The Unbearable Lightness of Berrigan
If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it does it still fall? It doesn't take a blogger long to realize that only a few stalwart spirits read blogs on weekends, and even fewer on holiday weekends. Seeing my stats fall precipitously on weekends, just a few months after I started fait accompli in February of '03, was one of the reasons I initiated the blogger crush lists that brought some passing fame at that time to this modest endeavor. The last one having been posted over a year ago (November has often been my lucky month, another reason why I like Thanksgiving so much) I am way overdue, and I promise, another one is forthcoming soon, along with a long overdue updated Blog List for the Electronic Poetry Center. Whether or not those trees really fall, and whether or not a blog will bring any notice, let alone lasting fame to a writer, few of them having once tasted its pleasures of blogging can resist returning, even if they leave relatively decisively. Witness the recent return of Simon DeDeo. So, you quiet ex-blogger readers/lurkers I have a hunch you'll be back again to blogging, by and by.
So, if a tree fell in the forest...I was chatting with my friend Charles Borkhuis the other day at the Bowery Poetry Club about the fact that some writers are able to plow away at their work, and remain focused, regardless of notice. I greatly admire these writers, or you writers, whichever, God knows I am not one of them. Although I wrote tons of poetry when I was a lad and a dashing young man, putting together small collections in binders which I read and reread as excitedly as if they were published and famed, hoping to trigger or jump-start another sheaf of poems. But after I began to see some of my writing in print, I grew either impatient, or self-conscious about writing, I don't know which. And after I judged a couple of poetry awards a few years back (the winners of which were Standard Schaefer's superb *Nova* and Mark Wallace's terrfic Unemployed Worker Rides a Subway [whose long page-turner novel Dead Carnival from Avec Books-I've only just dipped into it, but I'm eagerlly looking foward to totally immersing myself in this fine book soon] one Sun and Moon, the other a recent Green Integer book,) I became much more hesitant, or perhaps selective in recognizing or accepting a putative idea as a possibility for a poem. But blogging? Ha! Now that I have your attention, dear readers, or at least some of it for now. the sound of that particular falling tree right now, dear reader, is good enough for me.
I'm not going to get into the debate about the relative values of literary forms, no, I'm not going to go there. But I will touch on a related theme, the theme of the poet's career, as I mentioned on my last post, on that very recent Thanksgiving I enjoyed so much in Arlington. By the way, I said my suitcase was too stuffed to buy more books, but apparently that wasn't the case. I bit the bullet, risked pulling my back out (I didn't, much!) and bought a few more on our day trip to Gloucester. Unfortunately I did not have time to telephone Gerrit Lansing, but I did learn that his 80th birthday celebration is still being talked about, and included an appearance by Kenward Elmslie, whose famed 1975 Z Press book Tropicalism, as well as a signed copy of Gerrit Lansing's own recent -A Februray Sheaf- (Pressed Wafer) I bought in Gloucester in Bob Ritchie's Dogtown Book Shop. And I can't wait to immerse myself further in Joel Sloman's absorbing, haunting poetry in his 1997 *Stops* from Cambridge, Mass Zoland Books (I couldn't resist reading a few as soon as I got home) More on that excellent book soon ("Am I closer to thee, dotted world?/ In stillness, a resolving confusion/I throw myself out of bed with a martial arts grunt".) On that same brief visit to Bob Ritchie's rich and rewarding Dogtown Book Shop (write him at firstname.lastname@example.org) I also scored a copy of Gilbert Adair's *Surfing at the Zeitgeist* (Faber and Faber, 1997). I was pleased about this as Gilbert is someone I have spoken with a few times lately at the Bowery Poetry Club, but whose work was otherwise unknown to me. This is a book of brief prose pieces about various topics, a form I must admit I am inordinately fond of.
