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Timothy Henry

“Time And Time Again”:

The Strategy of Simultaneity in Ted Berrigan’s «The Sonnets»


Since its original publication in 1964, Ted Berrigan’s first book of poetry, The Sonnets, has been considered a major aesthetic statement of both the New York School and 20th century American poetry as a whole, drawing on the influence of first-generation New York School poets (specifically John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch), the compositional techniques of John Cage, the philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead, and, through the use of a time-tested poetic form, the works of sonneteers ranging from William Shakespeare to Edwin Denby. To describe The Sonnets as a “sonnet sequence” would be only partially accurate.


The book begins with “Sonnet I” and proceeds numerically to its conclusion with “Sonnet LXXXVIII,” with a few “numbers” omitted and a few poems straying from the fourteen-line form. A sequence, however, implies succession: an order of one poem following another in time and/or space.The poems of Berrigan’s The Sonnets appear in succession but do not exist in succession. Instead, the seventy-eight poems of The Sonnets exist simultaneously, escaping the laws of time by conquering these laws through Berrigan’s well-planned techniques of repetition, rearrangement, and the use of “found” phrases and text. These techniques and strategies provide the reader with a unique and disorienting experience by presenting a new understanding of poetry, possibility, and time.


In a 1968 review of The Sonnets, John Ashbery writes, “They feel like what tomorrow is going to be like” (Ashbery 117). Ashbery’s review is an essential piece of criticism: Ashbery was not only at the forefront of the first-generation of New York School poets, but his 1962 collection The Tennis Court Oath had a considerable influence on Berrigan’s approach to The Sonnets. Ashbery’s quote portrays the immense power and control Berrigan possesses over time’s operations in The Sonnets. Basic laws of physics and logic prevent us from knowing what tomorrow will be like; “tomorrow” exists only as a language construct signifying an inaccessible point in time relative to “today,” or the simple notion that the “future” is always relative to the “present.” While this elementary lesson in logic and time may seem unnecessary, it is important to be cognizant of how time usually functions as we further investigate Berrigan’s attempts to defeat the “usual” understandings of time.


In her introduction to The Sonnets, Ted Berrigan’s widow Alice Notley builds upon Ashbery’s notion by stating that, “One of its themes is time, the incorporation of the past into the present becoming the future, and so each sonnet seems to have invisible arrows pointing out from it backwards, forwards, and sideways too, creating a long complex moment that certain manuscripts of Ted’s tell us is most literally the spring of 1963” [1] (Berrigan, Sonnets v).


New York City during the winter of 1962 and spring of 1963 marks the period when The Sonnets were composed. The majority of these poems came into existence during a series of short, amphetamine-fueled bursts of creative effort, each lasting for several consecutive (and sleepless) days between November and July. A few of the poems come from 1961, before Berrigan intended to pursue a sonnet sequence. 1961 was an important transitional year for Berrigan as he moved to New York from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he was pursuing a master’s degree in literature at the University of Oklahoma, writing his thesis on the works of George Bernard Shaw. Upon his arrival in New York, Berrigan consumed as much of the city, its culture and its poetry as possible. The city’s bustling pace was a source of excitement and inspiration to Berrigan, who told his thesis advisor back in Tulsa, “One minute in New York sufficed to convince me that five years in Tulsa had been much too long” (Lehman 365).


The Sonnets contains several references to Berrigan’s bohemian lifestyle and unorthodox daily routines. Berrigan would stay up for two to three days on end, taking pills, walking the city streets, and writing through the early hours of the morning. Most people tend to associate the morning hours with the act of “waking up” and the start to a new twenty-four hour cycle including a fresh attempt at conscious thought. The available biographical information and contextual clues found within his poems show how Berrigan’s mornings, afternoons, and evenings of the early 1960s blend together without respite or sleep to divide the day into these general “parts.”


Since the man behind The Sonnets experiences time in a strikingly different manner than the normal person (someone who spends roughly sixteen hours awake and eight hours asleep during the twenty-four hour day), he is capable of presenting his readers with a similarly strange experience. Obviously, Berrigan still passed through each minute and hour at the same rate as everyone else but his ritualistic ingestion of amphetamines allowed for the poet to make the most of each hour and, in a sense, “extend” the length of a day. While amphetamines provide productive and pleasurable highs, each high is eventually followed by a “crash” period of depression and inactivity brought on by the body’s lack of sleep and nourishment (Padgett 4).


