John Ashbery wrote a review of Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets in 1968. The piece had been ‘commissioned and set up in type by The New York Times Book Review but not printed.’ Available now in Ashbery’s Selected Prose edited by Eugene Richie (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), it ends like this:
There are no apologies to be made for ugly lines and no prizes to be handed out for good ones: that would be like smashing your window or pinning a blue ribbon on it because you like or dislike the view. It is the aesthetic of ‘It’s what’s happening, baby,’ and as we all slide mindlessly towards total media mix, there is still time to notice, in reading Mr. Berrigan, that the poetry is there.
Now it’s not unknown for the rich and powerful to do more than smash windows or pin ribbons on them because of the view. They employ landscape gardeners, or, as in Robert Lowell’s ‘Skunk Hour’, they buy up the real estate opposite and let it fall. But pop art, in its hey-day, was more interested in re-landscaping art, in letting its older structures fall, than in converting the slice-of-life out the window into the picturesque. Almost forty years after Ashbery wrote those words, though, here in the resoundingly white-noisy silence of ‘total media mix’, where we’re obliged to remain mindful despite the endless slide, Berrigan’s Collected Poems are back as reports from one of those old twentieth-century scenes when things used to be happening, baby, and people used to use that funny put-down vocative ‘baby’. How well have these 663 text pages of apparently instant reports on experience worn? Can the immediate be a joy forever?
Ted Berrigan (1934-1983) was a second generation, a ‘school of’ artist. But wait a minute, back in 1970, when Ron Padgett and David Shapiro edited An Anthology of New York Poets (Vintage), which includes sixteen of his poems, they could write in their Preface that ‘It would be facile as well as misleading to see these poets as forming a “School,” to pass them off as a literary movement. Like water off a duck’s back, such abstractions roll back into nothingness.’ But even ducks’ backs ain’t what they used to be. In her Introduction, Alice Notley writes that ‘Ted is often characterized as “second-generation New York School.” That label, with its “second-generation,” seems to preclude innovation. Ted’s career as a poet, after his earliest, sentimental poems, begins in the innovation of The Sonnets.’ Though she intends to outmanoeuvre one perfectly false implication of his label (Rembrandt is better than his teachers), she more or less allows it to stand. Yet even here Berrigan’s innovation shows in another seeming divergence from antecedents — as if the volume itself were a title-page misprint for Berryman’s Sonnets (1967).
Among the back jacket commendations on The Collected Poems, we find Ashbery himself allowing that ‘Ted Berrigan was a leader of the New York School; his crazy energy embodied that movement and the city itself.’ It would be worth taking Ashbery at his word; it may well require a second generation, or a shoal of followers, to form a school. The people who, willy-nilly, serve as primary exemplars may not have known that this is what they were doing as they worked in their semi-obscurity. That must surely be the case for Edwin Denby, something of a Douanier Rousseau among the Cubists; and how could Frank O’Hara, the author of ‘Personism: A Manifesto’, imagine that he was laying out the principles for a ‘we all do this, we all do that’ style which, three or four generations of imitators later, shows up in little magazines just about anywhere? Second-generation, ‘school of’ artists signal allegiances in their style as first generation artists cannot; and just as Jesus didn’t live long enough to become a Christian (only occasioning the name by dying on a cross), so Frank O’Hara may never have belonged to the New York School.
The timelessly immortal opening to his elegy ‘The Day Lady Died’ — ‘It’s 12:20 in New York a Friday / three days after Bastille day, yes / it is 1959’ — might even be an allusion to the Rogers and Hart standard ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’, as covered by Billie Holiday on All or Nothing at All. The song tells about how your love has set me to rights, so that ‘I’m wise / I know what time it is now’; and it’s perhaps not completely fanciful to imagine that this is the song that ‘she whispered ... along the keyboard / to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing’. In its best outing, the device of beginning a poem with the time of day looks to be a highly contextualized and pointed piece of writing. O’Hara had prefigured the device in ‘A Step Away from Them’ three years earlier (‘it is 12:40 of / a Thursday’), and he may have prized open the floodgates by repeating it in the ‘It is 12:10 in New York and I am wondering’ of ‘Adieu to Norman, Bon jour to Joan and Jean-Paul’ (also 1959). Still, looking at the similarities and differences between one of O’Hara’s ‘I do this, I do that’ poems, and a Berrigan homage to the mode, I couldn’t help wondering if a personal manner can become the template for a tradition.
