Sunday, January 11, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 14.1 (Ted Berrigan)

Berrigan, Ted
On The Level Everyday: 
Selected Talks on Poetry and the Art of Living

I just wrote this out and then somehow lost half of it. I will try to reconstruct the first half from memory. It went something like this:

I don't remember if I bought this book in New York or after I moved to Buffalo. I think the latter.

If you are interested in Ted Berrigan, or in practical ways of thinking about writing poetry, or about the teaching of the writing of poetry, this is a useful book. It also gives a great sense of Berrigan the man, at least in his role of teacher and talker (never having met him, I can only say that the image of a specific person emerges from the pages like a character in a novel). Alice Notley notes in her preface that Berrigan "thought by talking, or by writing."

The image that emerges in these talks is of a poet with a utilitarian sense of the poem as a made thing and of the poet as a maker of things called poems. He shows little interest in (one might even say he shows a disdain for) theorizing for its own sake. His poetics is a poetics of action: ideas either serve the poet in the writing of his or her poems or they do not. He is not interested in talking about ideas that do not.

What also emerges is the image of teacher that knows how to help students write poetry: provide them with practical ideas about writing, and try to remove the barriers that might keep them from putting those ideas to work in the service of writing poems.

(end of reconstruction)

He manages to read great poems by great poets, to mark those poets and poem as such, i.e., "great," and to simultaneously remove the terror of approaching these "great" poets and poems as an apprentice writer. His students are encouraged to read Shakespeare, love Shakespeare, learn from Shakespeare, but they are not taught that they will never be Shakespeare or that they should even aspire to be Shakespeare. I can imagine this produced an environment where young poets felt free to experiment in all different ways and also liberated them from the tyranny of having to produce a perfect poem each time out.

I know I felt that way reading them for the first time. It's like having a sports coach who really cares for you on and off the field. He wants you to succeed and to be part of a team, but he doesn't want to crush your spirit in the process of doing so.

Here's a brief passage from one of the talks:

Now what is a poet? A poet is someone who writes poems. They don't have to be good poems. There are many ways to write poems, but it would probably be more preferable to say a poet is someone who makes poems. What is a poem? A poem is anything that anybody wants to call a poem. Basically because we don't want to bother with that kind of a question. It's a stupid, ridiculous question, and one does not want to get into those kinds of definitions. If you think you'll be a poet, you'll know what a poem is. Because you'll recognize it when you see them. And some poems, you see them, and they are good, and that's great. And some poems, you see them, and they're not so good, but both those are poems. Some things are called poems, and you see them, and they're not poems, but they're good to read. If a person wants to call them a poem, that's fine. Some things that you see are writings; you look at them, and they're called poems, and they're not good to read, and they're not poems, and so you just forget, you just ignore them, because everything that's no good will disappear of its own accord in time. You don't have to really worry about that.

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