Underwhelmed. Ted Berrigan via John Wilkinson.

Ralph Hawkins

Coincidence occurs - whether it is portentous or not usually has to do with the unraveller. Unravelling the artifice of poetry seems to take on industrial productive procedures to cope with some of our cherished writers' outputs. It seems I cannot any longer read a poem for pleasure or a poet without my interest being provoked into further thoughtful action through the tenuous links I have with such an art.

Only the other day I picked up The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan1. I'd noticed his reputation growing via praise on more than one occasion on Silliman's Blog (just to note on the other hand Ed Dorn's waning, put down by Silliman for imbibing too much cocaine - strangely enough Berrigan is put down rather moralistically by Wilkinson (in his essay 'Unexpected Excellent Sausage: On Simplicity in O'Hara, Lowell, Berrigan and James', now to be found in his collection of essays, The Lyric Touch2) because "he did too many drugs", although, rather, there is no reprimand for John Wieners. I wonder if Dorn and Berrigan ever did drugs together seeing as their paths crossed in so many ways.

I'd also read John Muckle's series of articles on Tom Raworth in PN Review where Muckle writes - and Raworth is hovering in the background of Wilkinson's article -

...Raworth's poetry, indeed the whole poetics he has emerged from, takes 'speech' as its point of departure. William Carlos Williams tells us that his variable foot is a fitter medium for American speech than blank verse. Charles Olson blurts things out like a projectile vomiter, sends his thoughts spiralling down the page in speech- or mind-order. The length of his speeches exceeded those of Fidel Castro by thousands of miles. Ted Berrigan's poems are often bits of overheard talk.3

My first thought with regard to Berrigan was to question the validity of this remark, "overheard talk". The question of speech and talk and the ways in which to utilize them comes under discussion in Wilkinson's article - with O'Hara we have mention of 'monologue', 'conversation' and that O'Hara instigated "a dialogic practice"4 whereas "Berrigan's own voice...", according to Wilkinson,

sounds too often like a poet emulating O'Hara's most relaxed mode but missing the point - or rather, missing two salient points: a person's conversation becomes tedious if he's always talking about himself, the Warhol strategy of making the tedious fascinating, of flattening personal and affectively charged material into a mask which makes the obvious enigmatic, requires an impeccable control.5
Speech here seems to get people a bit fired up but how accurate is Wilkinson's analysis? Indeed are such remarks justified? On reflection and what would prove a tedious exercise, we could posit poet against poet and poem against poem cataloguing a whole variety of difference not only between each poets' oeuvres but each others' use of so called "speech".

Thus Wilkinson finds a conversationalist companion in 'Poem' beginning "Lana Turner has collapsed!" where I find none - but these poems are usually accorded "conversationalist tone" or "manner". However Wilkinson is more accurate and investigative in his reading of poems than many others. As Wilkinson points out, this is not a simple poem, although from its points of address - as with much O'Hara - its appears to be so. He's talking and walking (but of course he isn't - he's, maybe, sat at a typewriter, maybe a drink to hand and cigarette on the go). Many of O'Hara's poems depict him in transit - heading off somewhere, meeting someone, usually named (you) but not named, the anonymous if on the pick-up. O'Hara's poem reports to his companion (later) the events of his journey; he is not in a walking conversation but walking thinking (mind-speech). Everything is thrown out of place - everything is in confusion; the poet's perceptions about the weather, the traffic and Lana Turner's condition. The poem is an amalgam of activities and movements, a dialectic of experience and thoughts about the experiences captured in/ by the poem's making.

Whether Berrigan is always talking about himself is easily verified,

          The insufferable
                             Ted Berrigan:
                                              He's so fucking
              What a tiresome
                                    So Presumptous!
                                                Never Shuts Up!
    Too fucking Bossy!
Who does he think he is???6
This is one of those melding moments when clarity is seemingly apprehended and confusion reigns. Is the poet talking (writing) about himself - thus acknowledging some of his many faults or are they the reported bits (fragments) of overheard conversation of others which John Muckle alludes to of people talking about Berrigan - if so they are very inconsiderate people who have more regard for themselves than Berrigan. Indeed am I confusing the real life Berrigan with the written Berrigan. For Wilkinson Berrigan talks too much about himself in his poetry and perhaps in his life as well - which, of course, is a different matter!

Before I read John Wilkinson's piece I read the following poem, out loud, saying "what on earth is this all about?" implying it wasn't about very much but also perplexed as to what it possibly meant.

In The Wheel

The pregnant waitress
          "Would you like
some more coffee?"
Surprised out of the question
I wait        seconds        "Yes,
I think I would!" I hand her
          my empty cup, &
"Thank!" she says. My Pleasure.7
The answer to my question was - "Well it's just a little picture." Which satisfied me, completely, at that point. Lots of Berrigan's poems aren't about much - and that's particularly intended - the simple (short) poem can sometimes be baffling - obfuscatory, just as much so as long poems - but with them I am more liable to give up rather than give in. There are plenty of shorter poems which mean nothing at all to me. In fact there's plenty of poetry which means nothing to me as well!

