The Selected Poems of Ted Berrigan edited by Alice Notley, Anselm Berrigan and Edmund Berrigan
(University of California Press, Berkeley, 2011)
Born in Providence, RI in 1934, Berrigan was sent to but never saw action in Korea. This was a good thing as he remained alive unlike numerous others in a war zone while still entitling him to a GI bill education. Returning to the U.S., he was stationed in Tulsa obtaining his B.A. and almost his M.A. from the University of Tulsa. According to The Poetry Foundation, he returned the diploma for his masters degree together with a note stating “that he was ‘the master of no art’; he was, he would tell friends, a poet because he wrote poetry, not because he had mastered poetics. To say that one could "master" an art was to imply that it was a matter of learning lessons and following rules.” “Tracing his lineage as a writer to the American Expressionist tradition” established by Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, he “considered himself a ‘late beat’.” The Poetry Foundation defines American Expressionism as “grounding literary authority in the personality of the writer rather than, say, a political creed or traditional aesthetics.”, in other words, the Romantic tradition. In an interview with Anne Waldman, best known as one of the second generation New York School poets (a category which Berrigan would soon fall into as well), Berrigan stated:
one of my principal desires is to make my poems be like my life ... I can't see myself the way that you can see me, but I can see everything else around me. If I can make everything around me be the way that is, presumably I can create the shape of the self inside the poem, because there is a person inside almost all of the poems.
At the young age of 48, on July 4, 1983, Berrigan passed away after contracting hepatitis in 1975 resulting in a severely damaged liver all of which was probably as a result of his addiction to amphetamines and diet pills. His second wife, poet Alice Notley, wrote, "He was, in a way, always sick during [his last] years. The illness went untreated, because there was no treatment really; we couldn't afford doctors anyway, he didn't want to change his lifestyle that much, and he didn't want his illness named and charted by doctors." Almost thirty years later, someone has published a reasonable edition of his Selected Poems (there was another version published in 1994 which, interestingly, attributes the selection to Berrigan himself – talk about a ghost writer). We can now appreciate again his register jumps, his William Burroughs cut-up techniques, his Jackson Mac Low writing through techniques and all the other skills he came to employ.
When we’re talking Berrigan and the Beats, we’re talking about ‘String of Pearls’ which was written in the early sixties but not published until 1977 in Berrigan’s Nothing for You. You can see the influence of a Philip Whalen in this tribute to jazz saxophonist Lester Young in the way that the second stanza runs:
yes and it’s ridiculous to be sitting here
in New York City 28 years old wife sleeping and
Lester playing the wrong sound in 1936 in Kansas City (of
all places) sounding like Benny Goodman (of all people) but
a good sound, not a surprise, a voice, & where was Billie, he
hadn’t met her yet. I guess Gallop wasn’t born yet neither was
my wife Just me & that icebox I hadn’t read HORN by John
Clellon Holmes yet, either(12)
The laissez faire attitude towards punctuation, the option of ampersands, and the jamming together of ideas and images and syntax is a Beat trait that lends urgency to the piece (like John Coltrane’s sheets of sound that he perfected with Miles Davis in 1959).
‘Personal Poem #9’ may be the first exposure of the open fields concept. Sentences become fragmented and dart about the page as in this portion
It’s 8:54 a.m. Brooklyn it’s the 26th of July
and it’s probably 8:54 in Manhattan but I’m
in Brooklyn I’m eating English muffins and drinking
Pepsi and I’m thinking of how Brooklyn is New
York City too how odd I usually think of it
as something all its own like Bellows Falls like
Little Chute like Uijongbu(15)
Somewhat reminiscent of some of Creeley’s work and others of the Projectivist school, there’s a casualness about this that takes poetry down from the tower to the streets while still avoiding the popular camp. Although this poem was written prior to the publication of The Sonnets, it was included in it.
The Sonnets was published in 1964. It was Berrigan’s first poetry book. It succeeded in establishing him as an important poet. Most of the poems bear absolutely no relationship to the traditional sonnet – little, if any, rhyme; forget about finding iambic pentameter in these free verse lines; fourteen lines is just an approximation. The following is the final sestet from sonnet II:
watching the sun come up over the Navy Yard
to write scotch-tape body in a notebook
had 17 and ½ milligrams
Dear Margie, hello. It is 5:15 a.m.
fucked til 7 now she’s late to work and I’m
18 so why are my hands shaking I should know better(18)
But Berrigan can write beautiful soulful lines as well. ‘Sonnet XXXVII begins with two that remind one of Rimbaud’s narcotic-induced nights: “It is night. You are asleep. And beautiful tears / Have blossomed in my eyes. Guillaume Apollinaire is dead.” Or there are these from XLVI which demonstrate a profound poetic sensibility:
Of polytonic breezes gathering in the gathering winds
Of a plush palace shimmering velvet red
In the trembling afternoon
A dark trance
The cherrywood romances of rainy cobblestones(26)
Note the play of ‘c’s and ‘r’s in the last two lines. The line ‘a dark trance’ itself demonstrates the degree of poetic knowledge Berrigan possessed. This bacchic foot, a rarely used device, fits in well with the celebratory theme. Because of the lack of familiarity most readers would have with this metrical unit, Berrigan ensures its visibility/sonority by placing it on its own line.
Sonnets is Berrigan’s high mark. Although his open field writing style is an important contribution, it is too difficult to replicate on the reviewer’s page. It is after this stage that Berrigan’s addictions began to take the better of him. Far too much of his later material sounds like masturbation. It is difficult not to consider him a fashion follower. Of the two schools to which he pledged allegiance – the Beat and the New York, he is second-rate. He would never achieve an Ashbery or a Ginsberg.
John Herbert Cunningham is a freelance creative writing living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He is engaged in reviewing Winnipeg cultural activities and novels for The Winnipeg Review. He reviews poetry and poetics books for several literary magazines both in Canada and the U.S. He is currently completing a poetry manuscript as well as writing plays, a novel and a short story. He is the host of Speaking of Poets Sunday afternoons on CKUW 95.9 FM, Canada’s only radio show dedicated to poetry.