In his comedy poem ‘Paraphrases’, Roy Fisher includes a letter from a bizarrely devoted fan: ‘Dear Mr Fisher I am now / so certain I am you that it is obvious to me / that the collection of poems I am currently working on must be / your own next book!’ In Berrigan’s The Sonnets the speaking clock becomes such a tic that you could fear he had become O’Hara:
It’s 8:54 a.m. in Brooklyn it’s the 28th 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 ...
The fact that sonnet XXXVI is subtitled ‘after Frank O’Hara’ relieves us, a little, of fears for such an identity crisis, but even so the cravenness of the imitation is in danger of not being a compliment to the originator, but rather a destruction of it in the ‘play on that the appetite may sicken and so die’ manner: ‘It’s 8:30 p.m. in New York and I’ve been running around all day / old come-all-ye’s streel into the streets. Yes, it is now, / How Much Longer Shall I Be Able To Inhabit The Divine’ — which manages to get both of the great New York mentor figures in the space of three lines. Here is a sampling from the ‘syncronize your watches’ mode: ‘Dear Margie, hello. It is 5:15 a.m.’; ‘it is 3:17 a.m. in New York city, yes, it is / 1962, it is the year of parrot fever’. In the later collection Many Happy Returns (1969), you find: ‘It is 12:10 in New York. In Houston / it is 2 p.m.’; ‘I wake up 11:30 back aching from soft bed’; ‘It is 7:53 Friday morning in the Universe’; ‘At 6:30 woke Sandy / fucked til 7’; ‘It’s 5:03 a.m. on the 11th July this morning’ — these last three from works with the title ‘Personal Poem’, also borrowed from O’Hara, though sometimes given a # number to distinguish them from their neighbours. These citations can be found between pages 29 and117. The last poem in the book, ‘Grace After a Meal’ (another O’Hara echo there!), ends ‘It is 5:23 a.m., and the sun / is coming’, it’s in the ‘Early Uncollected Poems’ section; while one of Berrigan’s ‘Last Poems’, ‘Don Quixote & Sancho Panza’, includes the line ‘253 lbs later, it is May, 1983.’ This apparently documentary device is, of course, an aesthetic conundrum all of its own: after all, it’s either very rarely or never the time the poem says it is when you read it, and is unlikely to have been even as the poet wrote it, never mind when it was collected in a volume, or reprinted. The device, while seeming to deny its reality, only goes to underline the timeless perpetual present of the poetic text; and yet that perpetual present, in Berrigan’s case as in everyone else’s, also has the irreducible flavour of its particular moment — back when sex and drugs and rock-and-roll were a lifestyle revolution and even poetry could hitch a ride to the party.
