By Ted Berrigan (Edited by Alice Notley, Anselm Berrigan, and Edmund Berrigan; University of California Press, 2005)
I had a friend at high school called Andy Mitchell (Mitch) who had the knack of befriending anyone he happened to meet and charmingly cadging anything from confidence to cigarettes to sex. No Charles Ryder, he was at the time a slightly overweight boy of fair if unprepossessing features, hair tending to the lank and clothes tending to the untucked. His charm was his vulnerability, as well as his gusto for life and the ideas that glue its disparate parts together. He was a voracious and wonderfully perceptive reader, though, who, courtesy of one of the most favorable offers they could give, headed off from our unfashionable provincial grammar school to read English at Oxford.
Reading The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan is like a journey into an adult American Mitch. Berrigan has the same gregarious vulnerability of the perennial outsider (he came to New York with the so-called Tulsa Group and had a love-hate relationship with Columbia, where he knew students) mixed with the surprisingly sinewy literary mind of a true believer in language. His poems, stretching across the 1960s and 1970s, document a life, a lifestyle, and an attitude to life that is refreshingly different from what’s modeled by some of the circumscribed, corporate, careful artists of today. Along with throwaway lines testifying to his careless promiscuity (“If I fall in love with my friend’s wife, she’s fucked”) from the children’s-book-looking “Bean Spasms,” his oeuvre includes comic poems like “Winter” (“The Moon is Yellow. / My Nose is Red”).
Allowing him the formal leeway for such experiments, perhaps, was his book The Sonnets (1964), for which he received the Poetry Foundation Award. It is a sequence of seventy-seven poems that deal with his daily life, his loves, and the sonnet form itself. The sonnets he uses are a far cry from Donne’s or Shakespeare’s, but this sequence tracing Berrigan’s own poetic education offers treatments of the sonnet more sympathetic than might be expected from an experimental beat poet. Berrigan showed that the sonnet was not necessarily about iambic pentameter, but rather a form dependent upon certain intimate relationships of rhythm and understandings of the world. To effect these relationships he borrows liberally from the world and the poets around him. The sequence contains translated, unattributed verse from Rilke and Rimbaud, snatches of conversations overheard, and recycled lines of his own from earlier in the series. It is, perhaps, the most impressively contemporary book about the sonnet that the twentieth century produced.
I’ve lost touch with Mitch, but I hope he has a better fate than Ted Berrigan, who died on July 4, 1983, of liver complications after years of health problems exacerbated by amphetamine use, long-standing but undiagnosed hepatitis, and inability to afford medical care. If Mitch did die early, he could do worse than be commemorated by a book like this--a comprehensive book lovingly packed full of life and serious daily literary exercise by Berrigan’s poet wife, Alice Notley, and his poet sons, Edmund and Anselm Berrigan. It’s a book to pick up for half an hour every week for the rest of your life, share the experiences of a lifetime lived in and for art, and witness in action the reformulation of poetry for a modern life.
Dan Friedman is an associate editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. He is the only writer for Da Ali G Show to have a Ph.D. from Yale.