La Vie de Bohème

La Vie de Bohème

Drawing from the New York counterculture in which he immersed himself, Ted Berrigan’s sonnets and other poems sing beautifully about being broken and graceful and tough.


Several years after Ted Berrigan’s death, in 1983, the poet Ron Padgett spent some time reading his friend’s papers at Columbia University. It was an unsettling experience, not least because Berrigan was only 48 years old when he died. The two men had met in 1959. Berrigan was working on a master’s degree about George Bernard Shaw at the University of Tulsa; he was also a poet, and he came to know Padgett through a little magazine edited by Padgett and sold in a local bookstore. Berrigan grew to detest Tulsa’s literary scene, which he found uptight and elitist, and in 1960, along with Padgett and a few other young Tulsa writers, he moved to Manhattan. Berrigan lived downtown and eked out an existence by reselling stolen books, sponging off friends and working the occasional odd job. Padgett was a student at Columbia and lived uptown. Berrigan often spent weekends with him there, and before long he was earning a little money by ghostwriting papers for Columbia undergraduates. Twenty years later Padgett couldn’t help but find it bizarre that many of the ghostwriter’s own papers–letters, journals, notes and drafts of poems from those early years in New York City–had ended up at Columbia as well, enshrined in its library’s special collections.

The story of Berrigan’s short career as a poet is a remarkable one, but it’s a story too often told by focusing on the extravagant circumstances of the poet’s life. Berrigan fancied being a poète maudit, fashioning himself as an outcast whose derangement and self-abasement were a protest against the timidity and complacency of bourgeois life. “This year, in this season, I am ‘sick’ because among other things I scorn their new God of analysis,” Berrigan told his first wife, Sandy Alpers Berrigan, in a letter in 1962. If you read about Berrigan, you’re bound to learn about his reckless treatment of his body and his ghastly diet (he subsisted mostly on Pepsi, greasy hamburgers and peanut butter sandwiches), or about how he forged prescriptions to buy the many milligrams of speed that fueled his marathon sessions of writing, reading, talking and pontificating. Such snapshots of Berrigan’s personal life are meaningful, but they provide little guidance for anyone trying to grasp how the words Berrigan wrote continue to live beyond the life he led, an undertaking made more difficult as only a relatively small amount of Berrigan’s poetry has remained in print since his death.

The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan changes all that. Packed with hundreds of poems long out of print as well as dozens more previously unpublished in books or magazines, The Collected Poems is not simply a book but a portable archive, one that creates a little space between the poet’s career and stories about his life. The volume makes it impossible not to notice that there was always more to Berrigan than the poète maudit of the Lower East Side. Padgett once characterized his friend as a “combat boot among ballet slippers,” a remark meant to convey how Berrigan, a working-class kid from Providence, Rhode Island, who had been in the Army and went to college in Tulsa on the GI Bill, felt cowed during his early years in Manhattan whenever he found himself among urbane poets like Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery, all of whom had graduated from Harvard. The Collected Poems shows that Berrigan was equally adept at wearing both shoes, balancing cockiness and composure, grit and grace. In the second poem of The Sonnets, Berrigan writes, “dear Berrigan. He died/Back to books. I read.” With The Collected Poems providing an unprecedented opportunity to plunge into Berrigan’s work, those lines have never seemed more apt.

Written in a three-month burst, The Sonnets (1963) was Berrigan’s first book, one bristling with defiance. Berrigan had dared to use a form that the grandees of American Modernism had condemned. William Carlos Williams, for example, thought that writing a sonnet in modern America was like “putting a crab into a square box. You’ve got to cut his legs off to make him fit.” Berrigan’s defiance, however, involved more than simply embracing a form that Williams had deemed archaic to the American tongue. Berrigan’s sonnets ring serious changes on the traditional sonnet structure of an octave followed by a sestet. Influenced by Tristan Tzara’s cut-ups, John Cage’s chance compositions and the jarring polyphony of John Ashbery’s second book, The Tennis Court Oath, Berrigan assembled his fourteen-liners according to various methods. Lines quarried from Berrigan’s unpublished poems are worked into a sonnet according to strict formulas. Lines, phrases and shards of lines from sonnets early in the series reappear later in different permutations. Berrigan’s own words are collaged with language snatched from the work of other poets. Consequently, a Berrigan sonnet can contain abrupt tonal shifts, disjointed syntax and startling enjambments, and the couplet, if there is one, can appear at the poem’s end (its traditional spot) or in its middle. If Williams considered the sonnet a Procrustean box, Berrigan turned it into a Rubik’s Cube.

Berrigan didn’t gravitate to the sonnet simply to defy his elders, however. The Sonnets is also a work of consolidation. The motifs of Berrigan’s unpublished early poems–friendship, love, devotion, an acute longing for transformation–are the same ones that Petrarch, writing in the fourteenth century, had designed the sonnet to address. Whereas the stiff, baroque style of Berrigan’s early poems often muffled these motifs, the sonnet presented him with a way to frame and sharpen them. From Sonnet IV:

Lord, it is time. Summer was very great
All sweetly spoke to her of me
about your feet, so delicate, and yet double E!!

