This piece is about 15 printed pages long.
Anderson: One of the, shall we say, more ironic ways I’ve made a buck in recent years was writing entries for an encyclopedia of NY School writers. One of my entries was on not Anselm but Edmund Berrigan, who said to me at one point, though it hardly came as a surprise, “my first and most important teachers were my parents.” In thinking about Some Notes on My Programming (and Anselm’s work in general) I can immediately see Ted Berrigan, and not just in lines like “if Dad let himself die” (“Documentary boogie wooger”) or “I was prepared for Ted’s death” (“To K”). He’s in the motifs, the mess, the “constructed” quality of the text, and sometimes the “air” the text employs, e.g.,
To Alison and Greg
In a Big Country standing still
and walking in New York
I knew I could be sure to reach you
come in, sit down, share
this wobbling surface; get fed
This is all a roundabout way of getting at what I’ve really been thinking about: if Ted Berrigan’s presence is more obvious in the text, where’s Alice Notley – especially the more recent (last 10-15 years) Notley? I have my own thoughts on this, but I’d like to hear yours...
Gordon: Before addressing the question of influence, I do want to stress one thing: I think both of the Berrigan brothers have gotten short shrift when it comes to engaged critical attention. It seems that the discussion is consistently shadowed by the presence of their parents. For example, there is short review by Terence Winch of Anselm Berrigan’s Integrity and Dramatic Life, his first book, in an old issue of Jacket, number 19. The review is more concerned with how the presence of Ted Berrigan haunts the book than with the poems themselves. It just felt unfair to me, so much so that when I set out to write a review of Zero Star Hotel for The Poker, I purposely refused to mention Ted Berrigan or Alice Notley; instead, I used Philip Whalen as an entry point, I suppose, with the intention of widening the discussion as far as the scope of influence. Interesting that it’s an unavoidable question, or, at least, a question poets always seem to be posing. Maybe it has something to do with our discussions being perpetually aimed at one another, as if the ghost of Dante really cared to know what we had for breakfast. Which brings me to the excerpt from “To Alison and Greg”.
Even in those few lines we’re already in hyper-quotation and filtration mode: “In a Big Country” is a song title by the band Big Country; “standing still/ and walking in New York” comes from Frank O’Hara’s poem “Ode on Causality” and was the title for a selection of his notes and essays edited by Donald Allen; “I knew I could be sure to reach you” echoes the first line of O’Hara’s “To The Harbormaster”, which reads: “I wanted to be sure to reach you.” As far as the “come in, sit down” bit, well, I’m not astute enough to know of its origin but it’s a hyper-familiar greeting if ever there were one.
I suppose this is all to say that I read the excerpt as the collective cultural noise we poets take in, rework, and broadcast. Sure, it’s static near the Ted Berrigan bandwidth, but I think it’s much more than that. As far as your question about the influence of the more recent work of Alice Notley on this new book, well, I don’t think it’s there, at least not visibly. I don’t mean to make any assumptions about their relationship as mother and son, but, as an avid reader and re-reader of both poets, I think their poetry is currently in quite different territory. I think that Anselm Berrgian has a set of generational influences that wouldn’t really alter Notley’s work all that much, whether or not she follows such writers.
So, what are your thoughts? And, perhaps more importantly, do you think it’s an issue that colors one’s engagement with Some Notes on My Programming? Wow, just now typing in the name of that title sure sends up some deafening bells and whistles as far as such a question!
Anderson: I, too, am wary (weary) of over-determining one writer’s works in terms of another’s (even Radi os, I’ve argued, should be read first and foremost as Ronald Johnson’s poem), but that’s precisely my point regarding the Berrigans: while Ted Berrigan is writ-too-large, I agree, over critical considerations of Anselm Berrigan, Alice Notley is largely absent from that conversation. (I’m reminded that in the most recent Poets & Writers the editorial staff chose to put a little-known novelist on the cover rather than Notley, about whom the issue contained a feature.)
What I couldn’t get out of my mind while reading Some Notes on My Programming (the title of which, one must admit, begs the question of influence—parental or otherwise) was how well the longer poems function. I’m thinking specifically of “Trained Meat,” but some others—“Postcard to Brett Evans,” say—would fit in this category for me as well. This is, no doubt, an extension of a feeling I had reading Zero Star Hotel, the long title poem of which struck me then as the book’s, well, signature piece. Berrigan shines in longer poems in a way Ted Berrigan (whose hallmark form was undoubtedly short) never did, but Notley does consistently (though I admire Ted Berrigan’s “Tambourine Life,” I am hesitant to call it a “long poem” in the same vein as Descent of Alette). I’d love to see him publish a book-length poem.
