Sunday, August 9, 2009

Ted Berrigan's Sonnets - 45 Years On

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). 

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!     


Kirby Olson said...

Now you're trying to make up with Silliman at the end, and it shows. That's fine. I don't want him to hate me, either. Not because I'm afraid of him, but because after all the pain he causes, it's hard to cause him pain. I want him to be happy every day of his life, and twice as happy at night.

I never was able to read the sonnets or anything else by Berrigan. I was once standing in the rented apartments at Naropa at night in the kitchen when I heard two people standing outside chatting.

They had this louvered glass window in the doors, and I peeped out, a kind of reverse peeping Tom. It was Berrigan talking with a poet named Dick Gallup. They were leaning against a railing on the second floor, smoking cigarettes, or at least one of them was. I hate cigarette smoke, and it was making it very difficult to go on peeping without coughing. Berrigan was a name I knew, but nothing else. He was probably as broad as he was tall, and he was saying,

"We were really really great then, we were the greatest ever."

It was like he was saying his life was over. I wanted to open the door and go over and kick him in the pants because he was only 40 according to the biographical data I had known at the time (1977).

I had never heard of him, and for some reason I still can't get through the stuff. Underneath all the surface hilarity is some kind of sadness so dark and so debilitating that I feel like it's quicksand and I'll go down in it, and be lost forever, like Ted!

I did know Anselm Hollo, but only through the net and the phone. He talked to me for an hour the night before I flew to Finland to teach for five years. We were intermittently in touch by internet. His writing seems very easy to read, and startlingly clear, and smart.

I have a chapter on his writing in my book on Codrescu called The Outside Poets.

I loved his writing. Anselm's brother is on the Finnish Supreme Court.

Steven Fama said...

The greatest thing I ever learned about the great Berrigan The Sonnets was a conversation and demonstration on August 15, 1994 during radio station KCRW (in Los Angeles) between host Michael Silverblatt and guest Aram Saroyan (who'd edited a selected Berrigan).

They showed conclusively that at least one of Berrigan's Sonnets was scrambled by Ted via a quite methodical method. Specifically, if you re-arrange the sonnet such that you read the first line, then last line, then the second and second from last lines, etc. etc., the poem reveals itself as a totally traditional, straight-forward (but still beautiful) lyric.

They do this with Berrigan Sonnet # XV (first line: "In Joe Brainard's collage its white arrow"). Check it out for yourself. It is astonishing.

I assume it's an oddball in working that way (I should run a bunch of others via the same method), but number XV sure is interesting that way...!!!

Steven Fama said...

P.S. That Saroyan-Silverblatt conversation in 1994, which is mostly all about Berrigan, is available still today on the KCRW Bookworm show archives.

Steven Fama said...

I don't mean to spatter about in your comment box, Curtis, but one more thing:

you write that Ron S.'s the Alphabet "It isn't a song to anything, or about anything."

At the very least, it's a song of attention.

And it's a song about Ron. It's extremely autbiographical. As well as extremely telling about his mind.

I love that book.

It's an accretion (and forgive me here, but your previous published criticisms of the book on your blog seemed not to grasp this part of it as well), as wondrous, and about as slow-paced in the time it takes to "grow," as a coral reef.

Or equally apt, maybe better, what are Rodia's towers a song to, or about? Similar to Silliman and the Alphabet, Rodia took about 30 years with his towers.

Curtis Faville said...


I was just reminding Silliman that what I do I do in the name of open debate, not open warfare. He understands that, but it bears repeating occasionally.


I think it's demonstrable that The Alphabet isn't a lyric poem, either in its parts or as a whole. If it isn't lyric, or lyric-narrative, then what is it?

We can call anything a "song"--but in the end, that kind of application isn't of much use, either as a definition, or a critical convenience.

