Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan

I've been scouring used bookstores for years to find poetry collections of the late second generation New York school poet Ted Berrigan (1934-1983), with very little luck; two years ago, the only thing I was able to find was a new edition of his collection The Sonnets (New York NY: Penguin, 2000), in the Book City on Bloor Street in Toronto. Thanks to University of California Press, there probably aren't any poetry collections by Berrigan I'll ever need again, with the publication of The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan (Berkeley CA: The University of California Press, 2005), edited by his widow, the poet Alice Notley, and their two children (also poets), Anselm Berrigan and Edmund Berrigan. Looking as well, over the years, for pieces on Berrigan and his contemporaries have been something difficult (apart from Ron Padgett's magnificent Ted, A Personal Memoir of Ted Berrigan, published by The Figures in 1993), as Notley writes about in the preface to her recent book of essays, Coming After, Essays on Poetry (Ann Arbor MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2005), writing:

Second-generation New York School figures, and certain poets connected to them through friendship, interests, publication outlets, were neglected, partly because they tended to disdain criticism as a form, thereby not creating a way of talking about their work (as others were doing); partly because they could seem anti-intellectual (as if a poet weren't by definition an intellectual); partly because their work was often humorous, ergo seemed "light"; partly because they tended to practice unsanctioned lifestyles; sometimes simply because they were humble or distracted, "non-careerist," which is not the same as not professional. (p v)

Listed in this Collected as part of Berrigan's chronology are two collections on his work that I have yet to find copies of, Talking in Tranquility: Interviews with Ted Berrigan (edited by Stephen Ratcliffe and Leslie Scalapino, published by Avenue B and O Books in 1991), and On the Level Everyday: Selected Talks on Poetry and the Art of Living (edited by Joel Lewis, published by Talisman House, Publishers in 1997). [If anyone can find copies, remember that my birthday is coming up…] From what little I understand of the original New York School of the 1950s, it included the poets Frank O'Hara (a big influence on Canadian poets David W. McFadden and Ken Norris) and John Ashbery (who I know was a big influence on Edmonton-born Michael Londry), writing a kind of plainer speech of what was happening to them, and around them. As in O'Hara, certainly, the "I did this, I did that" kind of poem that was central to his collection Lunch Poems (San Francisco CA: City Lights). The second generation would include poets such as Berrigan, Notley, Kenward Elmslie, Kenneth Koch and Ron Padgett, with the suggestion I've heard of a third generation that includes Anselm Berrigan and Brian Kim Stefans (although I admit I might just have no idea what the hell I'm talking about). A beautiful hardcover and massive edition at seven hundred and fifty pages, The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan works through a massive amount of material for a poet not only known as one who made things happen for other poets around him, but also for getting into lots of trouble (some of the later pieces reference small battles that often became larger). Part of the process of collecting such works in a linear fashion, as Notley writes in her introduction, was problematic, as Berrigan didn't produce book-length works separately, but often simultaneously, as she writes:

I heard Ted say more than once that his collected poems should be like a collected books. But he didn't always work in sequences, and he wasn't always consciously in the process of writing a book. He wrote many individual poems, and he sometimes seemed to write purely for fun. As for publication, publishers would approach him for a book without knowing exactly what he had, and sometimes it didn't seem to him as if he had that much. If there was a sequence ready, or a book in a unified style like Many Happy Returns, certainly he published that. If he had a stack of dissimilar works or if he didn't even know what he had, he still set about the process of constructing a "book." He loved to make things out of pieces, often ones that didn't fit together conventionally. A book was like a larger poem that could be as much "made" out of what was at hand, as "written" in a continuous way out of a driving idea.

This volume is an attempt to be a collected books, but it can't be that precisely and so isn't called The Collected Books. Though Ted wrote sequences and constructed books, he didn't produce a linear succession of discrete, tidy volumes. He perceived time as overlapping and circular; the past was always alive and relevant, and a particular poem might be as repeatable as an individual line or phrase was for him from the time of the composition of The Sonnets onward. How were we, the editors, to deal with repetitions of poems from book to book? Most especially, what were we to do about the book-length sequence Easter Monday? (p 1)

His collection The Sonnets, for example, was an influential collection of pieces made up of, often, failed poems he had written years earlier, as well as lines and phrases borrowed from other poets, many of which were in his circle of friends, creating poems cut up to resonate into a sharper image of fourteen line pieces (and one of the reasons why it becomes even more common to see bad sonnets; why can't poets learn from experiments like these?).