It’s not that the short poems don’t work in interesting ways, but that “Trained Meat,” for example, gives Berrigan the space in which to explore, as you rightly say, our contemporary “static” while allowing (in what is perhaps a semi-ironic statement) more in-depth consideration of the limits of that “static”: “constant war staff/ cracked on wisdom/ of the spliced instant/ generates little poetry.” Though Berrigan is that “poly-vocal receiver/ of language set forth/ wielding an opinion/ without license or credit,” he produces “value chains making/ intangible structures/ music: strategic.” In the longer poems, these “intangible structures” are given full rein and room in which to breathe. Perhaps it’s enough to say that, if the “programming” of the title also works in the sense of TV or radio programming, the longer poems provide us with a larger cross-section of what’s playing culturally and mentally: they’re the whole flipping-through of what’s on “as self-inventing broadcast.” But maybe you’d like to weigh in on the virtues of Berrigan’s short poems? Embellish or rebut my statements on the long poems?
Gordon: Well, it’s an argument somewhat outside of the scope of Anselm Berrigan’s book, but I don’t agree with your contention that Ted Berrigan’s hallmark form is the short poem. Two words: The Sonnets. Okay, maybe it’s the short poem within a sequence—the serial poem. Isn’t the title work from Zero Star Hotel itself a collection of interlocking, and sometimes unhinged, short poems? I think there is a purposeful architecture to Some Notes on My Programming, one that plays the integrity of the individual, discrete unit against that of its place within the unity of the book. If you’re designing a city block with several large buildings, there’s going to have to be a fountain or two, some small trees, maybe several small buildings nestled between the main structures. Otherwise there’s no sense of scale; the visual field isn’t as activated as it could be.
Simply looking through Some Notes, it’s pretty clear that Berrigan is extremely attentive to the shape of the poem—its visual form, which varies from poem to poem, thus highlighting if not its importance then its presence. This is true as well for the length of the poems. After the nine pager “Trained Meat,” we get the two three-line stanzas followed by the single final line that make up the entirety of “Quiet rectangles sock the room into boredom,” giving this much smaller poem an altered feel:
That’s poetry in its pristine pucker slop
germ warfare update: it’s a comin’
to breed in your life
washed up faces in defense
of no love sic themselves
on marble breasts and the brain dead
I don’t want my brother to get a job ever
This sort of thing can’t really happen with the book-length work, at least not in the same way. And I do very much think it adds to the reading experience.
I might even be inclined to argue that by virtue of such intentional arrangement, Some Notes on My Programming is simultaneously a collection of individual poems and a book-length work. One might, of course, say the same for most collections assembled with any sort of know-how, but Berrigan wonderfully works the juxtaposition to highlight discordant elements, counterbalances, the feel of a strict melody run through a fuzz box. In an interview posted on the Chicago Postmodern Poetry website, he mentions his interest in, “to figure out how to write poems that would work the way [he] imagined Sonic Youth’s songs to work—having the basic frame of a pop song and then gutting it with distortion and noise.” With Some Notes we get an entire album. I suppose whether or not it’s a conceptual album is up for debate.
Anderson: Fair enough, but a serial poem and a long poem aren’t the same thing, exactly. It seems to me one works through accumulation, through theme and variation (e.g., The Sonnets), the other through—since you mentioned it—architecture, through thrust (e.g., The Descent of Alette). It’s maybe the difference between a meteor shower and a comet. Regardless, both are long forms, and, to be sure, a poem like “Zero Star Hotel,” perhaps more than The Sonnets, plays with their overlap (though I’d still place it, if pressed, in “the long poem” category). But, yes, a debate for another place.
I would like to take up this matter of Some Notes as an “album,” however, since it ties in nicely with my sense of the long poems. I think, actually, if the book has a weakness, it’s not on the level of individual poems but when taken as a whole. I like your idea that the juxtaposition of individual poems “highlight[s] discordant elements, counterbalances, the feel of a strict melody run through a fuzz box,” but it could read the other way: the feel of a strict melody run through a fuzz box, counterbalances, discordant elements highlight the juxtaposition of the individual poems. That is, rather than adding up to a uniform “album,” the book’s arrangement reinforces the individuality of its constituent parts. But perhaps it does both things. Any way you slice it—whether Humpty-Dumpty is up on his wall or long since had his fall, or whether he has discovered simultaneity—I wouldn’t argue for conceptual unity here. Compositional unity? Well, I’d be more willing, per my comments on “Trained Meat,” to jump on that bandwagon.