Berrigan devoted as much of his time and energy as possible to his craft, constantly writing and revising, reading and annotating books of all genres, and discussing poetry with anyone who would listen. He was most noticeably influenced at this time by Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath, Whitehead’s Process and Reality and the writings and experiments of composer John Cage. Berrigan’s mission focused on making a powerful entrance into the New York poetry scene which was then dominated by his heroes, Ashbery, O’Hara, and Koch. He describes his relocation to New York City and the high expectations he held as a sort of vocational calling: “When I came to New York I hadn’t written anything good at all. I came to New York to become this wonderful poet, to become a poet and I was to be very serious. Not to become but to be. To find out how to work at it. That only took about a year and a half, then I wrote this major work and there I was. Just as I thought I would be, in my inane stupidity” (Waldman 20).

Part One: The Sonnet Clock and the Sequence Machine


In the chapter dedicated to Ted Berrigan in her book Career Moves, Libbie Rifkin explains why the sonnet sequence attracted the attention of young and determined poets like Berrigan in 1963. The sonnet sequence’s history consists of thousands of attempts at greatness by innumerable poets. While a few poets successfully attempt to revolutionize the rigid form, the majority of poets rely on previously established blueprints. The form’s rich and storied history “teases the poet into visions of bardic greatness” (Rifkin 112). In interviews and speeches, Berrigan lists other possible reasons for gravitating towards this particular tradition: “I wasn’t just discovering the sonnet, I had spent two or three years paying attention to the sonnet, partly because it seemed a congenial place for me and also partly because somebody had said that you couldn’t do this, and it’s my nature, as it is many people’s, to then do that” (Waldman 22).


In a 1980 interview he claims, “What do you do if you’re a poet and you’re just starting out and you want to be big? And I mean, who was bigger than Shakespeare? And I decided you wrote a sonnet sequence. So I wrote a sonnet sequence” (Rifkin 112). Although the legend of Ted Berrigan, as colorful as it may be, has yet to approach the shadows of a monumental figure like Shakespeare, Berrigan’s radical deconstruction of the sonnet is as brazen as any poet has ever attempted.


The tradition of sonnets and sonnet sequences extends back to the 13th century. Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Spenser are considered to be the original masters of the form, as each generated a large quantity of sonnets in rigidly consistent forms. The history of the sonnet is one of alteration and evolution; these changes appear gradually over different centuries and cultures and help give the form its importance and allure. The 20th century produced the sonnets of many different poets, such as John Berryman, Jorge Luis Borges, and Edwin Denby, further establishing the form as a trusted and timeless poetic vehicle. The Sonnets, however, show Ted Berrigan’s aim to revolutionize this tradition into a new style appropriate for the explosive poetic, artistic, and cultural atmospheres of New York City during the early 1960s.


Sonnets tend to be studied and analyzed in terms of their linear arrangements. Poets employ various methods of rhyme, metrics, and the division of lines into groups such as quatrains, octaves, and couplets to “tweak” the sonnet and subtly inject the form with a small dose of originality. This traditional “grouping” of lines causes each individual line of a sonnet to depend on the other lines of its group. The movements from one group to the next and their apparent juxtapositions help bring out the meanings of the poems. Ted Berrigan’s approach to the sonnet eliminates these sub-structures and gives each line an individual identity.


In a 1978 interview with Anne Waldman and Jim Cohn, Ted Berrigan describes what he sought to accomplish through this radical retooling of the form: “My technical achievement in The Sonnets was to conceive the sonnet as fourteen units of one line each. I don’t think it had been done that way much before. I don’t think it had been broken down much more than into couplets, so I had a lot more variables to work with and a lot more possibilities of structures. It was just like cubism” (Waldman 113). By breaking down the form into fourteen lines of equal importance and weight, Berrigan stresses the role of each individual piece of the poem. By avoiding the arrangement of lines into sub-structures like quatrains, octaves, or couplets, he creates a form that is divisible into fourteen “equal” parts, similar to how an hour is divisible into sixty equal minutes, allowing for the sonnet to become a consistent and reliable structure capable of measuring the passing of time.