Wilkinson doesn't like this poem - why he calls it a ready-made8 (perhaps a pun on waitress!) baffles me. This is not to say that Berrigan's work doesn't abound with the notion of appropriation - The Sonnets being the primary instance of a borrowing which at times appears non-discriminatory and avaricious - an impulse and a drive towards construction and poetic creation which borders on daylight robbery. Wilkinson has In The Wheel down as a piece of Americana, which in a way, it could be - the Diner, Apple-Pie, French Fries, Coke and Coffee. In true pop idiom Berrigan would prefer Pepsi, English Muffins, and a Chocolate Malted. There passes through my mind a carnival of diner scenes from various American films, accompanied by bars and cafés - Diner, Five Easy Pieces, Mystic River, The Departed, Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth in the opening scene of Pulp Fiction, Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer in Frankie and Johnnie, and notably The Beanery, an installation / sculpture by Ed Keinholtz, a typical piece of pop art Americana or possible substitute world, as we will see later.

However this poem is surely existential - this poem is an event, or more an event significant enough to the poet's mind to be recalled (eidetic) and (re)constructed - placed with (into) poetic form. It's not something that's collaged or something which already exists (ready-made) and then, through the experience of it, is reincarnated into another different art form. I use the word placed deliberately because Wilkinson takes issue with these word or syllabic placements and phrase meanings of Berrigan's. Uncharacteristically, I think he has under read the poem. It seems the poem fails through lack of discipline, self discipline (the drugs) and poetic discipline - inattentive prosody. Wilkinson singles out the word seconds for its archness of syllabic placement. Is this because it hovers (in time and space) between I wait and "Yes. He also identifies seconds as a pun - but surely no such pun exists in American English usage.

In a system of buoyant interpretation I begin to see perhaps Wilkinson's archness as an unconscious pun or at least a curve, a bridge from the t of wait to the Y of Yes bridging or overarching seconds. Turn the arch sideways and it becomes the swollen bulge of the pregnant waitress. With a bit of imagination we can complete a wheel, a circle, a round. Here we are sitting in the wheel of life. Have we come full circle only to be born again? This poem, maybe for Berrigan, is about the coincidence of being in The Wheel (a café) and seeing the pregnant waitress as being involved within the reincarnating Buddhist process - giving him seconds, pause for thought - shocked, out of it.

'In The Wheel' comes from the book Red Wagon, published 1976 (a book slightly changed in its representation in The Collected). Wilkinson read 'In The Wheel' in So, Going Around Cities, 1979. One advantage of this is that Berrigan has arranged the 1979 book chronologically rather than in order of publication (see Alice Notley9). 'Babe Rainbow', the second poem by Berrigan Wilkinson discusses, appears in the much earlier book In The Early Morning Rain, 1970 (a book in which there are plenty of ready-mades.) Both poems it seems were written sometimes in 1968/1969 aligning them with a correspondent pop-art movement.

Babe Rainbow

Light up


burn a few holes in the blanket

Burn a few holes in the Yellow blanket



Wilkinson's reading of 'Babe Window' is wonderful, invoking a world of appetites (this itself in his writing takes on several layers of meaning dealing with waste and excess - public and private, and the originary biblical moment, the favoured word or time being prelapsarian). Thus we have a magnificent interpretative weave of the possible meanings of puncture (interruptions) and holes. And an investigation into Berrigan's own mouth orientated appetites which leads to a comparison with the painter Philip Guston whose work likewise dealt with similar appetite oriented territories; indeed maybe similar creative addictions (writing and painting being compulsive in this sense11). These appetites and/or addictions are self-referenced. So with Guston we have paintings which have Guston painting Guston painting (we also have Guston painting Guston smoking whilst painting) and in lots of poems by Berrigan we have Berrigan talking about himself talking or writing about himself talking!

Guston is chosen as an exemplar because roughly about this time his painting went through major changes - abstract expression was broken with and a figurative sensibility called upon - to my mind an eclectic autobiographical iconography is originated (Wilkinson calls it "hallucinatory caricature"). Guston like Merleau-Ponty deliberates distinctions of abstract and figurative.12 The world of these images is particularly Guston's - they are not dreamed up, they are not imagined, they are reconstructed, albeit not in their original form, an impossibility, but are seemingly removed from their worldly locations and placed in another world - and of course, the same images keep recurring in different ways and in different combinations - they are self portraits, without ever a recognizable definition of portrait ever being present. Guston identified in Kafka the ability to create a "parallel world"13 and as Wilkinson points out Guston wrote that he painted a "substitute world which comes from the world".14 Wilkinson's criticism of Berrigan is that this move is beyond him - but one actually wonders what Wilkinson has in mind here and maybe Berrigan had already created a substitute world with The Sonnets. Self-consciousness, that which mars 'In The Wheel' and presumably subsequent Berrigan poetry, (seemingly) appetite driven as it is, is relevantly absent from The Sonnets.