In terms of theme(s), one might say there is a sort of unity, or unities, here: e.g., the quotidian, always. More interesting is the weaving of the quotidian with the world—the body with the body politic (the home/world interplay that Niedecker exploited to such great effect). Though I’m of two minds as to whether this gets tiring—the nearly constant, overt reference in the book to the instruments of war and the war on terror (“around a weapons cache in the home,” p 5, “A nitroglycerine patch for public detachment/ Shells shot,” p 7, “Something like ten million/Landmines in the papers,” p 12, “lines/ our cowboy Prez/ dropped on us,” p 13, etc., etc.). I think it both appropriate in our country of meat and war, and a tad overdone. But we might speak of the poet in the world, and the world in the poet...
Gordon: I think Berrigan’s “just reenactment of history/ shitting on the present cult/ of power, who got game” is a dynamic way to deal with the difficulties of addressing the poet-in-the-world/ world-in-the-poet dialectic. I suppose a poetry of consistent engagement with world issues risks falling into the histrionic inflation of the poet’s role, some kind of didactic no-no finger waving to an audience in complete agreement anyhow, or—what I can’t help but think of as the most ridiculous of counter arguments—the notion of obsolescence. Perhaps the common thread between Notley’s work of the last decade and Some Notes is the desire to address our political mess while simultaneously questioning the efficacy of poetry as a vehicle for such an address. Midway through Disobedience, Notley writes, “The function of poetry has changed so much—/ doesn’t tell stories, instruct, is not recited as rite,/ does not distill the people’s wisdom/ or even prophesy much. What does it/ do then?// What are You doing?” It’s a biting question, aimed I say at both the reader and the poet herself. Later in the book, she recasts the same doubts, this time more specifically against the claims associated with a specific contingency of poets intent on foregrounding the political implications of what really amount to aesthetic practices. She writes, “The non-authorial possibly lyrical not-necessarily intelligible/ but certainly impersonal revolutionary no-longer-an-I/ has a closetful of stuff./ I don’t mean “cultural baggage”/ I mean literal material possessions/ that Cost Money.”
Berrigan addresses these same doubts throughout the book. In “A poem for patriots,” he writes, “another jealous commie bitches the blues/ in fields of daisies the poems then growed/ up blood soaked, imported parts/ sucking bluebells out of tubas.” What I feel works so well—and this is something I’d say for the book as a whole—is that while there is a specific anger, frustration, and mistrust being levied upon the ills of the world (and even those who would make claims for doing the very same) it is not done so with any kind of utilitarian intention; these certainly aren’t poems likely to be carried in soldier’s packs, like Neruda’s Spain in the Heart. I see them as one person’s attempt to keep afloat amidst the over-determined quagmire of so much contemporary cultural and political muck. They’re full of the noise of the world. Do you think they shouldn’t be?
Anderson: No, the noise of the world absolutely belongs—especially in Berrigan’s poetics, which is all about saturating the word with the world. How appropriate that they reflect the violence of the culture when, as in the great line you quote above, “the poems then growed/ up blood soaked.” (As Ondaatje writes: “Blood a necklace on me all my life.”) It isn’t so much the histrionic inflation of the poet’s role that could get tiring, though. I would agree, after all, that Berrigan’s poems don’t involve themselves in this “didactic no-no finger waving”; when it comes to political references, the most overt poem (in terms of its title, anyway), “The Autobiography of Donald Rumsfeld,” is the least overt in its interaction with the subject of its critique. Strangely, for me, this is one of the most radical poems in the book. In its subversion of its own language of critique, as well as that of an administration that continually mangles the language (via poor usage and manipulation), it embodies this calling into question of the poem’s role as vehicle of social change:
Nice guy. Loser. until dawn stainfinite droolless
oil the fucker, but gently
from racket darkened bcutie pie fuzz facefast
an infinite droolviolable order food chainfinite
elev oil the fuckeror’s gold-veinfinite drooled mirror
to be admitted to De oil the fucker a bar
Its companion poem, however, “Coaxed to vapor and dusk,” while a fine weaving of the noise, the static of the world, is less effective for me. And while the poem enacts some of this same subversion—the turns, line by line, keep frustrating any expectation of codified political discourse or critique—one begins to wonder how much the language is being manipulated for manipulation’s sake, i.e., where political sincerity ends and the poem as aesthetic product begins:
by minimal wages, enough to feed
thousands outside the borders
of our national clarity pointing
to preventative measures against
my own blowing up of my cells
The broader questions for me are: (1) can a poem that tries not to be overt in its critique—that, moreover, critiques critique—become a victim to its own devices? and (2) at what point do poems with their politics heavily couched in their aesthetics (or vice versa) become self-indulgent? But don’t answer that. The question really is: how do these concerns affect Berrigan? Or do they?