In Joe Brainard's collage its white arrow
He is not in it, the hungry dead doctor.
Of Marilyn Monroe, her white teeth white-
I am truly horribly upset because Marilyn
and ate King Korn popcorn," he wrote in his
of glass in Joe Brainard's collage
Doctor, but they say "I LOVE YOU"
and the sonnet is not dead.
takes the eyes away from the gray words,
Diary. The black heart beside the fifteen pieces
Monroe died, so I went to a matinee B-movie
washed by Joe's throbbing hands. "Today
What is in it is sixteen ripped pictures
does not point to William Carlos Williams. (p 37)

Berrigan was said to have read enormously of everyone, taking influence wherever he could find it, as Ron Padgett writes in his memoir:

Everyone who knew Ted knew that he read enormously, all kinds of books. When I first met him I thought it was attractive, but after ten or fifteen years the thought occurred to me that it might be compulsive.

"I can't be not in the process of reading some book," he once told me.

He read the way he smoked: chain.

He had started going to the library with his mother when he was little. He told me he was one of those kids who checks out ten books every Saturday and reads them all. The reason for this might be obvious: he liked to read. And maybe there was a sort of comfort in the routine of reading, of knowing you have another book waiting for you, another world waiting for you to climb into, where you'll be safe. I think the act of reading meant more to him than what he read, though of course his reading was not accidental or gratuitous. Look at some of his book lists, with titles such as "The Ten Best Books of 1965," and you'll see that 1) he always listed more than ten, and 2) the lists function like a diary entry, telling us what was going through his mind at the time. (p 35, Ron Padgett, Ted, A Personal Memoir of Ted Berrigan)

What I like about this selection/collection is that it not only includes published books, but a selection of poems that didn’t appear in collections, left floating either in journals or in unpublished manuscripts. Part of Berrigan's strength comes from the quick and deceptively simple poem, some of which read as though written in a short burst, as in the poems from the collection Red Wagon (1975):


If I don't love you I
Won't let it show. But I'll
Make it clear, by
Never letting you know.

& if I love you, I will
Love you true: insofar
As Love, itself,
Will do.

& while I live, I'll be
Whatever I am, whose
Constant, impure, fire
Is outwardly only a man. (p 385, from the collection Red Wagon)

I wonder if the lack of critical material on Berrigan was the reason for Notley focusing very clearly on the poems in her introduction on the poems and not as much on the poet (or at least, less than I would have expected, for someone who knew him so intimately). What is interesting is how intimately she writes about the poems, and how personally, as well as critically, as an exploration of material that she has known deeply for many years. As for Berrigan's ear and quick composition, Notley writes:

Ted Berrigan's poems are very deliberate. They have a graven quality as if they were drawn on the page, word by word. He often wrote in unlined notebooks with a black felt-tip pen, and one might also say they have a black-felt-tip-pen-quality. You feel that no words have been crossed out and replaced.

I'm impressed by this graven-ness in The Sonnets and Many Happy Returns, in Easter Monday, but then, too, in most of the later work. It doesn't go away if the feeling in the poem is more autobiographical or intimate, as in A Certain Slant of Sunlight. The latter poems read as if written with the black felt-tip pen, on the postcard. They have a primary physical reality.

Two more things from this: first, a continuous interaction with art and artists gave Ted an active visual and tactile sense. He is often painting, or collaging, or drawing his way through a poem. On the other hand, he agreed with Jack Spicer's notion of the other voice that dictates one's poems, and his poems have a "dictated" quality, even the ones that are made from other people's words. These two notions aren't incompatible. "Dictation" suggests aurality rather than plastic qualities, but there isn't any reason why all the senses shouldn't be working, and Ted had a very fine ear: "Their lives are as fragile as The Glass Menagerie." Listen. (p 15-6)

Given its size and range, The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan is certainly a book that I'll be dipping into for months to come; who can read seven hundred and fifty pages of poems in one sitting?


The Nature of the Commonwealth
the whole body of the People
flexed her toes and
breathed in pine.

I'm the one that's so
radical, 'cause all I do is pine. Oh I just
can't think of anything —
No politics. No music. Nobody. Nothing but sweet

Romance. Per se. De gustibus non disputandum est.
Flutters eyelashes. Francis, my house is falling down.
Repair it. Merry Christmas. (p 616, from the collection A Certain Slant of Sunlight)

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