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.