We also went to a bookstore owned by another Gloucester poet, a store called Mystery Train. If you get to Gloucester (and if you are a book collector, I am sure you will sometime after reading this, and apparently winter is a good time for sale prices -the most I paid for any of those books I bought from Bob Ritchie, believe it or not was $10), Mystery Train is a lot of fun as it has not only tons of books (now I wish I had bought that new book byJuliana Spahr I lread for awhile there-as my sister-in-law is shipping me a couple of last minute items I got at a final quick trip to McIntrye and Moore including the amazing Flaubert Correspondence which I have been enjoying so much. I had to go to the library yesterday to take it out it so I could get back to it right away- irresistable after reading Flaubert's-Sentimental Education- he must have intended that to mean also that the book itself an education, because you learn so much about 19th Century French history reading it-an excellent follow-up to All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauuvoir, a somewhat tedious novel by comparison but exceptionally rich in evoking European history, the gist of which is the main character is an immortal who is thus able to report on centuries of European history first hand!-by the way, if you haven't aleady read them, check out two masterpieces by Guy de Maupassant, Pierre et Jean and the incomparable Bel Ami, both of which I read lately and loved.) Anyway, Mystery Train is also excellently stocked in used vinyl albums -I've been listening to these lately, mosty classical, and used cd's. Mystery Train, by the way, even has free boxes of books and albums, so it is all the more difficult to pass it by. On this visit I also found a copy of *The Gods Hate Kansas* (a sci-fi pulp from the 60's) and Emile Zola's-The Masterpiece- which is about his friend Cezanne, (Last night Toni and I watched the 1937 -Life of Zola- starring Paul Muni-, which I also got out of the library, that mostly focuses on the Dreyfus case), Samuel Delany's classic *The Fall of the Towers* and-get this, the recently indicted assistant to Cheney, Lewis Libby's book *The Apprentice*, which my pal Ron Silliman wrote about on his blog as selling for over a hundred dollars. The price has come down now to about 25-40, but none of these books in MysteryTrain cost me over $4.50. But I'm saving the best for last: in an antique shop that my brother-in-law brought me to I found the book I've been dreaming of for months: a small leather-bound copy of La Rochefoucauld's Maxims, published in 1908, in fairly good condition, that set me back a mere $3.
I titled this edition of the blog -The Unbearable Lightness of Berrigan- because since reading Libby Rifkin's -Career Moves- I've been thinking a lot about Berrigan. November 15th is Berrigan's birthday and his recenty released collected works has gotten a lot of people thinking about this masterful poet. La Rochefoucauld's Maxim #147 states:-The fame of great men ought always be estimated by the means used to acquire it-. In -Career Moves- Rifkin manages to go even deeper than this. She seems to be searching for a way of cracking the code between a poet's intentions in their work and their intentions concerning the way they conduct their public lives as a poet. In exploring the lives and works of Olson and Creeley, two very public personas, and that of the relatively reticent Zukofsky, there is much to be learned and thought about. Good criticism gets you to want to explore the work more deeply and Rifkin's book does at least this. Just as Jerome McGann discovered correspondances between an author's intentions and the mannner in which their work is presented materially, Rifkin looks into literary career lifestyle as it relates to the literary style, the inspirations and aspirations of an author's work. Clearly the power of the ideas of the so-called New Critics is waning, who sought to find the truth of literary work only by examining and discussing the texts themselves. No doubt this had partly to do with the overarching influence of psychoanalysis in those days- these critics sought, probably rightly, to try to look at writing with less influence coming from Freud. But now a later generation is not so concerned with the weight of Freud's influence, so that psychological thinking can seek a reasonable purpose again in literary analysis. In any case, Rifkin is not worried about looking at biography as a source of insight into poetry, on the contrary.
The most moving of her explications has to do with the relationships between Berrigan's Sonnets and their revelations about his desire for a place in literary history, as well as his attitude towards death, at the tender age of 18, when the Sonnets began to be written. Sonnet II begins:
"Dear Margie, hello. It is 5:15 a.m.
dear Berrigan. He died"
"Dear Margie, hello. It is 5:15 a.m.
fucked til 7 now she's late for work and I'm
18 so why are my hands shaking I should know better."
