Sunday, January 11, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 14 (Ted Berrigan)

Selected Poems
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Berrigan, Ted
Selected Poems

I first discovered the New York School of poetry in, I think, 1993. I read a poem by John Ashbery in The Best American Poetry 1992 called "Baked Alaska." I also discovered language poetry in that same volume, vis-a-vis a poem by Charles Bernstein called, "How I Painted Certain of My Pictures." It was a great relief to discover poets that seemed to have read the modernists and were trying to extend that strain of American poetry into the present. Since graduating from college, I had been looking in all the wrong places for poets that were doing something other than telling straightforward stories about their childhood traumas and discoveries, or writing about the beautiful objects in their ancestral New England homes, etc. These two poets dug wordplay, read philosophy and had senses of humor. I felt an immediate kinship with them. Even so, a couple of more years passed before I took to reading the New York School poets.

When I did, I started with Frank O'Hara, who I loved and whose poems I wanted to and did imitate for a time. This of course lead me to reading Ashbery and James Schuyler and Barbara Guest and then onto the next generation of Ted Berrigan and Bernadette Mayer and Ron Padgett and Alice Notley and Anne Waldman and so on. I used to wander around the East Village and other parts of the city gawking at what I had been told were former apartment buildings of all these poets. I would sit in the Cedar Tavern wishing the abstract expressionists would walk in and start a fight with the poets. (Instead it was filled with people getting off of work and getting quietly drunk and going home, which has a certain poignancy, but little romance).

My first, very superficial response to reading Ted Berrigan was that he was a poor man's Frank O'Hara. The details he lifted from O'Hara, like the marking of the hour and place of the writing of the poem within the poem itself seemed to me a blatant rip-off. (Of course, the idea that someone might lift a line from another poet and put it into their own poem was utterly shocking to me at the time -- it just wasn't done).

This was probably 1996, and I was in a poetry reading frenzy. I had given up on trying to be a novelist (short attention span) and a rock star (couldn't sing very well) and focused all my energies on trying to be a poet.

At the time, it was virtually impossible to find a copy of The Sonnets in a bookstore, and I didn't really know enough people in the avant-poetry world that I could have borrowed a copy, so this was my only access to Berrigan's work, and remained so for several years. As helpful as it was, I always felt frustrated by the fact I couldn't read The Sonnets as a whole. It's a great selection of poems, though. There's very little in it I would exclude and very little not in it I would want to include (outside the complete cycle of The Sonnets, that is).

I've always loved this first poem:

Words for Love

for Sandy

crisp and the brittleness of snow
as like make me tired as no. I go my
myriad ways blundering, bombastic, dragged
by a self that can never be still, pushed
by my surging blood, my reasoning mind.

I am in love with poetry. Every way I turn
this, my weakness, smites me. A glass
of chocolate milk, head of lettuce, dark-
ness of clouds at one o'clock obsess me.
I weep for all of these or laugh.

By day I sleep, an obscurantist, lost
in dreams of lists, compiled by my self
for reassurance. Jackson Pollack René
Rilke Benedict Arnold I watch
my psyche, smile, dream wet dreams, and sigh.

At night, awake, high on poems, or pills
or simple awe that loveliness exists, my lists
flow differently. Of words bright red
and black, and blue. Bosky. Oubliette. Dis-
severed. And O, alas

Time disturbs me. Always minute detail
fills me up. It is 12:10 in New York. In Houston
it is 2 p.m. It is time to steal books. It's time to go mad. 
It is the day of the apocalypse
the year of parrot fever! What am I saying?

Only this. My poems do contain
wilde beestes. I write for my lady
of the lake. My god is immense, and lonely
but uncowed. I trust my sanity, and I am proud. If
I sometimes grow weary, and seem still

my heart still loves, will break.

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