One way to determine the success of Berrigan’s deconstruction of the sonnet is to consider the perplexing amounts of information and poetic beauty found in each line. As the poet Tom Clark states, “That’s the great thing about The Sonnets. It can contain lines long enough to put a total universe of thought in like that” (Waldman 82). These “lines” all possess unique characteristics and identities: some are borrowed from other prominent poets like Ashbery, from whom Berrigan borrows the line “How Much Longer Shall I Be Able To Inhabit The Divine” (Ashbery’s line reads: “How much longer shall I be able to inhabit the divine sepulcher of my life, my great love”). Some lines were found in other sources, like the journal entries of painter and friend Joe Brainard used to compose the poem “From A Secret Journal.” Berrigan even borrows slices of text from his own earlier poems, such as the lines of “Sonnet LXXX” which originally appeared in Berrigan’s 1962 poem “String of Pearls” (Berrigan, Sonnets 89).


Within these lines exists a number of recognizable objects: the names of people and places, memories and memory-fragments from both dreams and waking-life, and quotations coming from every direction, often without an obvious source. The Sonnets include a broad array of allusions, referring to everything from Billy the Kid to Benjamin Franklin [2], though not in an attempt to mimic the ‘Modernist’ styles of Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot [3]. These allusions and references help make up the flesh of each line, but the names mentioned do not assume the roles of ‘characters’ in The Sonnets’s’ ‘plot.’ Instead, the individual lines function as characters by establishing and developing their identities throughout the book. The experience Berrigan creates for his reader does not require a full understanding of each allusion, as Notley writes, ‘Detailed annotation would be contrary to the spirit of the poems, which, though literary, is egalitarian and intimate’ (Berrigan, Collected 666).


With the sonnet now broken into fourteen individual units, Berrigan can treat the lines like interchangeable parts: the second line from one poem becomes the eighth line in another, or the same fourteen lines of one poem comprise another poem, though the arrangement of the lines is completely different. Berrigan’s use of the lines as “moveable parts” or “blocks” supports another one of Berrigan’s views on his book, that the poems were not so much “written” as they were “built” (Waldman 10). Occasionally, Berrigan alters a line just enough from one instance to another, allowing for a more proper fit in the juxtaposition and construction of a new poem. Repetition with alteration is a basic tenet of the art of comedy, showing Berrigan’s desire to simultaneously confuse and amuse his reader (Rifkin 109). This repetition and rearrangement of lines has an extraordinary effect, as Ashbery states, “And the meaning, more often than not, stems not from the meaning of the words but from the relation among them that their forced contiguity sets up. They impinge on and seep into one another to produce new shades of meaning and eventually new ideas” (119).


For instance, consider the line “There is no such thing as a breakdown,” which first appears as the eleventh line of “Sonnet XVII”:


Each tree stands alone in stillness
After many years still nothing
The wind’s wish is the tree’s demand
The tree stands still
The wind walks up and down
Scanning the long selves of the shore
Her aimlessness is the pulse of the tree
It beats in tiny blots
Its patternless pattern of excitement
Letters birds beggars books
There is no such thing as a breakdown
The tree the ground the wind these are
Dear, be the tree your sleep awaits
Sensual, solid, still, swaying alone in the wind


The “breakdown” at hand in this poem is not necessarily clear, though it seems to be related to a “patternless pattern of excitement.” This poem seems to address the movements of nature and the reader probably cannot find much purpose in the inclusion of this line, though any apparent awkwardness in relation to the other lines is stifled by Berrigan’s attempt to “bury” the line. Berrigan buries “There is no such thing as a breakdown” in “Sonnet XVII” only for it to vigorously reappear with much more importance in later poems, when it becomes the last line of “Sonnet LXV”:


Dreams, aspirations of presence! Innocence gleaned,
annealed! The world in its mysteries are explained,
and the struggles of babies congeal. A hard core is formed.
Today I thought about all those radio waves
He eats of the fruits of the great Speckle bird,
Pissing on the grass!
I too am reading the technical journals,
Rivers of annoyance undermine the arrangements
Someone said “Blake-blues” and someone else “pill-head”
Meaning bloodhounds.
Washed by Joe’s throbbing hands
She is introspection.
It is a Chinese signal.
There is no such thing as a breakdown


Here, the first thirteen lines build upon one another to set up the “breakdown” as a mental or emotional crisis. This sonnet relies on “There is no such thing as a breakdown” as an anchoring final line designed to stabilize a rather chaotic poem. No punctuation appears at the line’s end yet it still has a sense of finality to it, climactic and concrete in some way, even though the buildup anticipates that this “breakdown” may actually exist and even soon occur.