Gordon: I wonder if the question isn’t whether one approaches the poem with an “expectation of codified political critique.” I certainly don’t, although I suppose that any art emanating from one working within the confines of empire will carry traces of how one positions one’s self, regardless of whether or not such concerns are foregrounded. I think we’d agree that Berrigan’s work is inextricably tied to how he navigates this relationship. I suppose that’s why we’re pushed into the aesthetics vs. politics argument. It seems, though, that this is not the sole concern of the book. So, I think it’s something of a disservice to the poem “Coaxed to vapor and dusk” if one reads it only in light of its grappling with the political. I’m assuming that you call it a “companion poem” to “The Autobiography of Donald Rumsfeld” because it’s placed immediately afterward and ends by reiterating a phrase running through its predecessor—“cutie pie fuzz face.” This kind of repetition of image and phrasal unit is pretty common to the book.
For example, the “doughnut aching to be belted” near the end of “Coaxed to vapor and dusk” becomes “a doughnut// hole to relax in:// nibble as ye float” in the very next poem. I guess I just mean to say that “political sincerity” and “poem as aesthetic product” are not in my mind mutually exclusive. Sometimes a doughnut is just a doughnut. I think all poems, as all doughnuts, are inherently “self-indulgent.” I do like your reading of the Rumsfeld poem though, and think you’re right on as far as how it functions. I wonder if we can talk a little about the implications of a purposeful messiness, looseness, or excess—maybe about the hacked-up birds and odd musical notation coming out of Berrigan’s left ear on the cover?
Anderson: But if all poetry is self-indulgent, we may have a problem on our hands. Not that poetry needs to be socially serviceable—I’m skeptical of this critical bent—but some poetry is necessary, no? By virtue of that necessity some poems rise above indulgence. I think this is a great, if totally subjective (and probably unreliable) test to put to poems—because if they only exist as doughnuts then they’re simply capricious products, of our whims and fancies. And, as Barbara Guest tells us, “Fancy is useful and can shake people up and present itself century after century as the new”—or we might say “the necessary”—“But it is not art; it is games.” While I’m not saying this is true of Berrigan, his work does raise these questions.
It isn’t so much that I, or you, or Joe and Jody Reader, expect codified political critique, but that employing disembodied bits of mainstream political discourse results in a mass of chopped up sound-bites. Hence, what may be in the mouth of Fox News “pointing to preventative measures against global terrorism, President Bush today defended the administration’s policy...” becomes “pointing/ to preventative measures against/ my own blowing up of my cells.” What might be, in the hands of a lesser poet, something along the lines of “pointing/ to preventative measures against/ terrorism’s crazy/ who wants to blow who/ up, Bush?” It’s the subversion of any expectation of normative discourse and dissent to which I’m referring. And it’s a nice touch in the work, but less interesting to my mind than Berrigan’s Rumsfeld poem.
I would agree that this is not the sole concern of the book, but since the work is so saturated with politics, it’s vital to any reading of the book to discuss it. That said, what about those hacked-up birds and odd musical notation coming out of Berrigan’s left ear on the cover? I’m curious...
Gordon: As far as the cover, and, in fact, its relationship to a poetry saturated with politics, I think it wonderfully frames what I see as the book’s major concern: how does one who is actively and attentively listening to and engaged with the world translate or filter such an engagement to create art. The sweeping arcs of individual colors, which seem to be entering Berrigan’s ear, might be analogous to the implicit and multiple output of the world, and to the bow-tied order such information often misleadingly presents. As a few lines from “In the paint” suggest:
sharing information doesn’t resonate
with the kind of efficiency
sharing intelligence suggests
an intimate calculation
a deep sell wielding vigilance
Here, in these entering colors, are your “disembodied bits of mainstream political discourse,” but also parts of conversations, overheard language, books, film, friend’s advice, etc. Tellingly, what comes out on the other end, post-programming, is not a well-wrought urn, but a fucked-up mess! It reminds me of Ashbery’s “What is Poetry,” the last line of which, as a sort of comment on the expectations of the poem, reads: “It might give us – what? – some flowers soon?” Berrigan’s filtration system gives us all of the typical totemic symbology: flowers, birds, and musical staves; however, the birds have hacked-off heads; the notes on the musical staves look more like asterisks than anything else; and the flowers, along with a few wings, are falling or drooping toward the ground. If the world’s pokerfaced insistence on presenting information as though it were colorfully appealing, clear and consistent were to be tackled by a different sort of poet, then what appears on the other side might have been perfectly rendered birds and flowers. Thankfully, with Berrigan, the mess of the poem is not a flawed representation of the world, or of a poet in the world, rather it’s a much more honest engagement with the world’s mess.