated the anarchic and subversive humor of French Dada in a way that the first generation of the New York School was never able to do.
The 1960’s were Berrigan’s miracle decade. By the Seventies, the years of substance abuse, poor diet, and poverty had taken their toll. The poems turned darker as hepatitis became cirrhosis of the liver. Death, always a subject with which Berrigan flirted, began to occupy an ever-larger place in his work. Selected Poems contains the best of the thanatopses: “People Who Died,” “In the 51st State,” “Paul Blackburn,” and “Last Poem.”
Even in illness, however, Berrigan could celebrate life and honor his calling as a poet. In “Whitman in Black,” a poems written after he had moved back to New York following his teaching stint in Chicago, Berrigan returned to the sonnet form, tipped his hat to two of the most famous writers to live in the city, and summed up why so many writers struggle to go on living in that insane place:
For my sins I live in the city of New York
Whitman’s city lived in Melville’s sense, urban inferno
Where love can stay for only a minute
Then has to go, to get some work done
Here the detective and the small-time criminal are one
& tho the cases get solved the machine continues to run
Big Town will wear you down
But it’s only here you can turn around 360 degrees
And everything is clear from here at the center
To every point along the circle of horizon
Here you can see for miles & miles & miles
Be born again daily, die nightly for a change of style
Hear clearly here; see with affection; bleakly cultivate compassion
Whitman’s walk unchanged after its fashion.
Selected Poems makes a solid case for putting Ted Berrigan among the American poets of the latter half of the 20th century whose work will survive.