“Sonnets XV” and “LIX” are often cited as examples of Berrigan’s rearrangement of an entire group of fourteen lines. Both poems are comprised of the same lines, just presented in a different numerical arrangement. “Sonnet LIX” reads in a logical order, with the lines appearing in the “1–2-3–4… ” pattern found in standard written syntax. “Sonnet XV” rearranges the lines of “LIX” into the distorted order of 1–3-5–7-9–11-13–14-12–10-8–6-4–2. Because “Sonnet XV” appears in the book before “Sonnet LIX”, the reader is not familiar with the “original” order of the poem. This demonstrates one aspect of The Sonnets’ simultaneity: the order in which the poems appear is virtually irrelevant as the poems exist simultaneously with one another. An attentive reader, upon reading “Sonnet LIX”, recognizes a resemblance with another poem and thinks back to the first encounter with these lines and may flip back to “Sonnet XV” to confirm this suspicion.


Berrigan makes no attempt to downplay the simultaneity of The Sonnets, though it is not immediately detectable at the start of the reading experience. In fact, Berrigan confirms the simultaneous existence of his poems in the eleventh line of “Sonnet L”: “Whatever is going to happen is already happening.” Ironically or not, this provocative line appears only once in the book but it serves as the basic maxim for time’s operative forces within The Sonnets. In her introduction to The Sonnets, Notley further explores this notion: “To do [this] is to break the ages-old logic of the sonnet and sonnet-like poems and to make a new statement about reality: the outcome or gist of something is in its midst not just at its end” (Berrigan, Sonnets x). Not only does Berrigan succeed in overcoming the sonnet’s dependence on linear logic, but he also presents a new alternative to the once uncontestable limits of reality and time. As Ashbery puts it, Berrigan employs the aesthetic of “It’s what’s happening, baby” (Ashbery 119).

Part Two: “A Long Complex Moment”


In addition to the simultaneous occurrences of the poems in The Sonnets, there are other important ways in which Berrigan controls the presentation and operations of time in an attempt to create a profound experience for the reader. One device Berrigan relies on is the inclusion and repetition of “time stamps” such as the one found in the first line of “Sonnet II”: “It is 5:15 a.m.” This particular hour of the early morning was a time of great productivity for Berrigan, during which most of his writing occurred. As friend and fellow poet Ron Padgett states: “He liked being awake at night, especially around four or five in the morning when most everyone else is asleep and it is quiet, and the city belongs to you” (Padgett 77). At 5:15 a.m., Ted Berrigan is awake and writing while most of the world is approaching the moment when an evening’s slumber comes to an end with the onset of morning’s rituals and responsibilities. By working at such an unusual time of day, Berrigan felt a great sense of control over both the subdued city and the poems he was diligently constructing. “It is 5:15 a.m.” reappears several times throughout the book (even once more in Sonnet II), as do other “time stamps” like “8:30 p.m.,” “3:17 a.m.,” and “8:54 a.m.”


Rifkin elaborates on this device: “Recycled throughout The Sonnets, ‘it is 5:15 a.m.’ comes paradoxically to designate timelessness even as it gestures toward a new day and another occasion for poetry. Time, written and reiterated in The Sonnets, proves itself to be something that it is not in two very different senses: it becomes a fragment in the spatialized collage system, and an allegorical sign — a marker of its own passing” (Rifkin 123). Rifkin suggests that the use of these “time stamps” is both an assurance of the passing of time and a reiteration of the book’s “timelessness.” The timelessness of The Sonnets is no longer in question: this is a collection of unrestricted and open poems occurring simultaneously with one another, nullifying any possible beginning or end points despite most sonnets being numbered. Rifkin’s proposal of these “time stamps” as a way to mark the passing of time is unclear due to the complex workings of multiple “kinds” of time operating within the pages of The Sonnets and during the reader’s experience.


Throughout The Sonnets, the reader is surrounded by the following complex and simultaneous operations of time: 1)the reader’s own “personal time,” which includes the reader’s biographical history as well as the passing of an external time during the reading process; 2) Berrigan’s “biographical time,” which includes the events of his life before, during, and after the writing of The Sonnets; 3) “referenced time,” which includes the “time stamps” like 5:15 a.m. but also the historical eras containing the people, places, and events alluded to; and 4) the book’s “internal time,” including the fourteen-line clock, the repeated lines and phrases, and both the chronological appearance and simultaneous existence of the poems [4].