I was around 20 years old myself when I first heard Berrigan read that poem at the Poetry Project, and immediately went to the 42cd Street Library to copy out every one of his sonnets with a pencil on a lined pad. Reading Libby's book I can better understand why I was so moved over 40 years ago, and am just as moved today. Berrigan was able to touch on the heaviest issues in a poet's mind with tart yet warming humor, irony yet great compassion. Few indeed have since been able to straddle such emotions, and express them as well as Berrigan. Berrigan's intense lyricism mixed with his stinging wit creates a cocktail that is hard to resist. OK, he was a 60's victim, like icons Dylan and Lennon. But it is easily possible to see past this now, at almost 40 years distance. Berrigan's persona, as Rifkin makes so clear, was way larger than the 60's frame he can easily be placed in. Looking at his work now, I unite it with many of my other beloved diarists such as Ned Rorem, Cesare Pavese, Valery, Kafka and Samuel Butler. As a young poet I desperately needed models that I could depend on, but who I could look upon more as peers and contemporaries. Cummings, Stevens, Rilke, Eliot, Stein and the rest were inspiring, but of another era. But Berrigan, and later Bernadette Mayer's work and workshops helped define for me what a contemporary poet's life,in relation to their work, can be: difficult, demanding, obsessively dedicated, but nevertheless compatible with living in one's own era. Berrigan's Sonnets, then and now, helped to make a contemporary poet's life real, extremely challenging yet mostly stimulating and worthwhile, occasional hopeless depressions notwithstanding.
Reading Lifkin's book also brought back a number of vital memories of the Ted Berrigan workshop I attended, along with Carter Ratcliff and others, in 1967. He spoke about the "speed" of contemporary poetry. OK, we know about Berrigan's affection for the drug of the same name, but let's forget about the 60's flavorings for the moment. Berrigan was talking about the fact that when we read contemporary poetry there is an *electric* (instantaneous) quality to our contemporary way of reading that is unique to our era. He used Ashbery's Tennis Court Oath as an example. He was saying that we don't stop to think about each word the way we read poetry now. We engulf the pages instantaneously, ravenously. As he spoke about this, he kept pulling on the chord of the electric light hanging from the ceiling over and over turning excitedly turning it on and off. He made me realize that when we read poetry now we read with the speed of light, the speed of thought, so it should be written and presented with this factor in mind. His Sonnets helped make this an era of lightning fast poetry, He also spoke of the loss of nobility in poetry as well, so he was aware of the price that we might be paying for this type of insatiability. But I think he, and the New York School in general, did much to counter the mournful tones of so much 20th Century poetry: ("I grow old, I grow old, I will wear the bottom of my trousers rolled... I have seen them singing each to each...I do not think that they will sing to me")
The excitement of Berrigan's work- and much of the New York School- has to do with reveling in-and exploiting- the inexhaustible energy of the poet and poetry. Lifkin's book helped me realize that this awareness of inexhaustibility- (I think of Jordan Davis's Million Poems Blog in this context)- is tempered only, or mainly, by the admission of the reality of death (made briefly thinkable only by means of irony, humor and empathy-what a minute: I typed that first as "ampathy"- amplified empathy?-new word?). But superimposed on these realizations are the consolations- and the excitements- of remembering and being remembered
"...Back to books. I read
poems by Auden Spenser Pound Stevens and Frank O'Hara
I hate books..
I wonder if Jan or Helen or Babe
ever think about me. I wonder if Dave Bearden still
disliked me. I wonder if people talk about me
secretly I wonder if I'm too old. I wonder if I'm fooling
myself about pills. I wonder what's in the icebox. I wonder
if Ron or Pat bought any toilet paper this morning."
I remember listening to Berrigan's mid 60's reading of this poem at St Mark's-with that *shock of recognition*- as if it were yesterday. As Rifkin discusses it, this poetry overlays his reverence for the poetry of the present and the past, with anxieties about whether he is being remembered now, and by extention, if he will be remembered like these greats in the future. These youthful anxieties are made so much more approachable, so much more life-sized, ("be big" he used to say) by his joke about Ron or Pat remembering the toilet paper. The poem begins with the lines:
"I wake back aching from soft bed Pat/
gone to work Ron to class (I never heard a sound) it's my birthday"
- birthdays being days of acknowledging tthe whole of one's life, Rifkin ties this in with the idea of the poet's concerns with the value of their work, with career concerns about the future reception of a poet's life and art.
Rifkin makes it clear that by immersing themselves in discovering ways of presenting and preserving - keeping accessible, and comprehensible- the poetry of today and yesterday, poets and their frequently unsung supporters, the academics, are contributing significantly to the hard work of keeping contemporary poetry alive, relevant and, as Joel Lewis and Alice Notley titled their 1997 Talisman book of Ted Berrigan inteviews- On the Level Everyday-.