Moreover, Berrigan’s enthusiasm for The Tennis Court Oath wasn’t limited to its disjunctive style. As with Ashbery’s book, thwarted expectations and a sense of vulnerability and waywardness fill Berrigan’s early unpublished poems, and what The Tennis Court Oath showed Berrigan was how a style could be used both to conceal and reveal those feelings.

The Sonnets bristles with contraries that are more than stylistic. Sonnet I begins with a veiled tribute to Ezra Pound, and as such is an expression of Berrigan’s prodigious ambition; but the final sonnet, LXXXVIII, ends by quoting Prospero’s dramatic renunciation of mastery in The Tempest. Making matters more complex, other sonnets incorporate lines from Berrigan’s incandescent translation of Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau ivre.” Berrigan uses Rimbaud not only to celebrate nomadic delirium but also to express his own nostalgia for fragile things. “The only travelled sea/that I still dream of/is a cold black pond, where once/on a fragrant evening fraught with sadness/I launched a boat frail as a butterfly,” he writes in Sonnet LXXIV. But two poems later, his dream-skiff abandoned, Berrigan is agonized, deflated: “I wonder if I’m too old. I wonder if I’m fooling/myself about pills. I wonder what’s in the icebox. I wonder/if Ron or Pat bought any toilet paper this morning.” The Berrigan who emerges from The Sonnets is delirious, ravaged, generous, rude, confident, doubt-ridden, tender. His defiance is rooted in his honesty and modesty, a sensibility beautifully conveyed by an image that appears in three sonnets: “my dream a crumpled horn.”

The Sonnets was first published by C Press, a spinoff of the mimeographed magazine “C” (A Journal of Poetry), which shortly after its founding by Berrigan in 1963 was irrigating the Lower East Side’s literary scene with attitude and talent. In a sense, by making “C” into a gathering place for an eclectic group of artists and poets (Padgett, Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Lorenzo Thomas and Joe Brainard, among many others), Berrigan was building on the spirit of coterie that imbues The Sonnets, filled as it is with poems addressed to his friends (“Dear Margie,” “Dear Ron,” “DEAR CHRIS”) and the borrowed words of other poets. During the mid-1960s Berrigan was also a charismatic presence at Le Metro coffeehouse, a popular venue for open poetry readings, as well as at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, and through his involvement with “C” and the downtown poetry counterculture he earned a little fame [see Palattella, “When Poetry Was the Rage,” June 16, 2003]. In 1966 Berrigan did a screen test for Andy Warhol, who later gave him a Brillo box that he used as a coffee table. At the same time, The Sonnets earned Berrigan some respect beyond New York. During the late 1960s and early ’70s, he lived a peripatetic life, teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Yale, the University of Michigan and the University of Essex in England, where he replaced Robert Lowell.

Berrigan didn’t write another book like The Sonnets. Although he published many other books, he never again composed poems with a book’s final shape in mind. Nevertheless, he continued to write in the spirit of The Sonnets, always seeking to rejuvenate poetic diction through experiments in form and address. To his toolkit of found materials, the cut-up and chance methods he added experiments in rhyme, one-word poems, techniques derived from Kenneth Koch’s guides to poetry writing and field composition (in which a poem’s left-hand margin changes from line to line or stanza to stanza). Some poems sprawl and lunge about the page; others have a chiseled feel. Some are accomplished yet casual; others advertise their stumbles.

Throughout this incessant experimentation Berrigan’s concerns remained consistent. Reading The Collected Poems, one is struck by how often Berrigan wrote in what can only be called a posthumous vein. In Sonnet II he mentions his dead self in the third person. After Jack Kerouac died in 1969, he wrote “Telegram”–“Bye-Bye Jack./See you soon.”–an adaptation of a telegram Marcel Duchamp had sent to the dying Francis Picabia in 1953: Francis à Bientôt (“Francis, see you soon”). In “Last Poem,” which was written four years before Berrigan’s death and was not his last poem, Berrigan speaks of his dead self in the first person: “Before I began life this time/I took a crash course in Counter-Intelligence.” This posthumous feeling may have stemmed from Berrigan’s chronic ill health, but it’s clear from the poems that it has more than a merely personal dimension. A Berrigan poem often alludes to the time of day (“Here I am at 8:08 p.m. indefinable ample rhythmic frame,” begins “Red Shift”) or is organized around the conceit of describing things to do, as in “Things to Do in Anne’s Room” or “7 Things I Do in the Hotel Chelsea.” Such forms of poetic address may sound sappy or naïve, but they are quickened into significance by the intimation of mortality always lurking in Berrigan’s poems. Berrigan is an elegist of the present for whom the things one does to fill the hours and days comprise life’s most important works.