You could say "the singing of..." anything in a poem or prosepoem, and it will work. But as a discrete description of what we mean when we call a poem a "lyric" that doesn't work. A man's life is a song. Making love is a song. Building a beautiful house is a song. But a poem like The Alphabet is "un"-song-like, without much question.

Yeah, I know all about Berrigan messing with the line sequence in The Sonnets. In the end, I'm not sure it matters, especially if it's something we don't notice, until it's shown to us. The important thing is HEARING the recurrence, and refreshment of lines in shifting contexts--that's funny and occasionally fascinating and weird. You can start The Sonnets anywhere and jump around, or start on number 26 and read to the end and then start from 1 and conclude with 25--that synchronicity--variance--is exactly what Berrigan is getting at.

xileinparadise said...

Mr. Faville – I was recently directed to your blog in regard to the Whalen post. In all things Whalen I have an avid interest. I’m sorry to not have found it in a timely manner so that I could contribute my comment. In regard to your post on Berrigan’s Sonnets, there is so much more to his total work than the Sonnets. Is it because the Sonnets are considered “significant” and everything else flippant and undeserving of critical consideration? Interestingly, Ted Berrigan was one of the most serious poets I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. To liken the Sonnets with Mr. Silliman’s work, however, is to compare apples and oranges – they are both roughly spheres and edible, but the primary resemblance ends there. This is not to denigrate Mr. Silliman’s work in any way. The difference may have more to do with their individual approach to their art, one deliberate and the other spontaneous.

I have read with interest some of your other poetry posts. You are to be commended on your honesty and forthrightness. Those tendencies tend to be lightning rods. However, you seem to have the intellectual acumen to take it all in stride. Is it too audacious to ask you to consider revisiting Whalen in a future post? His work truly deserves engagement and dialogue. As for Ted Berrigan, is he not just one of a number of significant poets who might be called the sons and daughters of Frank, Jimmy, John, and Kenneth? Another avenue for exploration, perhaps? Although I do seem to remember Eileen Myles saying in an interview in a recent Poetry Project Newsletter that whenever anyone asks about The New York School they are usually from the Language School. Whatever that means.

I sign myself as xileinparadise but most everyone knows me as Pat Nolan.

Curtis Faville said...

Dear Pat:

Obviously, one doesn't do complete justice to any writer on a single blog entry. With the Whalen pieces, I made sure to indicate that my appreciation of his work was much broader and deeper than any single book or poem.

With the Berrigan, my point in discussion centered around formal innovation. Ted wrote a lot of good poems, but his primary "use" to students of form is The Sonnets. His "I do this/I do that" poems, as important to his earlier work as they are, for instance, aren't nearly as original in design, though every bit as well done. Train Ride feels like a repeat performance, because he's doing Tambourine Life over again (in terms of form).

I'm less satisfied with much of the later work he did, and I think he freely admitted that he hadn't succeeded in finding new ways of saying new things.

My favorite collection is Guillaume Apollinaire ist tod, the German bi-lingual book with the bright yellow cover by Joe B.

Readers who weren't around to hear or see Berrigan in the flesh will have to make do with second hand report, and discussing his work in terms of the place he occupies in the historical progression is an easy way to approach him. Neither Berrigan nor Padgett, for instance, can be "summarized" through Bean Spasms, though the importance of that book in the grander scheme of descent can't be denied. I certainly wasn't trying to pigeon-hole him by "only" talking about The Sonnets, but Ted did himself seem frustrated at times by how good a thing he had done so early on. That isn't a new problem.

Silliman's work is usually discussed in terms of its innovative design, which he codified in a series of essays in the 1970's and 80's. Ted wasn't much of a critic, but he clearly got specific ideas from his forebears, which he openly acknowledged. In Ron's case, I don't see anyone acknowledging how much his ideas of shifting contexts is derived from Berrigan's example. Credit is due. That doesn't make Silliman's work more important as a result, nor does it make The Sonnets any less entertaining and accomplished either.

I find The Sonnets more important by far.

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