Ted Berrigan, 1934-1983
Out of Tom Clark
’s one-shot magazine Ice
(the penultimate number in the mimeo’d Once
series out of Essex, England circa
1966-7—Once, Twice, Thrice, Frice, Vice, Spice, Slice,
&c., each flagged with the sterling imprimatur “no copyright no nothin”), Ted Berrigan’s “Blueprint for a Poem to Be Written Spontaneously in the Act of Reciting It to Me and at Least Three Others”:
Title: (The name of the last book (not poems) you read or
are reading / or of the last movie you saw, or
any movie you really want to see, or book
you want to read but haven’t yet)
Dedication: (To: any female not present)
Line 1 (any line from some poem, not your own, that you like)
2 (sing any line from a folk song you can sing)
3 (any apologetic explanation (e.g. Eng. equiv. of “Pardonne” etc.)
4 (look at one of the audience and say something sarcastically
personal to them. Don’t use their name)
5 (recite either the alphabet or the numbers 1 to 26 slowly and with
6 (any line from one of your current poems (not this one))
7 (a one line critical judgment on the previous line)
8 (say something as if you were just proven right about something
you knew to be true but that others doubted)
9 (any four banal phrases (e.g. “guess I’ll hit the hay”). Clichés!)
10 (any line from a movie . . . imitate the actor or actress)
11 (any seven or 8 words you want, to be said in absolute monotone)
12 (any phrase to indicate that the poem is now finished)
13 (ask someone present (not me) how they liked the poem)
14 (ignore them as soon as you ask. Say something very pompous, then
sing the line from the folk song, used above, then try
to make up a spontaneous good line quickly).
A kind of petulantly wayward send-up of what I think of (in the New York School context) as “Kochean” poetic constraint systems, somewhat overly filigreed. (Recall Koch’s note in Locus Solus
II regarding the Ashbery / Koch “Crone Rhapsody” piece—itself a send-up: “written according to the following requirements: that every line contain the name of a flower, a tree, a fruit, a game, and a famous old lady, as well as the word bathtub
; furthermore, the poem is a sestina and all the end-words are pieces of office furniture.”) Berrigan’s note of anti-constructivism here—if it is that—is a shaggier sort of tomfoolery, with a snickering not entirely un
tenderly disposed toward all it snickers at, homely in its fun, and direct.* The “Blueprint” is printed with what is likely Berrigan’s own exemplary rejoinder, signed “E. A. McGregor-Plarr”:
Two Serious Ladies
to Sarah Burgess
She fell beneath the tree, and breathed in pants.
He’s my man, but he done me wrong.
Sorry folks, that one got away from me,
You fat slob there with the tight pants!
Abcdefghijklmnopur—I mean q—rstuvqxyz
And the heaving corpuscles of the sea . . .
“Corpuscles”—change that to “radiators,”
I knew it ought to be “radiators” when you came all over “corpuscles”!
Well, it takes all kinds—no one’s perfect. Still, strike while the iron’s hot, or
you’ll never know what hit you!
Wait—those horsemen—I think it’s Nevsky,
Grim, stately, prim, tactile, utter, dead and serene. The End.
Well, what’d you think of it?
I thought it was totally great! He’s my man, but he
done me wrong, serene among the beans.
“Likely” Berrigan. It’s a “vexed” thing (comme on dit
), the identity of E. A. McGregor-Plarr. I suspect there’s a whole untethering study to be made of the pseudonymously-printed collaboratory pieces of the early years of the second generation New York School “era.” If “Two Serious Ladies” recalls both Berrigan’s hero’s Frank O’Hara’s Jane Bowles-reading cowhands line out of “Collected Proses”—“Would you pass me that copy of TWO SERIOUS LADIES over there on the bunk” under the title “In the Ranchhouse at Dawn”—and Berrigan’s own late and identically titled piece (“That’s all / one life needs— / Two serious ladies.”), and if both the tough-guy joshing of “You fat slob there with the tight pants!” and the trademark Berriganism** “totally great!” sound like
Berrigan (I’m thinking of something like the one-line “Salutation” out of the 1988 A Certain Slant of Sunlight
that reads in its entirety: “Listen, you cheap little liar . . .”), other lines “toss off a proud anonymity.” What to do with the ostentatiously pumped-up line “the heaving corpuscles of the sea” beyond noting (and reveling in) its pretense? Seemingly no other “corpuscles” in Berrigan’s works (and no “radiators”). No “Nevsky.” Did Berrigan collaborate with someone to construct the exemplary “Blueprint” piece? (Oddly enough, in Tom Clark’s The Last Gas Station and Other Stories
(1980), in a story titled “Love and Death,” a character named Bob Bunny’s “life-blood flows in round veins that are conduits through which gurgle the aerated products of the various parts of his arterial system. There is a bubbling, a foaming; a spuming, spraying surf of red corpuscles.” “The heaving corpuscles of the sea?” A Berrigan / Clark work? I doubt it.***) (The subsequent line of clichés—“Well, it takes all kinds—no one’s perfect. Still, strike while the iron’s hot, or you’ll never know what hit you!”—recalls perfectly some paragraphs out of “Furtive Days,” a prose piece Berrigan wrote with Ron Padgett.****)
Turns out, Tom Clark printed another piece by E. A. McGregor-Plarr, earlier, in Thrice.
With work, too, by Padgett (translating Max Jacob), Joanne Kyger, Berrigan, Ed Dorn, Gael Turnbull, Charles Olson, Gerry Gilbert, Clark Coolidge, Harold Dull, and Clark himself, among others. Here’s the piece:
The monogram on the cigar box says Picador,
and above the monogram there is a horse
with no legs and a rider with one and a spear
and a striped cape and much apparent force,
and this is the picador, of course.