I fear I’ve made Berrigan sound pensive and cerebral, which he is not. His poems often feature situations that seem scripted for brooding, yet he reacts to them with bursts of bathos undercut with wry self-effacement. In “Things to Do in Providence” Berrigan has returned home to visit his mother, whose own mother is dying. His sense of dislocation at his mother’s house is stifling, and he tries to alleviate it by reading, turning first to The Life of Turner and then to “The Book of Marvels, 1934:/The year I was born./No mention of my birth in here. Hmmm.” Later he takes a walk, and his long hair draws mild taunts from two teenagers: “‘How’d you like a broken head, kid?’/I say fiercely./(but I am laughing & they are not one bit scared.)/So, I go home.” And once there, he reflects:

The heart stops briefly when someone dies,
a quick pain as you hear the news, & someone passes
from your outside life to inside. Slowly the heart adjusts
to its new weight, & slowly everything continues, sanely.

Berrigan recycled this stanza in “Memorial Day,” a long poem written in collaboration with Anne Waldman. Because “Memorial Day” is more somber than comic, and when comic, often silly, the stanza sounds platitudinous. Because the stanza in “Things to Do in Providence” follows a series of complex comic moments, it has the ring of a genuine insight. There are several recognizable comic styles in American poetry today: intellectual fancy (Charles Bernstein), adolescent prankishness (Bill Knott) and domesticated daffiness (Billy Collins, James Tate). Read against these styles, Berrigan’s comic-elegiac sensibility sounds vital and new.

Another recurring conceit in Berrigan’s work is the tension between exterior and interior. Most famously there’s “Night Letter,” which begins: “Dear Marge, hello. It is 5:15 a.m./Outside my room atonal sounds of rain/Drum in the pre-dawn. In my skull my brain/Aches in rhythm to that pounding morning rain./In your letter, many questions. I read/them over and over.” Berrigan uses the movement from exterior to interior to convey the fragility of emotional experience or a sense of panic or solitude, states he tries to endure or assuage by focusing on a thing to do, which in “Night Letter” is reading. In fact, one of the striking aspects of Berrigan’s last book, A Certain Slant of Sunlight, is how completely this conceit had taken over Berrigan’s existence by the end of his life. In 1982 an alternative press sent him 500 postcards, on which he was to write poems. The finished cards were returned a year later to the press, which distributed them singly. Berrigan was mostly bedridden when he worked on the poems, and he induced many of the friends who visited him to collaborate on postcards. (A Certain Slant of Sunlight contains 100 of the postcard poems.) Like the sunlight, or the news of someone’s death, friends flooded from the outside into Berrigan’s bedroom, and the record of their presence is the poem, which returns to the outside on a postcard.

The poems also returned Berrigan to his poetic beginnings. As in The Sonnets, he found himself working within strict constraints–the 41/2-by-7-inch message space of the postcard. Consequently, descriptive language is spare yet vivid (“When the lilacs come I’ll flip/til thrice I hear your call, darkling thrush”), and modulations in tone are abrupt yet delicate (“Hollywood//paid Lillian Gish $800,000 to/disappear so lovely so pure like milk”). Petrarch’s nickname for his “Canzoniere” was Rerum vulgarium fragmenta–“fragments of matters in common speech”–a nickname that also suits A Certain Slant of Sunlight, in which vivid bits of description and reflection form a crazy-quilt story about a single year in Berrigan’s life.

In an homage written several years after Berrigan’s death, the poet Ed Dorn remarked that Berrigan’s failing “was that his subject matter was limited too often to his friends, or circle.” Dorn was part of that circle and so knew of Berrigan’s failing firsthand. Reading A Certain Slant of Sunlight, which in some moments is annoyingly parochial, it’s hard to disagree with him. But Dorn’s assessment didn’t end on a sour note. “That limitation was also his humility, possibly his greatest strength,” Dorn was quick to add. I’d go further and venture that Berrigan’s humility grows in strength if one counts among his friends not just the familiars of his coterie but the poets whose work Berrigan adored, scorned, absorbed and transformed. These two groups were part of the furniture of his life and mind–a friend of Berrigan’s once found the poet’s desk stuffed with unpublished imitations of Shakespeare, Rimbaud, Eliot, Rilke and Auden. Poets living and dead were a special kind of company for Berrigan, one in whose presence he could test his devotion to poetry and nurture it into a vocation.

Such devotion fueled an epic ambition, one that drove Berrigan from Tulsa to Manhattan yet curiously enough didn’t compel him to imitate the elders he most admired–Eliot, Williams and Pound–and endeavor to write an epic poem about the West. Instead, it led to an apprenticeship with the sonnet and then to the no-less-tricky task of writing occasional poems about love, solitude, friendship, marriage, panic, boredom and death. Indeed, thanks to this invaluable Collected Poems, one can hear, as never before, Ted Berrigan dreaming his dream of a crumpled horn: His is a broken instrument that can sing beautifully, and what it sings about is being broken and graceful and tough.

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