[From A Certain Slant of Sunlight (Oakland, CA: O Books, 1988).]
The American poet Ted Berrigan was born eighty years ago today. He died on July 4, 1983. I‘ll quote from an essay that I wrote some years ago for a reference series on American poetry:
In twenty-five years of writing, Ted Berrigan created a poetry that melded intelligence, emotion, and wit in unexpected ways, a poetry of what he calls in sonnet LIII “baffling combustions.” Berrigan’s poetry can be at once dazzlingly opaque and utterly clear, full of dense verbal collage and unashamed sentiment, blatantly appropriative yet singularly original.Berrigan established himself as a poet with the radical formalism of The Sonnets (1964), turning the form, as he said in a 1978 interview, into “fourteen units of one line each.” The poems of this sequence collage fragments of Berrigan’s own unsatisfactory early work with words lifted from elsewhere, creating rich and strange textures in fourteen (or fifteen or sixteen) lines.¹ In his final years Berrigan discovered a new possibility for a radical formalism in the writing project 500 American Postcards, which took the postcard as a poetic form, a fixed space determining (along with the variable of handwriting) the size of the poem.
“Whoa Back Buck & Gee by Land!” is a postcard poem. It takes its title from a song Leadbelly sang (but it’s the lamb, not land ). The third line comes from Frank O’Hara’s poem “River”; the fourth, from Auden’s “A Lullaby”; the sixth, from John Wieners’s “Act #2” (“Women in / the night moan yr. name”). Those are the sources I recognize; there may be others. The poem itself, however, could be the work of only one poet. “Man, that was Ted Berrigan!”
It is 5:15 a.m. Happy birthday, Ted.
“A Final Sonnet”
Separated at birth: C. Everett Koop and Ted Berrigan
¹ Rich and strange: including lines from The Tempest.