Yet there is innovation, or at least variation, in Berrigan’s use of the big clock device. When O’Hara tells you what time it was, it’s a form of cinéma vérité, and you take it as, at least conventionally, true. To all intents and purposes it is 12:20 when he says it is, and that tunes the reader right into his slice of lunch. When Berrigan does it in The Sonnets there’s a fair chance the same line, or a slight variation on it, will crop up a few pages later. The reportage element has been subsumed into the themes and variations of a colloquially musical poetry making, Berrigan’s idea perhaps of how to get his sonnets to be a sequence of sorts. ‘Dear Margie, hello. It is 5:15 a.m.’ — or a riff on the same phrase — appears at least six times, twice in the poem where it first appears. The desire to be always a-making of poetry comes over as one of this book’s overriding compulsions, a kind of perpetual note-taking, and it seems to absorb everything and anything in a life obsessed with poetry and poets. Nor does it appear to be the lonely business it is for many a poet, either. Numerous of Berrigan’s poems are collaborations, Memorial Day with Anne Waldman, for instance. The O’Hara-style title was Berrigan’s idea. His poems are also forever naming names and addressing themselves to friends and acquaintances. It’s an unusually sociable kind of lyric gesture, and in that too effects a variation on O’Hara’s address-book mode, rather than simply an attempt to duplicate it. In his All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene of the 1960s (University of California Press, 2003), Daniel Kane’s first chapter is called ‘Community through Poetry’. For those conscious of the fact that communities are only such because they exclude people, Alice Notley has gracefully provided a Glossary of Names to ease reader-stress connected with the field full of folk mentioned in these poems. Unfortunately, the notes are frequently too minimal — ‘Tom Raworth (1938- ) British poet’ — to be worth the effort of looking them up, or, if you do, to make you feel any more at home. Introducing the Hawks at the Albert Hall in 1966, Bob Dylan described his musicians as ‘poets ... all poets.’ Given that one of them was an excellent drummer, Dylan’s honorific wouldn’t be far wrong for most of Berrigan’s named friends and interlocutors.
His familiarity with O’Hara’s poetry and apparently comfortable failure to get away from it are everywhere in sight. ‘American Express’, while quite different in its formal conventions from ‘Joe’s Jacket’, depends upon the idea of a borrowed coat for its friendly occasion:
Cold rosy dawn in New York City
not for me
in Ron’s furlined Jim Bridger
that I borrowed two years ago
but never returned, Thank god!
On 6th Street
Lunch poems burn
a hole in my pocket
There he goes again with a nod towards the close of ‘A Step Away From Them’: ‘My heart is in my / pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.’ O’Hara’s hero worship crops up here as elsewhere in his literary name-dropping, and the expressed liking for other poets’ work becomes a device that Berrigan imitates too. In ‘American Express’ Ron Padget’s borrowed coat is hymned just as Joe LeSueur’s jacket had been before it; and as exemplified here, second generation writing can be so much more self-consciously stylish than its source texts — Berrigan’s close having all the returning poise of an ‘in the manner of’ work which travels with a fair idea of exactly where its next poetic meal is coming from:
The mist of May
is on the gloaming
& all the clouds
are halted, still
They are alight with borrowed warmth,
just like me.
It’s difficult not to feel that this charmingly poised close is indebted to yet a third O’Hara poem, the one called ‘Cambridge’, with its generous tribute to the warmth that you can get from someone else’s art. O’Hara is ‘Just like Pasternak’, but ‘lacking the Master’s inspiration, I may freeze to death / before I can get out into the white rain. I could have left / the window closed last night? But that’s where health / comes from! His breath from the Urals, drawing me into flame ...’ Berrigan’s hero worship of O’Hara has its source in his master’s own name-dropping literari- and artiness. The elegant circularity of ‘American Express’, like a serpent eating its own tail, or like the close of ‘In Memory of my Feelings’, is never far away: and this is another aspect of Berrigan’s ‘second generation’ poetry.
Like a good deal of pop art, Berrigan was a recycling artist, one more on the lines of the utterly eclectic Robert Rauchenberg in his combines than the artfully painterly Jasper Johns. Berrigan could be a junk poet (though amphetamine pills seem to have been his drug of choice), a junk poet in his recycling of others’ fragmented broken lines, their ways of entering a poem; and as we have seen with his keeping-an-eye-on-the-time device he, doing unto himself as he would unto others, also recycles his own lines. In the fourth of The Sonnets, it’s a rendering of the first line from Rilke’s early poem ‘Herbsttag’ that provides this one’s opening:
Lord, it is time. Summer was very great.
All sweetly spoke to her of me
about your feet, so delicate, and yet double E!!
