Ted Greenwald’s work has always been rooted in speech, street language, word of mouth. He has been associated with the Language school almost since its inception, though — in distinction to many leading figures of that movement — he has not produced a body of critical writing that blueprints his concerns and esthetics. With Greenwald, work does not exemplify theory, which is implicit.
Greenwald often conjoins street talk and technical innovation. Jumping the Line consists of more than a thousand tercets of very short lines, ten to a page, organized around a prescribed pattern of line repetitions — e.g., the use of the last two lines of each fourth stanza as the first two lines of the fifth, and of the last line of the fifth as the first line of the sixth tercet: ‘Double lines / Make sure / You know. . .’ This repetition gives every page a spin right in the middle, like a vinyl recording. In fact, the line jumping and repetition suggests the blues as a structural model. Greenwald’s style is spare, minimal, so that each three-line block is a window behind which seems to be a roomful of words of which the tercet itself is synecdotal. The syllogistic appearance of the stanzas ironically stresses the illogic, the asyntactical nature of the work. If music is a model in Jumping the Line, there is more percussion than melody in the rhythm of these stanzas, which tend to be imperative, admonitory, clipped, with accents coming at you in jabs and hooks: ‘Keep simple / And direct complications / With surety. . .’ The poem does engage itself in all manner of discourse, from humor to emotion:
It’s not such
A good idea
To speak your mind
If I do
If I don’t
See you when
You get back
No ideas but in things becomes no things in your ideas:
The object of
Your every word
Ted Greenwald knows what real American talk sounds like, understands the rhythm and pulse of the language, and knows how to write poems that are built around that knowledge. He is one of America’s most ambitious and provocative poets. Jumping the Line, which I read as one continuous poem, is a contemporary epic of the word on the street.
Also from Roof Books comes Rod Smith’s Protective Immediacy, which signals, along with a number of other works, a transition from hard-wired Language writing to a new, post-Language poetics — a peaceable kingdom in which reference, syntax, and ‘meaning’ lie down alongside more autotelic, deconstructive impulses. Smith is at heart a satirist with a keen eye and ear for political and societal reality, not surprising in a Washington, DC, writer. There is a sense of collapse in this book, especially with regard to a social idiom dominated by government bureaucracy and the language thereof. Poems are strewn — often humorously — with the bits and pieces of failed civilization:
truth serum tastes
just like chicken with
by the way,
radical theory will always
be quickly institutionalized,
and real experience cannot but
pass into spectacle.
There is room for regret, but
not for analysis.
Please write your representative about
Smith’s work is in distinct opposition to orthodoxy, a sign that Language-based writing has begun to take itself less seriously:
. . . But I
don’t know what happened
to what happened. We lock
our keys in our surrealism.
Rod Smith is also the force behind Aerial magazine and Edge Books, publisher of Anselm Berrigan’s first major collection, Integrity & Dramatic Life.
It remains a mystery why Ted Berrigan’s work is not better known outside New York and a few other places, like Boulder. He was a stunningly gifted poet whose formal innovations, sense of humor, spiritual generosity, and emotional intelligence combined to form a body of work whose importance and influence will extend far into the future. His death at age 48 in 1983 removed a major voice from American poetry.
There is something almost spooky in the way that Anselm Berrigan evokes the spirit of his father, Ted Berrigan. That he does this without superficially imitating his father and while establishing his own identity is his real accomplishment in this book. From the opening poem here, which boldly echoes perhaps the most brilliant of Ted Berrigan’s sonnets (#XXXVII), Berrigan establishes the integrity and dramatic life that inhabits almost all of the work in this book. This first of many direct and oblique connections between the two poets takes considerable ballsyness on the younger Berrigan’s part, but it all pays off in the end. He wisely recognizes the risks and rewards of his parentage (his mother is Alice Notley), and makes the most of it.
These poems reveal a confident articulateness and technical dexterity throughout:
Whosoever shall encounter him by chance shall read to him
this poem. Who gives a damn about the bathroom door
rotting off its hinges & who gives a damn about a toehold
on a crowded ladder. Francois does not pity my delusions
nor those of the monks & black-winged demons painted
in gold & tempera onto the panels of my face.
‘. . .The poems / might leave us, but we won’t leave them,’ he writes, and his readers will want to hold him to that promise.