On The Selected Poems of Ted Berrigan

Andy Frazee

The Selected Poems of Ted BerriganEdited by Alice Notley, Anselm Berrigan, and Edmund Berrigan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. 239 pages. $24.95.

Ted Berrigan—the poet best known for catalyzing the so-called second-generation New York School of poetry in the 1960’s and 70’s—writes more about Pepsi than any poet I’ve read:

I wake up 11:30 back aching from soft bed Pat
gone to work Ron to class (I never heard a sound)
it’s my birthday. 27. I put on birthday
pants birthday shirt go to ADAM’s buy a Pepsi for
breakfast come home drink it take a pill
I’m high! (“Personal Poem #2” 14)

Berrigan’s Pepsi motif can provide an admittedly strained metaphor for understanding an oeuvre constantly walking the line between the past and the future. Tiptoeing between his interest in Shakespearean sonnets and his commitment to the postmodern aesthetic of the postwar era, Berrigan cultivated both his hero-worship of the previous generation, especially the New York Schoolers John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O’Hara, as well as the impulse to, as Ezra Pound famously incited, “make it new.”

If in Berrigan’s adulation of his New York School forebears we see a certain relishing of his latecomer status, in his love of second-place Pepsi we may see his veering away from his true father figure, O’Hara—who famously wrote of “having a Coke with you.” “Frank O’Hara respected love, so do you, & so do we,” Berrigan writes in “New Personal Poem”—the title itself a reference to O’Hara—“He was himself & I was me” (138).

Berrigan’s lyric “I” is exhibit A in the poet’s navigation of old and new. A scrap of Ashbery and a fidget of Koch wrapped up in the cape of O’Hara, at times the “I” is a quotation of Berrigan’s own, earlier work, complicating any claim that the poetry is merely imitative of that earlier generation. Rather, through this weaving of self into other, others into self, the poet claims a broader conception of selfhood—as here, in the justly-lauded Sonnets, the early masterpiece that may too often be seen as defining the Berrigan’s output:

Dear Margie, hello. It is 5:15 a.m.
dear Berrigan. He died
Back to books. I read
It’s 8:30 p.m. in New York and I’ve been running around all day
old come-all-ye’s streel into the streets. Yes, it is now,
How Much Longer Shall I Be Able To Inhabit The Divine
and the day is bright gray turning green (17)

While Berrigan’s lyric is still a sounding board for the self-singing “I,” that “I” doesn’t just contain multitudes, but is constructed—constituted—by them. (In the above case, literally, by the appropriation of earlier Berrigan works and a title of Ashbery’s.) If Whitman contained multitudes, and O’Hara mapped their networks, Berrigan shows how the multitudes who contain us are us: I is an other, but I is also others. “After / all,” he writes in “Upside Down,” “we all have a polymorphous perverse / first person singular, don’t we?” (186).

Given this emphasis on the ways that others make up oneself, it’s no surprise that through the lens of this Selected Poems we see a strain of elegy in Berrigan’s oeuvre, as in these lines from “Things to Do in Providence,” which recall Auden’s elegy of Yeats. Given the poet’s early death in 1983, the somber tone seems prophetic:

I open a beautiful letter. The heart stops briefly when someone dies,
a quick pain as you hear the news, & someone passes
from your outside life to inside. (118)

Against this strain—Freud would be proud—is a clear drive toward life, libidinal in some respects, but in a greater respect intimate and communal. It is a life that is written as much as lived:

                        From you. When we are both dead,

that letter
                        will be Part Two
                                                             of this poem.

                               *
            But now we are both alive
                        & terrific! (104)

If a selected poems has one advantage over individual books, or over a collected volume—and I would submit they are few—it is the ease with which a mind may grasp a life’s work, particularly for those who have passed on. The particulars of such a grasp, though, is only one possibility among many. Editorial attention determines frame and content, and makes a certain model of the poet’s voice in the same way that the attention of others builds models of oneself, multiplied among others’ heads.

The previous edition of Berrigan’s Selected Poems (Penguin, 1993), edited by Aram Saroyan, is a more-focused affair, with one poem to a page and the whole of The Sonnets included. While this new volume lacks the earlier one’s easy reading, this volume’s format, with the poems rubbing up against one another, stretching across pages, seems itself a reflection of Berrigan’s quotidian, collage-based poetic. Beyond that, the sheer increase in the number of poems, helpfully organized chronologically, allows for a fuller range of Berrigan’s work to be included.

That this collection was edited and introduced by those closest to the poet, the accomplished poets Edmund and Anselm Berrigan and the great Alice Notley, makes a potent claim about a certain breed of afterlife—the poet, father, partner, and friend living on through those who loved him. This may have been on Ted’s mind all along. “I’m only pronouns,” he writes, “& I am all of them, & I didn’t ask for this, / You did”:

I came into your life to change it & it did so & now nothing
            will ever change
That, and that’s that.
Alone & crowded, unhappy fate, nevertheless
            I slip softly into the air
The world’s furious song flows through my costume. (160)

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