And high upon the Brooklyn Bridge alone,
to breathe an old woman slop oatmeal,
loveliness that longs for butterfly! There is no pad
as you lope across the trails and bosky dells
I often think sweet and sour pork”
shoe repair, and scary. In cities,
I strain to gather my absurdities
He buckled on his gun, the one
Poised like Nijinsky
at every hand, my critic
and when I stand and clank it gives me shoes
The inescapable risk in making collages of this sort lies in the jagged whole proving less than the sum of its discontinuous parts. Daniel Kane’s All Poets Welcome has an entire section devoted to collaboration, appropriation, and anonymity in second-generation New York School poets. He quotes from Ron Padgett on appropriation: ‘It did challenge that notion of the solitary author sweating it out. Using other people’s lines means you have a bigger toolbox to work with. It doesn’t mean you’re going to make better or worse art. You just have more possibilities.’ Yet in the poem above, and in Berrigan’s very large oeuvre as a whole, there is nevertheless an ‘arte povera’ effect, as if the more possibilities of thieving from everyone and anyone including yourself (thieving from yourself: an innovative concept) produce as its presumably unintended side-effect a desperate shortage feeling, a snatching at whatever is at hand. Yet this may also be one source of the poetry’s true expressiveness — the experience of an unforeseen poverty at the heart of endless possibility. The effect can be found on almost any page, as here, for instance, in insults thrown at him during ‘After Peire Vidal, & Myself’: ‘Alone, & / In Pain, in Limbo, is where you live in your little cloud-9 home Ted! / Pitiful!’ It’s possible, too, that the expressiveness of so much Berrigan collected together, and edited in this canonical fashion, serves to reveal his poetry as the sustained expression of a problem bravely masquerading as its solution.
The work of epigones can also demonstrate a dearly bought freedom to be different in a reminiscent way, as in this attractive middle-period poem called ‘Old-fashioned Air’, a poem dedicated to ‘Lee Crabtree (1942-1973): Musician, member of the rock band The Fugs.’ It’s a sure sign that a situation comedy is reaching its sell-by date when to keep it going the scriptwriters do the same jokes in different countries; but humming the New York talk and strolling the walk across the pond gives a curious charm to this piece occasioned by the academic year that Berrigan spent teaching at the University of Essex (1973-74), where he made contact with a large number of writers, including Douglas Oliver who later moved to New York, becoming Alice Notley’s husband after Berrigan’s death. This year in England left a distinct mark on a group of poets who variously folded the New York mode into British 1970s styles. ‘Old-Fashioned Air’ shows how it could be done:
I’m living in Battersea, July,
1973, not sleeping, reading
Jet noise throbs building fading
Into baby talking, no, “speechifying”
“Ah wob chuk sh ‘guh!” Gee.
Perhaps the poem’s air is ‘Old-Fashioned’ not only because it’s situated in the old world, but because it uses capital letters at the beginning of each line, and has a thread of rhyming around the same sound, the second vowel in its lengthened pronunciation, the sound of the dedicatee’s first name, echoing through most of it:
There’s a famous power station I can’t see
Up the street. Across there is
I walked across this morning toward
A truly gorgeous radiant flush;
Sun; fumes of the Battersea
Power Station; London air;
I walk down long avenues of trees
That leant not gracefully
Over the concrete walk. Wet green lawn
Out on either side of me. I saw
A great flock of geese taking this morning walk
I didn’t hurry either, Lee.
As can be heard in these lines, it is to Berrigan, among others, that we are indebted for the bright idea that O’Hara’s ‘I do this, I do that’ mode could be both heterosexualized and domesticated. The old-fashioned sound of the piece, its more reflective and faintly melancholic air, partly derives from its being an ‘I did this, I did that’ poem — sign, as it would prove, of ways in which this particular American style of the moment could not quite be exported without having its energies metamorphosed, Ambassadors-fashion, by the differently embedded life of the old world, as can be heard in some of John James’s poems in Striking the Pavilion of Zero (1975). ‘Old-Fashioned Air’ continues:
I stopped & watched them walk back up toward
& down into their lake,
Smoked a Senior Service on a bench
As they swam past me in a long dumb graceful cluttered line,
Then, taking my time, I found my way
Out of that park;
A Gate that was locked. I jumped the fence.
