I only had the occasion to meet Ted Berrigan once, when Anselm Hollo invited me over for "tea" with Ted, Robert Harris, and Anselm's then wife, Josephine (Clare). This would have been, I think, 1970, while I was attending the Writers' Workshop in Iowa City. Anselm was the most approachable of the faculty poets at that time. None of the other faculty made themselves accessible in this way; none would have "permitted" personal interaction, particularly in their own households. But Anselm understood that the writing life and "real" life intersected in ways which a strict segregation between academic and non-academic spheres doesn't acknowledge. Ted must have been passing through on his way to somewhere else--there was no reading scheduled, which might be hard to imagine now. Ted had been on the faculty the year before, but his appointment had not been extended (also hard now to believe). He was, I now recall, teaching at Michigan that year (Donald Hall's influence).
Sunday, August 9, 2009
Ted Berrigan's Sonnets - 45 Years On
Berrigan and Anselm were close friends, and obviously enjoyed each other's company. Both had a boisterous and "disrespectful" sense of humor. Neither Robert nor I said very much, preferring to listen instead. Berrigan at one point remarked that he considered himself very lucky to have thought of "the idea" of The Sonnets, which he described as "a kind of roller" or cylinder--like Kerouac's continuous typewriter roll--and that the lines could be transposed or reordered horizontally, creating a dialogue between and among separate lines and poems, reappearing and reforming "mechanically." He actually thought of the book as the result of this "one idea" though the work is obviously the result and coherent intersection of a number of important notions derived from Modern art and literature.
Formally, the book is unlike any other kind of writing in several significant ways. Certainly, the sonnet sequence is an old form, going back centuries (Shakespeare's Sonnets, for instance), and poets have been writing sonnets continuously during all that time. In addition, writers had been contemplating chance operations in composition for several decades. Dadaism had posited "accidental" and mystical notions of arrangement, and Burroughs had already used "cut-up" to make some of his fictions. The idea that Berrigan hit upon was to combine the reconstruction and rearrangement of lines within a fixed set of units (stanzas), which would create an internal mental and formal dialectic across the range of parts, creating a prism-like four-dimensionality, in which time, space, memory, speech & quotation, experience, and unexpected disjunctions and enjambments of meaning all are occurring simultaneously, a sort of Moebius strip of linguistic duration (data).
Anyone coming to the work the first time is immediately drawn into this dialectic, which is apparent at all points. My immediate realization was that the Author was speaking about a set of circumstances, peopled with friends and obsessions and associations, which he was juggling freely. What would happen if you started writing a sonnet sequence which would be a kind of diary of daily life, percolating with fragments of quotation, scraps of conversation, mental post-it notes, and let that be the ostensible "subject matter" of the work? Which is very much what you would get, albeit perhaps without Berrigan's delightfully surreal and often adolescent sense of fun. (Peter Schjeldahl, one of Berrigan's contemporaries, among others, actually wrote his own set of "Berrigan sonnets".)
The chance operations employed echo Duchamp's idea of indeterminacy, and notions of accidental mutation from biology, as well as the Surrealists' use of the Freudian unconscious mind (which acts irrationally). It was obvious to the reader that Ted didn't keep, shall we say, "regular hours" in his personal life, and the sense of time confusion ("am I waking up when I should be going to sleep") derives partially from a sense of drug-induced high flights or steep crashes. Moving the fragments of lines and events among the poems creates a sense of time-cutting. The poems move forwards and backwards, above and below the flatline of consciousness (wakefulness and sleep), sobriety and inebriation, clarity and confusion, delight and consternation (though the mood is mostly up-beat).
The freedom with which all these moves takes place is uninhibited, and daring. The poems give off a breathless air of free-floating devil-may-care, very much in the spirit of the 1960's. Rules were made to be broken, even (or especially) within the confines of a traditional setting. How do you best explode a power structure, a staid institution? --From the inside, naturally, and that's precisely what Berrigan was doing. He had picked up from O'Hara and Ashbery and Koch, how poems could be about messy, everyday life (O'Hara), wouldn't need to be confined by rigid codes of (syntactic) behavior and organization (Ashbery), and could be as raucous and giddy as a roller-coaster ride (Koch). Commonly regarded now as belonging among the top two or three canonical works of the "Second Generation" "New York School", Berrigan's first book, The Sonnets, set the stage for a host of later formal investigations; though no one has since come up with a more inventive and successful individual work or style, and indeed, Berrigan himself never had a better idea than this one.
It may be that Silliman's Language School doctrine of "the new sentence" is an attempt to define a different, newer principle of composition based, in part, on the prismatic interconnectedness of poly-contextual dimensions of relationship within (inside of) individual works. A reading of Silliman's Alphabet, keeping in mind the techniques that it has in common with Berrigan's Sonnets' very similar approach to fragmented sequence(s), is instructive on several levels. The Alphabet, appearing in its entirety approximately 30 years after it was first conceived, has an anti-climactic effect. Envisioned a mere 15 or so years after The Sonnets appears, it looks in restrospect to fall in a direct line of descent from the earlier innovation.
The level of observation and reflexive meditation which The Alphabet demonstrates is many times more sophisticated than The Sonnets, but its formal organization is much less original, more derivative. Silliman's political, psychological, and painterly decoration is many times more vivid and informed. Its drawn comparisons, on the level of implication and suggestiveness, are much more deliberate, and telling. How do behavior, perception, phenomenological event, ratiocination, and political meaning intersect? How are they to be organized? Clearly, The Alphabet provides no simplistic answers, but it does demonstrate one version of how one consciousness records. Its apparent randomness drops away when studied and dissected. It isn't a song to anything, or about anything. It's more a philosophical collage, processing everything at once. Come to think of it, that's also a pertinent observation-description of The Sonnets, too!