W. D. and H. O. Wills are the manufacturers of Picador.
It is a branch of the Imperial Tobacco Co. of Gt. Britain
and Ireland Limited. But from the box it would appear
the man on the legless horse, with the spear, is from Spain,
and this is the picador, and he gives me a pain,
for how does one explain to oneself this picador
of Spain on a box of stogies of Imperial
Britain? On top of the picador’s spear
there’s an insect, a mite, in a tobacco caul
being pic’d by the picador, who doesn’t see it crawl
from left to right of the box as I shake it; the picador
tramps through the gorse of hashish
bits and parched papers blindly to appear
to me as if the insect he would smish
with a stroke of his picador’s pic.
The bug leaps up to the top of the box of Picador
Cigars and crimps on the lid
for safety. He is the color of ancient beer.
He is not blind but the not wounded
picador is worse off, he is blind and dead.
Toward the word “Limited” strides the horse of the picador.
Somewhere in the drear, enormous house
of Time the tradition of pic’ing these wee fear-
in’, tremblin’ things has passed like the drayhorse.
Heraldic, extinct, the picador stands to remind us
the tiny grey and brown races are enormous in picador-
ish bitterness as the toot and roar
against the sides of the tired bull of all that one held dear.
It is at least a year and it might be more
since I bought this box of Picador, and the glor-
ious brown smell of victory here is not of Picador.
Again the O’Haraesque title. Is it the dopey sass of “this is the picador, of course” and “this is the picador, and he gives me a pain”—a sort of refrain casually abandoned—or the insouciantly wise-guy rhymes (hashish / smish / pic and
enormous house / drayhorse / remind us) that make me suspect “An Ode” is an unidentified and uncollected Berrigan work? Little sense of collaboratory ruckus here: for all its untempered, vaulting fun (“Somewhere in the drear, enormous house / of Time”, “the glor- / ious brown smell of victory”, “He is the color of ancient beer”), it reads “of a piece.” Both in its seemingly offhand rhymes and jaunt-contrary rhythms (“there’s an insect, a mite, in a tobacco caul / being pic’d by the picador, who doesn’t see it crawl”), and in its sly humor (“the tired bull of all that one held dear”), “An Ode” recalls Berrigan’s “Peace” (out of the 1970 In the Early Morning Rain
) with its lines like “The days’ usual aggressive / contrary beat / now softly dropped / into a regular pace / the head riding gently its personal place / where pistons feel like legs / on feelings met like lace.” And (ending): “It’s a pleasure / to meet one certain person you’ve been counting on / to take your measure / who will smile, & love you, sweetly, at your leisure. / And if / she turns your head around / like any other man, / go home / and make yourself a sandwich / of toasted bread, & ham / with butter / lots of it / & have a diet cola, / & sit down / & write this, / because you can.”
* A difference: Berrigan’s “Blueprint” is largely designed to trigger a poetics grounded in speech, its improvisatory impertinences, its roughs and eruptions. That against, here, Koch’s (and Ashbery’s) concoctions of writing. Berrigan’s O’Hara / Williams lineage making itself clear, and maybe scowling a little against what might be conceived as fussiness or unnecessary rigor. Recall that in the “Notes” to Bean Spasms (1967), the book of Ted Berrigan / Ron Padgett collaborations, Berrigan writes, simply: “Most of the time we made up rules but sometimes we didn’t.” And: “Sometimes friends who came by would write a few lines.” And: “It wasn’t the new thing, we didn’t even invent the idea, and we didn’t think we were being revolutionary. It was just what was happening and fact, still is.” Humble, casual, direct. With a curious addenda:
I forgot to mention that although both of us had done collaborations before we ever saw Kenneth Koch’s marvelous magazine anthology of collaborations, LOCUS SOLUS II, much of the momentum for our future collaborations was generated by its appearance.
** See the end of Lewis MacAdams’s piece “Big Ted” in Nice to See You: Homage to Ted Berrigan (1991):
. . . Ted saying “Totally Great.” That’s when I want to stop. When he was filled with joy. “Not ecstasy,” he cautioned once, “joy.” That’s how I like to think of Ted, Pepsi in hand, army pants, lumberjack shirt on, orating. “Totally great,” I can hear him saying. I still feel great when I hear him saying it out loud, right now, in eternity, “Totally Great!”
*** Out of Clark’s Late Returns: A Memoir of Ted Berrigan (1985):
I wrote to Ted asking for poems for The Paris Review, of which I was then poetry editor. He sent “works” (as he called all writings in poetry or prose) by the bunch—his own, and collaborations with other writers (Ron Padgett, Dick Gallup, Tom Veitch, Bernadette Mayer, Peter Schjeldahl). In rolled big chunks of his enigmatic cowboy novel, Clear the Range, composed by crossing out and replacing words in a pulp Western, as well as dozens of poems. . . .
**** Out of Bean Spasms. Delivered deadpan of one “Naomi”:
The generous overflow of Berrigan poems and collaborations, as well as many works by fellow New York poets whom he’d alerted about my interest, went into the series of “one-shot” mimeo magazines (Once, Twice, Thrice, Frice, Ice, Slice, Nice, etc.) which I was simultaneously editing from the University of Essex. Many were the pill-bright, fluorescent-lit nights I spent alone in the empty institutional buildings, typing stencils, grinding the mimeo, collating and addressing envelopes to the hundred poets Ted was putting me in touch with. . . .
She’d die with her boots on. A little preparedness goes a long way. Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today. Keep your chin up. Keep your powder dry. You know which side your bread is buttered on. Don’t blow your top. Put your shoulder to the wheel. Put your nose to the grindstone. You’re up against it? Don’t take it lying down. Stand up and be counted! Be a man! You’re not licked till you think you are. . . .