Confession: when I walked into Ann Arbor’s Shaman Drum Bookshop earlier this week for a reading of selections from the late poet’s newly collected works, I was not a fan of Ted Berrigan. He was self-indulgent and brash, I thought, a low-rent Frank O’Hara, playful to a fault; thoroughly convinced that every time he fucked, farted or popped an amphetamine, the act itself was worthy of a poem. Sure, I liked the rebellion of it, the same way I like any writing that pisses all over the tired concept of poetry as High Art. But for me, then, Berrigan’s approach was just another way of marginalizing literature. It was the choice between stuffy, traditional academia and workshops full of self-consciously “bohemian” New York School wannabes. The lesser of two evils. Except I can tell you, not even the umpteenth T.S. Eliot imitation reads quite as boring in this day and age as the umpteenth undergrad reference to (tee hee) drugs.
But even despite my prejudices, something happened at that reading. When I listened to those poets – many of them personal friends, acquaintances and even (in Alice Notley’s case) wives of Berrigan – for the first time I heard Berrigan’s voice. And I realized at that moment that the problem wasn’t with Ted Berrigan. The problem was with me: my preconceptions, my ideas of what should constitute poetry. Above all, the problem was my unwillingness to give this writer the time and consideration he deserved.
I say this, mind you, without retracting any of my previous misgivings about the man. He was self-indulgent. He was something of a one-trick pony. And his counterculture affectations did get tiresome, not least because they’d been done before (hello Jack Kerouac). But there’s also a lot to love. The manic energy, irony and irascible humor with which he invested his poetry; the glimpses into his “personal” life, not with hackneyed, gut-wrenching confessionals but with the kind of day-to-day minutiae that comes from real intimacy. Maybe it helps that, like I said, the poets at this reading were “real intimates” of the man himself. Certainly, it was moving to see Notley tear up with her husband’s words, and the lesser-known “postcard poems,” read by Detroit poet and Alternative Press founder Ken Mikolowski, sparkled with even more warmth and humor than Berrigan’s “properly” published work. But one gets the sense that these personal touches were just icing on the cake. The real magic doesn’t need the voices of old friends and lovers to bring it to life; it’s right there, in print, and with Berrigan’s collected works now available in their entirety, chances are they’ll outlast all of us.
The bottom line is this: if you spend enough time with Ted Berrigan’s poetry, you will feel as if you know him. And what’s more, you will want to know him. How many other poets, alive or dead, could you honestly say that for? And wouldn’t the world (not to mention the “literary community”) be a better place if we could all write with such natural energy and magnetism? For now, though, let’s remember Ted Berrigan for what he was: flawed, perhaps, his life and work tragically trunctated…but an honest-to-god original and a fucking fantastic writer, with those rarest of literary qualities, personality and soul. And that, my friends, is worth the effort.
Written by Zach Hoskins
This essay is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.