From there I picked up the London Times, came home,
Anselm awake in his bed, Alice
Sleeping in mine: I changed
A diaper, read a small poem I’d had
In mind, then thought to write this line:
“Now is Monday morning so, that’s a garbage truck I hear,
And we are back where we started from, Lee, you
& me, alive & well!
The affection expressed is distinctly attractive. Nevertheless, the change of sexual orientation in the private-made-public style brings with it consequences. O’Hara’s poetry might be seen as an outing of the complexly private into the social space of New York. As well as metaphorically oblique sex poems (‘Twin spheres full of fur and noise’), O’Hara has his higher devotions (‘I worry about this because I / love you’), his thoroughly articulated anxieties (There was / something I had to do. But what?’), and, above all, a piercing solitude (‘loneliness, / ... drifting into my ears off Sendai in the snow’) sensed within the gregariously sociable: ‘I drink to smother my sensitivity for a while so I won’t stare away / I drink to kill the fear of boredom, the mounting panic of it’. The relative cultural non-location of a gay man in the 1950s and early 1960s, even in the New York art scene, makes O’Hara’s sexuality more smartly allusive and even momentarily elusive, thanks to his many poems devoted to women writers and painters with whom he was particularly close.
Berrigan’s can suffer, particularly in the earlier work, from an almost meaningless sexual bravado (‘fucked til 7’); for at approximately the same moment, heterosexual counter-culture was still inflected, if at times ironically, with stereotype gender roles. You can catch the tang of this world well lost in the repartee between Berrigan and Waldman at the opening of their reading from Memorial Day available on the CD that comes with All Poets Welcome. Berrigan’s sexual clock punching has not worn well: ‘Last time I counted I think / It was about / 50 / * / The number of people, / I mean’ (Train Ride, 1971). Later, the love poetry for his wife can be as soft as this piece dated July 11, 1982: ‘Dear Alice, / The reason I love / you so much is be- / cause you’re very / beautiful & kind. I / also appreciate your / intelligence, though what / “intelligence” is I’m not / sure, & your wit, which / resembles nothing I’ve / ever thought about. / Your loving husband, / Ted Berrigan’. I suppose there’s barely such a thing now as a text that shouldn’t be published; but this tender message made me wonder. Only the signature suggests it might not be merely personal, and vulnerably so even in that charmed circle — for like O’Hara in his manifesto, while typing it the tender poet and evidently loving husband could have known that ‘if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem.’ Not knowing him personally either, a reader might equally suspect some ‘protesting too much’.
A part of Berrigan’s work also suffers from the instant datedness in poetry not of objects but of media and consumer culture: ‘Mister Robert Dylan doesn’t feel well today / That’s bad’. Nor can such personal writing always avoid sounding like notes from an increasingly unlovely life, made so by the addiction that was fueling what Ashbery called his ‘crazy energy’, and the need to make a living as no more nor less than a poet. This required an increasingly peripatetic life away from New York in creative writing residencies and the like. Mark Ford, an anthologist of Berrigan’s work (New York Poets II: Edwin Denby to Bernadette Mayer, Carcanet 2006), in interview once made that old ‘why should I care?’ remark about others’ experience in poetry (‘I can’t bear poems about grandfathers, or fishing expeditions, or what it’s like to move into a new house’); yet his attitude could be thought as relevant for some of Berrigan’s more personal jottings as it might be for works in the provincially anecdotal veins. Poetry sings out from an endlessly shifting no-man’s-land between the naff and the cool — too much of the former and it’s condemned to trivial irrelevance, too much of the latter and it’s self-censored by yet another version of correctness and period agenda. But if a poem’s verbal arrangement gives pleasure, all sorts of risky non-cool materials may be accessed; and Berrigan is too haplessly open-mouthed and -eyed to be altogether street-wise:
The days’ usual aggressive
now softly dropped
into a regular pace
the head riding gently its personal place
where pistons feel like legs
on feelings met like lace.
take a walk, then,
across this town. It’s a pleasure
to meet one certain person you’ve been counting on
to take your measure
who will smile, & love you, sweetly, at your leisure.