Consider a line appearing in The Sonnets that is “borrowed” from Arthur Rimbaud. This line exists in each “kind” of time listed above: it occurs during the instance of Rimbaud’s initial composition, the instance when Berrigan places the line into his own poem, and the instance(s) when the reader encounters this line during the reading experience. This existence within different planes of time demonstrates the tremendous power one line can possess and supports Notley’s suggestion of simultaneity brought on by the “invisible arrows pointing out from it backwards, forwards, and sideways.”


Alice Notley’s phrase “a long complex moment” is the perfect way to describe the reading experience created by The Sonnets. It is important to consider the literal meaning of a “moment”: a notable but unquantifiable measurement of time. The experience is momentary because it lasts only as long as the reader spends inside the book, and, as stated above, a moment cannot be quantified [5]. However, the moment is indeed ‘long’ because it contains a substantial amount of material which extends beyond the book’s physical pages to include the words and ideas of other poets and people living years, even centuries, before Berrigan published this book. While Berrigan likely intended for the poems to be read with the same expediency as his composition process, the actual act of reading The Sonnets demands an attentive and careful mindset. With so much information presented through such unusual methods, the reader must slow the pace so that the forces at work within the book can be fully appreciated and experienced.


This moment is “complex” because it pushes and pulls the reader from the past to the present to the future, disorienting the reader from the familiar logic and laws of time. Disorientation was part of Berrigan’s intended result, as he was particularly influenced by the “linguistic dissociation” found in Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath (Berrigan, Sonnets ix). The role of “chance” also amplifies this disorientation since each reader does not share the same exact experience [6]. Poet Charles Bernstein suggests that this causes a sort of identity crisis or confusion within the reader: ‘The Sonnets — with its permutational use of the same phrases in different sequences and its inclusion of external or found language — stands as an explicit rejection of the psychological ‘I’ as the locus of the poem’s meaning. This rejection, however, is complicated by the enormous pull The Sonnets exerts on readers to project onto the text a cohering ‘self’ even in the face of overtly incommensurable evidence’ (Lopez 287).


Ashbery also notes the disorienting effects extending from reappearing lines and phrases in different and unexplainable contexts: “One can never be sure whether it is the author speaking or somebody he overheard in the street, or a newspaper or a letter of another poem” (Ashbery 119). As the experience continues, the impossibility of determining each line’s origin becomes apparent. Even if a line was first thought of as being “borrowed” from an external poet or source, it transforms so many times throughout the book that its origin becomes irrelevant and its identity is no longer dependent on a definitive source. It exists and will continue to exist without explanation, similar to the enduring qualities The Sonnets has exhibited over the last fifty years [7].


Curtis Faville describes the endless movement and morphing within the text as an act of “time-cutting”: “The poems move forwards and backwards, above and below the flat line of consciousness (wakefulness and sleep), sobriety and inebriation, clarity and confusion, delight and consternation” (Faville 1). There is no refuting that the simultaneity of The Sonnets is directly correlated to these movements and that the lack of an ultimate destination towards which all this movement is directed embodies the book’s message that “the outcome or gist of something is in its midst not just at its end.”


As is the case in any reading experience, the reader is “brought to” the setting of the book, the place and time in which the described events are taking place. Some poetry depends less on setting and narrative than other forms of poetry but within The Sonnets a variety of specific times and places are mentioned, though the physical setting of the book exists outside the normal conception of “setting.” At different moments it seems that the setting could be New York City, or perhaps Tulsa, or maybe Berrigan’s hometown of Providence, or even the war-scenes he lived through while fighting in Korea. These locations exist merely as trivialities: because the reader’s experience can never be isolated to one particular place at one particular time, the “long complex moment” functions as both the “where” and “when” components of the setting. [8]


Eventually, the reader becomes familiar with the phrases and lines of The Sonnets’ strange-narrative and begins to recognize Berrigan’s strategic maneuvers, even anticipating future appearances of specific lines: “As this friction builds it cultivates an expectation within the reader, who anticipates that she’ll again encounter a woman named Margie, who is made more dear with each passing mention” (Pusateri 47). These expectations and continuing attachments to lines and figures gives further proof to the character-like roles embodied by individual lines.