In the Bill Berkson15 article quoted by Wilkinson there is on page 67 a black and white photograph of over 32 paintings hung more or less formally in rows and columns. Berrigan cycles and recycles lines and images in The Sonnets - sometimes with only slight alteration of individual units and within individual units - and occasionally a complete sonnet is presented in a different line order without any changes whatsoever. It struck me that these Guston images signalled something other in their grouping about their inter-relationship much as in the same way The Sonnets work through similarity and difference. The glue that makes them work is a contrived randomness. Berkson writes, "But Guston also saw how the narrative possibilities in grouping his paintings could be tremendous and fairly limitless. He mused over 'the linkage of images, when they are together in a certain way and then how all changes, when in another combination on the wall... I shifted pictures around for days and nights, reeling from the diverse possible meanings...'"

There is one particular painting of appetite (amongst many) 1973, Painting, Smoking, Eating. A cyclops figure, Guston?, lies in bed cigarette in mouth, a plentiful plate of food resting on his blanket covered chest (monumental French Fries?), in the background the familiar array of Guston reflexive images. Berrigan, most probably lying on the bed, stares at a poster by Peter Blake, Babe Rainbow. Presumably bits of resin fall out of the joint and burn the blanket. There are seven colours in a rainbow. There are seven bands of colour in the Blake print (the colours and order of the colours seem to vary in the two versions of the print I've seen) plus the title Babe Rainbow. There are seven lines to the poem plus the title. In one print version the colour yellow is more prominent than any other colour seeming to blend with the next colour, a pale tangerine. If you read the colours in order, from outside to in, yellow is the fourth band of colour. The word Yellow is found in the fourth line of the poem. Wilkinson is obviously correct when he says this is a poem of notation - but is it again only the notation of what actually happened in the relationship between the observed and the poetic occurrence and some minimal play with the words, smoke / smoking, burn / Burn / burning.

The depth of orders Wilkinson conjures up to explicate these two poems of Berrigan's - a forensic type of investigation, replete with theoretical justifications, undoubtedly interesting and provocative, seems at times to be dismembering the wrong body with a paucity of background information and some imaginatively concocted evidence.


1 The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan. Edited by Alice Notley with Anselm Berrigan and Edmund Berrigan, University of California Press 2005.

2 John Wilkinson, The Lyric Touch, Salt 2007.

3 John Muckle, 'How Radio Works: Time, Identity and the Tradition of Dead Generations in Tom Raworth's Poetry.' PN Review 173, vol 33 no. 3 (Jan-Feb 2007), 174, vol 33 no. 4 (Mar-Apr 2007), 175, vol 33 (May-Jun 2007), 176, vol 33 no. 6 (Jul-Aug 2007)

4 Wilkinson, 'Introduction', p. 2

5 Wilkinson, 'Unexpected Excellent Sausage', p. 53

6 Train Ride, p. 276 The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan

7 In The Wheel, p. 360 The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan

8 Wilkinson, p. 54

9 Alice Notley, 'Introduction' p. 10 The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan

10 Babe Rainbow, p. 225 The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan

11 Musa Mayer, Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston, Thames and Hudson 1991

12 "Guston's abstractions tended to refute narrow, modernist distinctions between abstractions and representation. Speaking to students in 1966, he said, 'I'm puzzled all the time about what you're asking about. About representation and not... I mean the literal image and the not non-objective... I don't know what non-objective art is. There is no such thing as non-objective art. Everything has an object. Everything has a figure. The question is, what kind?'" 'Impure Thoughts: On Guston's Abstractions', Michael Auping, Philip Guston Retrospective, Thames and Hudson 2003

Merleau-Ponty, p. 188 'Eye and Mind', The Primacy of Perception, Northwestern University Press, 1964

Corporeality is in many senses relevant to Guston's later work - the whole body is rarely glimpsed and we are confronted by a self seers partial knowledge of his (in this case) whole - we are shown limbs, notably the arm, legs, hands and the cyclopic head. This corporeality in Merleau Ponty and Guston, this muteness of knowing revolves around the growing instant of painterly decision. "It was in these close-ups that each artist's brushstroke would be fully revealed. From these, he (Guston) could extrapolate an artist's identity, their uniqueness attributable to the way they applied paint, whether in depicting fabric, rendering hands, ears or feet, or filling backgrounds. In a time of abstraction, this signature quality could be reduced to the pressure of a brushtroke, which can declare itself as the artist's language, a function of the intuitive body as much as the rational mind, what Guston eloquently described as the 'narrow passage from a diagramming to that other state - a corporeality.'" 'Impure Thoughts: On Guston's Abstractions', Michael Auping, Philip Guston Retrospective, Thames and Hudson 2003

13 Dore Ashton, 'Parallel Worlds: Guston as Reader', Philip Guston Retrospective, Thames and Hudson 2003

14 Wilkinson, p.55

15 Bill Berkson, 'Pyramid and Shoe: Philip Guston and the Funnies', Philip Guston Retrospective, Thames and Hudson 2003

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