‘Peace’ in effect quotes its rhymes, as modern poets since Hardy have been doing, producing, after its own fashion, a piercingly second-hand sentiment — not unlike that in the borrowed imagery of pop art that is now some half a century old.
‘Personism’ was, of course, a mockery of poetic theory ‘-isms’. Yet it is the fate of a good joke to be repeated until the humour’s been drained from it; and so it has been with O’Hara’s version of poetry made with no more for technique, supposedly, than ‘your nerve’ from the circumstances of an unusually incident-filled everyday life. The curious contradiction of O’Hara and his school is that they were able to ‘copyright’ a manner of notation for the personal, which, like the individual fashions that everyone is wearing this season, half conceal the fact that everybody’s personal is likely to be different. Berrigan’s can’t help being faintly mannered, because a quotation, and so less freshly insouciant; he also seems more vulnerably needy in relation to his friends. ‘Last Poem’ — neither his last, of course, nor the last in the book — courageously addresses such dependence at its close:
I grew tall & huge of frame, obviously possessed
Of a disconnected head, I had a perfect heart. The end
Came quickly & completely without pain, one quiet night as I
Was sitting, writing, next to you in bed, words chosen randomly
From a tired brain, it, like them, suitable, & fitting.
Let none regret my end who called me friend.
As ‘Last Poem’ also exemplifies, aside from the postcards, telegrams (like the one to Jack Kerouac: ‘Bye-Bye Jack. / See you soon.’), half-jokes and stunts, there are the many standout poems, ones like the title piece to the 1982 gathering (posthumously published in 1988), ‘A Certain Slant of Sunlight’:
In Africa the wine is cheap, and it is
on St Mark’s Place too, beneath a white moon.
I’ll go there tomorrow, dark bulk brooded
against what is hurled down at me in my not hat
which is weather: the tall pretty girl in the print dress
under the fur collar of her cloth coat will be standing
by the wire fence where the wild flowers grow not too tall
her eyes will be deep brown and her hair styled 1941 American
will be too; but
I’ll be shattered by then
But now I’m not and can also picture white clouds
impossibly high in blue sky over small boy heartbroken
to be dressed in black knickers, black coat, white shirt,
buster-brown collar, flowing black bow-tie
her hand lightly fallen on his shoulder, faded sunlight falling
across the picture, mother & son, 33 & 7, First Communion Day, 1941 —
I’ll go out for a drink with one of my demons tonight
they are dry in Colorado 1980 spring snow.
The art of such poems, and it is one that can be learned from an intensive reading of O’Hara, resides in beginning quite casually with an apparently random association of details (the drink in Africa and New York bearing a remote resemblance to ‘the poets / in Ghana’ and the ‘bottle of Strega’ from ‘the PARK LANE / Liquor Store’ in ‘The Day Lady Died’), then, as in O’Hara’s best, the casual details build to the discovery of a personal issue in their interconnected pictures, an issue that accesses the poem’s piercingly true and unexpected emotion. ‘A Certain Slant of Sunlight’ was, perhaps, inspired by the poet’s mother, Peggy Berrigan, becoming ‘ill with lung cancer’ — as suggested by this volume’s useful six-page chronology of the poet’s life and works. Alice Notley, with the poet’s sons, Anselm and Edmund, have performed a great service to the poetry community by so tactfully and skillfully editing the oeuvre of a poet who, like the literary hero who so enabled these writings by his example, did not live to turn over the pages of his own Collected Poems.
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