Part Three: “These Go On Without Me”


In his critical essay “‘Powder on a Little Table’: Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets and 1960s Poems,” Tony Lopez argues that there are no “solutions” to explain the chaos found within The Sonnets, but this, too, has a purpose: “What is lost by ‘solving’ the poem in some way and allowing it to be reductively encompassed in such an account is the beauty of the poem. Berrigan’s sonnets have a new kind of beauty-without-completeness, a beauty that arises from the collaged poem-sequence’s disjunctive style” (Lopez 288). This incompleteness is both a prerequisite and a result of the timelessness and simultanaeity of The Sonnets. Because the poems and the book as a whole fail to establish tangible moments and locations of departure and arrival, they can be considered incomplete even if what is “happening” in the midst of everything is both beautiful and meaningful. Lyn Hejinian refers to The Sonnets as “A work in time about time’s inability to stop life.” By conquering the laws and limits of time, Berrigan does not prevent his own physical demise but instead eternally suspends himself within The Sonnets.


Rifkin suggests that “Berrigan wrote himself into the institution of the avant-garde by anticipating the moment when the institutions around poetry fold back into poetry itself” and that “Berrigan was uniquely positioned to ‘reintegrate art and life’ by making the historical predicament of the avant-garde his poetic subject” (Rifkin 111, 158). This argument takes a great deal of the “Ted Berrigan” out of Ted Berrigan. It portrays him as a calculated poet who relies on the coattails of his predecessors to bring him into poetic prominence, not as the young and fearless poet bold enough to take an educated but dangerous risk who, by chance, finds himself writing at a particularly active and uproarious time of American poetry. As well-read and widely influenced as Berrigan was, his success with The Sonnets, like most successes in any pursuit, was equally dependent on luck and chance as hard work and erudition. Though he continued to publish quality work up until his death at age 48 in 1983, The Sonnets has remained Berrigan’s most important and most well-known book [9]. By writing The Sonnets in the way that he did — with the laws of time being mutilated and defeated — the Ted Berrigan of 5:15 a.m. in 1963 can still converse with the reader of today.


One of several mortal figure appearing in The Sonnets is the recently deceased (March 4, 1963) William Carlos Williams [10], who had a strong influence on Berrigan even though he criticized the sonnet form: ‘Forcing twentieth century America into a sonnet — gosh how I hate sonnets — is like putting a crab into a square box. You’ve got to cut his legs off to make him fit. When you get through, you don’t have a crab anymore’ (Rifkin 113). Berrigan attempts to refute Williams’s theory by aggressively approaching the form with the influence of the first-generation poets in mind. Berrigan adamantly includes the line ‘and the sonnet is not dead’ in several poems mentioning Williams by name.


Notley also acknowledges this ever-present theme of mortality: “It is a young man’s book, the product of a relentless self-education, and being partly constructed out of lines from ‘early poems,’ often suggests the awkward intensity of inexperience. But it floats above that place as if observing it from the dead” (Berrigan, Collected 3). Berrigan, by borrowing lines, resurrecting the traditional sonnet form, and alluding to his own future death, demonstrates a conscious and steadfast pursuit of an immortal perspective. Throughout his career, Berrigan stated that the writing of The Sonnets marked the “finish of something, not the beginning” and that “I didn’t write it out of being this person that I am here. It was by writing it that I became the someone who is the someone a good many years younger who is here” (Waldman 22).


The Sonnets’ importance, to both the New York School and the entirety of 20th century American poetry, extends far beyond Berrigan’s heroic victory over the restraints of time; it both marks the movement into the second-generation of the New York School [11] and, by drawing such heavy influence from Ashbery, Koch, and O’Hara, reaffirms the importance of the first. Berrigan drew influence from so many writers that critic Renny Pritkin claimed The Sonnets as ‘our most valuable document summing up literary events of that era — a vital breakthrough in American poetry’ (Waldman 24). In addition to introducing the distinctly boisterous voice of Ted Berrigan to contemporary poetry, The Sonnets actively reassess previously established approaches to the sonnet and sonnet sequence in its aesthetic intentions. Berrigan’ss defiance of logic, time, and traditional poetic practices has successfully suspended The Sonnets in eternal historic reverence while reaffirming the qualities of risk and possibility as important poetic necessities.


[1] In her notes on The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan, Notley states that Berrigan actually began working on the first set of sonnets in November of 1962, not early 1963 (Berrigan, Collected 667).

