Thursday, September 09, 2010

Ted Berrigan’s Dear Sandy, Hello

Barn and Silo

Ted Berrigan, writing about The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 (out of Dear Sandy, Hello):
The final literary matter I wanted to talk about was the Grove Press anthology. . . . I thought I’d tell you some of the writers in the book that I liked most. Robert Creeley’s short poems seem very interesting to me. He often says very good things in a very good way. Brother Antoninus writes very good poetry, I think. I like Ginsberg’s poem called “A Supermarket in California,” and his other things too. I like Gregory Corso some of the time, and some of the poems he has in here, like “Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway” I like a lot. I like Barbara Guest a little, and of course Koch and O’Hara and Ashbery very much. I like Gary Snyder’s work, too. I like some of Michael McClure’s work, but like his books better than selected poems from his books. I think that John Wieners is very good, and sometimes I like Ron Loewinsohn and Dave Meltzer. Personally, I think I can write better than many poets in the book, but I can’t write well enough to satisfy myself yet.
Bravado of the up and coming. Lacking (one obvious hole): Olson. (Though one notes, too, Berrigan’s own sense of what Olson call’d a “saturation job”—“It doesn’t matter whether it’s Barbed Wire or Pemmican or Paterson or Iowa”—:
I’ve always found that to sustain myself in any project it was important that I talk about it, write about it, make voluminous notes, even if I discarded them all later. But the discipline of forcing oneself to study one subject consistently, for a certain amount of time every day, is great. It gives you a realization both of how much can be accomplished through reason and discipline, and of how much cannot be accomplished that way, but rather must be blundered into.
Echoing O’Hara’s cautionary note regarding Olson’s “sometimes rather cold” approach. See O’Hara’s conversations with Edward Lucie-Smith, particularly the succinctly measured cut of: “Olson is—a great spirit. I don’t think that he is willing to be as delicate as his sensibility may be emotionally and he’s extremely conscious of the Pound heritage and of saying the important utterance, which one cannot always summon up and indeed is not particularly desirable most of the time.”) (O’Hara’s remark made in 1965, Berrigan’s sense of what “must be blundered into” is found in a letter dated March 25, 1962. He reports a card in reply to the letter he’d sent O’Hara—“Dear Ted Berrigan: Boy you certainly know how to cheer a person up . . .”—though the two’ve still to meet. Evidence of parallel sensibility.)

Seeing Berrigan read in Ann Arbor in the late ’sixties—two things (piously / impiously referenced): Pepsi and cowboy movies. (Or three: pills.) “The Code of the West.” I read Berrigan’s notes about seeing The Gunfighter (“Gregory Peck played Jimmy Ringo, once one of the “fastest guns in the West.” He made an attempt to quit gunfighting but too many kids wanted to get famous by gunning down the great Jimmy Ringo”) and think (first) of Dylan’s terrific “Brownsville Girl” (co-writ with Sam Shepard—“Well, there was this movie I seen one time / About a man riding ’cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck / He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself . . .”) and (second, reading Berrigan’s assessment of Jimmy Ringo: “the legendary American hero, tough, competent, heart of gold, nerves of steel, doomed to die, but living resignedly and heroically while alive”) of both of Berrigan’s own defiantly resigned death and of O’Hara’s con-temper’d sense of any cowboy high noon standoff (see “Yesterday Down at the Canal”—“can I borrow your forty-five / I only need one bullet preferably silver / if you can’t be interesting at least you can be a legend / (but I hate all that crap)”.) (Berrigan, too, mocks the ploy, see—in “Tambourine Life” under “the code of the west”—“1. Sob when you read ‘Black Beauty.’ / 2. The true test of a man is a bunt. . . .”) Berrigan calls The Gunfighter (1950) “one of the best examples of Sabi I’ve ever seen.” Whereat one returns to an earlier letter for Berrigan’s definition of “Sabi”:
Sabi is a Japanese word for which there is really no English equivalent. It is a feeling one gets at times for a kind of life where everything is like it seems to be when we think of the “good old days” which of course never really existed. It is a kind of nostalgia for a life which is called to mind when you think of trains speeding in the night, and great American names of cites and towns, and old cars, and October in the “Railroad Earth.” Thomas Wolfe is full of it, and so are old cowboy movies, and even old gangster movies, and poems by Frank O’Hara sometimes and many many other things . . .
Berrigan presumably glean’d the term off Kerouac, and Kerouac’s 1959 “Blues and Haikus” recordings (accompany’d by saxophonists Zoot Sims and Al Cohn). Bittersweet lonely, of an everyday Sapphic intensity. Camaraderie with the wrung-out, the hard-heal’d dings in things.

Casual noting. Is John Ashbery’s “Qualm” (in the 1981 Shadow Train), with its wonderful Warren G. Harding curios—“Warren G. Harding invented the word ‘normalcy,’ / And the lesser-known ‘bloviate’ . . .”—a nod and reply to Frank O’Hara’s 1960 “Poem (That’s not a cross look it’s a sign of life)” with its yawning tepidity towards “elephantine history”—“I can’t think of one interesting thing Warren G. / Harding did”? O’Hara:

That’s not a cross look it’s a sign of life
but I’m glad you care how I look at you
this morning (after I got up) I was thinking
of President Warren G. Harding and Horace S.
Warren, father of the little blonde girl
across the street and another blonde Agnes
Hedlund (this was in the 6th grade!)     what

now the day has begun in a soft gray way
with elephantine traffic trudging along Fifth
and two packages of Camels in my pocket
I can’t think of one interesting thing Warren G.
Harding did, I guess I was passing notes
to Sally and Agnes at the time he came up
in our elephantine history course everything

seems slow suddenly and boring except
for my insatiable thinking towards you
as you lie asleep completely plotzed and
gracious as a hillock in the mist from one
small window, sunless and only slightly open
as is your mouth and presently your quiet eyes
your breathing is like that history lesson
And Ashbery:

Warren G. Harding invented the word “normalcy,”
And the lesser-known “bloviate,” meaning, one imagines,
To spout, to spew aimless verbiage. He never wanted to be president.
The “Ohio Gang” made him. He died in the Palace

Hotel in San Francisco, coming back from Alaska,
As his wife was reading to him, about him,
From The Saturday Evening Post. Poor Warren. He wasn’t a bad egg,
Just weak. He loved women and Ohio.

This protected summer of high, white clouds, a new golf star
Flashes like confetti across the intoxicating early part
Of summer, almost to the end of August. The crowd is hysterical:
Fickle as always, they follow him to the edge

Of the inferno. But the fall is, deliciously, only his.
They shall communicate this and that and compute
Fixed names like “doorstep in the wind.” The agony is permanent
Rather than eternal. He’d have noticed it. Poor Warren.
Is “doorstep in the wind” a minor chord echo of “hillock in the mist”? Why, reaching “the fall is, deliciously, only his,” do I think of O’Hara’s fragment “He falls; but even in falling / he is higher than those who / fly into the ordinary sun,” and end up reading “The agony is permanent / Rather than eternal. He’d have noticed it” as an assessment (pointedly turn’d away) of Ashbery’s own grief at the loss of O’Hara, the attendant, the observant, the noticer.

Ted Berrigan, 1934-1983