Saturday, September 13, 2008

“Wrong Train”

Ted Berrigan is a poet for whom I’ve felt a great affinity ever since I began reading his poems seriously back in my San Francisco days. His wife, poet Alice Notley, described his poetry beautifully in her introduction to his “Selected Poems” (Penguin, 1994, © Alice Notley)

“Ted valued wit, anecdote, amusement (he liked to point out that that word contains the word “muse), presentation of character (“who is speaking”), awareness of audience (“who is being spoken to”), friendliness, sentiment (sometimes as anger), musicality. He was interested in pace: He often said he wanted his poems to sound like the pace at which he walked, and many of his poems from the late 60s and early 70s are like a walk across the page.”

One quality I find in Berrigan (& Notley mentions this, too) is his openess—not in a confessional sense, but in the way the reader is welcomed to his poetry. In terms of style, I also feel an affinity with Berrigan, though I certainly take a seat quite a ways back on the bus from him. Mari Hata, a poebiz pal at the University of Virginia once described me to her class of undergraduates before a “guest spot” as a “beat formalist.” I think Mari made that up on the spot, but it’s always been my favorite characterization of my own poetry, & as far as mine goes, is as true as any such pithy term can be. The term also could apply to Berrigan. Though he was an East Coast guy—originally from Providence, RI) & very associated with the so-called New York school that included lots of well-known poets & painters: poets such as Frank O’Hara (Berrigan’s hero—& mine), John Ashberry, Kenneth Koch, & painters such as Jackson Pollock & Willem de Kooning—among many, many others.

At least some of the New York poets—including Berrigan—are often associated with the Beat poets, & this is legitimate. It does seem as though the New York poets (to make a sweeping generalization) play a bit more with traditional stanzaic forms than the Left Coast Beats, & it also seems their poems may rely a bit more on wit & humor, & definitely less on nods to Eastern spirituality.

I’ll be brief with the bio: Berrigan was born in Providence in 1934, died in 1984 in NY, NY as the result of a liver condition—sadly, the result of a life lived hard. Berrigan described himself as "modestly venerable, large, traditional in appearance. Resemble Apollinaire (w/beard) or bear disguised as GBS… Formidable, affable, durable…"

I considered posting one or two of Berrigan’s sonnets (“The Sonnets,” published in 1963). I love these poems, & you can hear Berrigan reading them here. However, because many of them were constructed by cutting & pasting, you lose quite a bit (in my opinion) when they’re excerpted. Berrigan’s “Sonnets” may be the most mind-boggling re-imagination of an old poetic form to hit the scene for a good long while to come.

Instead, I chose “Wrong Train,” a lovely poem that includes a lot of the qualities I admire in Berrigan’s work—the shifts of tone & perspective, the pithiness of lines like “A deja-vu/That lasts.” Enjoy!

Wrong Train

Here comes the man! He's talking a lot
I'm sitting, by myself. I've got
A ticket to ride. Outside is, "Out to lunch."
It's no great pleasure, being on the make.
Well, who is? Or, well everyone is, tho.
"I'm laying there, & some guy comes up
& hits me with a billyclub!" A fat guy
Says. Shut up. & like that we cross a river
Into the Afterlife. Everything goes on as before
But never does any single experience make total use
Of you. You are always slightly ahead,
Slightly behind. It merely baffles, it doesn't hurt.
It's total pain & it breaks your heart
In a less than interesting way. Every day
Is payday. Never enough pay. A deja-vu
That lasts. It's no big thing, anyway.
A lukewarm greasy hamburger, ice-cold pepsi
that hurts your teeth.

Ted Berrigan

rom Selected Poems, Penguin, © Alice Notley 1993

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