[2] Part of The Sonnets’ importance to the New York School was the fact that it was heavily influenced by the first-generation but also because it was one of the first books of the group to actually contain so much of New York. While the entire New York School was very “American” in terms of vernacular and cultural references, The Sonnets is extremely American, referencing figures from several wars, folk heroes, and, in its entire conception, a microcosm of the American dream and the ideals related to it.

[3] While Berrigan was directly influenced by both Pound and Eliot, he also distances himself from this era by claiming, “I had never heard of the word ‘modernism’” (Waldman 22).

[4] Virtually all reading experiences deal with at least two “kinds” of times, some even all four of the “kinds” listed here. What makes The Sonnets so unique and so effective is the cohesive arrangement of the different “kinds” of time and the tremendous complexities of the book’s “internal time.”

[5] The experience cannot be thought of in terms of the time it takes to read the entire book since the poems only appear in chronological order. Because they exist simultaneously, there is no definitive beginning or end point to correspond with the start and finish of the reader’s experience.

[6] From Notley’s introduction to The Sonnets: “Marcel Duchamp once said, ‘Your chance is not the same as mine, just as your throw of the dice will rarely be the same as mine’” (Berrigan, Sonnets x).

[7] From Notley’s introduction: “Year after year The Sonnets continues to be both mysterious and manageable, but most especially it continues to be there: a ‘fact of modern poetry,’ as Frank O’Hara once said of it. It probably predicts subsequent works by other poets, and aspects of subsequent poetic movements, but that’s not particularly important. What’s important is that it’s now timeless” (Berrigan, Sonnets xiv).

[8] It could be argued that John Ashbery’s 1972 book, Three Poems, functions in a similar manner, creating an orchestrated and intimate experience for the reader. While Three Poems has few aesthetic similarities with The Sonnets, perhaps Berrigan had an influence on Ashbery’s book. This is surely up for debate, but the suggestion that Three Poems and The Sonnets are two of the most profound aesthetic statements of the era is not.

[9] While it is Berrigan’s most well-known work, critics and anthologies have largely avoided The Sonnets and Berrigan’s poetry as a whole. Most criticism available on Berrigan focuses on his personality and the “legend of Ted Berrigan” he created and embodied. Berrigan’s biography is much more accessible than his poetics, but the shortage of scholarly criticism on the finely-tuned machine of The Sonnets is astounding.

[10] Not to mention Frank O’Hara, the inspiration of Berrigan’s famous line “feminine, marvelous, and tough.” O’Hara died in an accident on Fire Island at the age of 40, two years after The Sonnets were first published.

[11] The formation and subsequent success of this second-generation can also be attributed to Ted Berrigan’s wide circle of friends and his genial demeanor. Berrigan also edited “C” magazine (which published many of his friends and contemporaries) and operated “C” press, which published a number of books including the earliest editions of The Sonnets. Some of the other second-generation poets include Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, and Jim Carroll.


Ashbery, John, and Eugene Richie. “Review of Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets.” Selected Prose. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2004. 117–19. Print.

Berrigan, Ted. Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan. Berkeley: University of California, 2005. Print.

———. The Sonnets. New York: Penguin Poets, 2000. Print.

Creeley, Robert. “Ted Berrigan’s Death.” The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley. Berkeley: University of California, 1989. 324–25. Print.

Faville, Curtis. “Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets — 45 Years On.” Web log post. The Compass Rose. 9 Aug. 2009. Web. 10 Feb. 2010.

Lehman, David. The Last Avant-garde: the Making of the New York School of Poets. New York: Anchor, 1999. Print.

Lopez, Tony. ““Powder on a Little Table”: Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets and 1960s Poems.” Journal of American Studies 36.2 (2002): 281–92. JSTOR. Web. 10 Feb. 2010.

Padgett, Ron. Ted: A Personal Memoir of Ted Berrigan. Great Barrington: Figures, 1993. Print.

Pusateri, Chris. “On Ted Berrigan.” Verse 23.1–3 (2006): 43–49. Print.

Rifkin, Libbie. ““Worrying About Making It”: Ted Berrigan’s Social Poetics.“Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-Garde. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2000. 108–35. Print.

Waldman, Anne, ed. Nice To See You: Homage to Ted Berrigan. Minneapolis: Coffee House, Consortium Book Sales and Distribution, 1988. Print.

Timothy Henry

Timothy Henry

Timothy Henry was born in Voorhees, New Jersey in 1987. He attended the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia. His poems have appeared in Parthenon West Review and Verse Daily and his critical writings have appeared online at Verse and

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