Tuesday, November 08, 2022

Ted Berrigan's Get the Money: The Collected Prose (1961-1983)

It was 1963 or '64,  in the library at Cal State L.A., that I came across my first Ted Berrigan poems. At the time I was solidly into the likes of Charles Olson, LeRoi (not yet Baraka) Jones, Michael McClure and Frank O'Hara- in fact, just about anyone  in Don Allen’s New American Poetry- but I'd never come across  anything quite like Berrigan's poems. They seemed so off-hand and playful, with none of   the heaviness and obscurantics associated with  Pound and his various poetic progeny.  Naturally, I thought about writing like Berrigan- who wouldn't? His work  seemed so natural in its reach and drift, so easy to emulate. Well, if only...  A year later at San Francisco State I was handing over a clutch of Berrigan-like poems to John Logan who, for better or worse, had been hired as the college's in-house poet.  He looked at the pages like they were pieces of rotting fruit, quite likely the product of an idiot.  Not that I cared. After all,  Logan wasn't someone I'd ever thought of emulating, nor even considered interesting as a poet.  He was, I thought at the time, just another old guy who had a decent line in self-pity. 

Still mining the open stacks, and with nothing better to do, I started to peruse back issues of Kulchur, enticed as I was  by the magazine's masthead and table of contents carrying such names as Sorrentino, Corso, Di Prima, Dorn, Don Phelps and Fielding Dawson. And, of course, Berrigan. Not poems this time, but  reviews.  Open, humorous, but also deadly serious, Berrigan's prose turned out to be every bit as beguiling as his poetry. So much so that it sent me back  to the poems, this time his  Sonnets, or what I could find of them, since the Grove Press edition had yet to be published. So of the moment were they that as the moment passed, so eventually did my attention. Which led me to wonder whether poems like his were even meant to last. But if poetry wasn't  of and for  the moment, then exactly what was it of and for?  Posterity? I wasn't really sure there was such a thing. 

But that kind of speculation soon faded, replaced by more immediate concerns of a personal and political nature. Fast forward thirty  years and five thousand miles away,  I was willingly forking out  twelve quid for a secondhand copy of Berrigan’s Collected Poetry. Those same poems, I discovered, had in the intervening years turned into  heart-wrenching reminders of a particular time and place, and the promise of what could have been and might still be. Sure, they were submerged in a certain kind of quotidian immodesty, but, despite time and technology, that is very much part of their charm.  Like a great deal of art of that period, those poems represent a community and way of viewing the world. With his polaroid exactness Berrigan's poems, like those of O'Hara, Paul Blackburn and Philip Whalen, wear their intelligence as lightly as possible, never making a thing out to it, which, in fact, was typical of  the New York/Tulsa school (Padgett, Gallup, Brainard). Always in search of the sweet spot of everyday reality, less a product of the street than of windows, galleries, poetry readings and the work of other writers.     

Much the same could  be said of Berrigan's criticism and journals, both  of which are abundantly represented in Get The Money: The Collected Prose (1961-1983), published by City Lights (eds., Edmund Berrigan, Anslem Berrigan, Alice Notley, Nick Sturm). In entry after entry, Berrigan pursues and captures the presence, and more often than not the essence, of whatever he scrutinises, whether a painting, poem, novel, or person, always in search of its fundamental is-ness. Not defensive "in the presence of the spontaneously beautiful," but, as Berrigan writes in a review of Ron Padgett's In Advance of the Broken Tone Arm, but which might be applied to  himself, "Padgett doesn't really take any chance in beauty's presence; he is simply there." That being the case, Berrigan, as the title of this volume suggests, mockingly pursues payment, knowing that what he is advocating and producing will most likely have little if any monetary value. Though who would have been able to say that there wouldn't one day be a market for what was then thought to be unmarketable. That Berrigan has nothing to lose or gain makes his critiques all the more honest, cogent, personal and playful.  This in an era when the apparent chaos was such that most criticism, with the exception of magazines like Kulchur, were lagging behind, or simply didn't get, what Berrigan was promoting.          

Coming in at just under 300 pages, Get the Money!, with entries on the likes of Kenward Elmslie, FT Prince,  Red Grooms, Alice Neel, John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Anne Waldman, Jim Carroll, Tom Raworth, Joel Oppenheimer, and much more, will surely be this year's favourite commodity for any fetishistic punter with an inkling for  Berrigan's work, or, for that matter,  the New York poetry and art scene during those years. All proof that Berrigan's prose is never less than an extension of his poetry, indicative of his engagement with what is going on around him. As the Whitehead quote Berrigan inserts as the epigraph to his journals, reads,  "What is going to happen is already happening." That word, happening, for better or worse, so synonymous with the era and its sense of community. Likewise, behind the dash-it-off, who-gives-a fuck attitude, Get the Money attests to someone lasered into the push and pull of both public and private with an apparent recklessness that never fails to connect.  Or one could equally say that Berrigan's critique is never less than an extension of the object being criticised. Even if that object is no more than  an opportunity for him to demonstrate his literary chops. As in his "review" of Burroughs' Nova Express, which could be read as a flexing of Berrigan's literary muscles, or as a conscious, if overly enthusiastic, extension of the novel.  Even though, at the other end of the scale, "Frank O'Hara Dead at 40" comes across as a completely straight and touching, but  manufactured, tribute. A case perhaps of Get the Money for real, but not without  feeling.  Just as the occasion dictates, but tame when compared with the following, written in a more familiar manner: 

"In fact, it would be much easier for me to get something said about this book if I could briefly turn into Charles Olson or John Lennon or Martin Luther King. Then I'd just lean forward into the TV camera and intensely, 'If you really want to know what it's all about, read Frank O'Hara, that's right, FRANK O'HARA... Whereupon...Joe Levine would rush production on his new movie, Life on Earth, the biography of Frank O'Hara, starring young James Cagney as Frank... and Gig Young as John Ashbery, Rod Steiger as Jane Freilicher. What excitement!"

All of which makes Berrigan if not political, at least doggedly democratic in his merging of subject and object. Though sometimes it does seem like he's the focal point, cheerleader and barker-in-chief of a semi-secret society. Democratic, thenbut only in a world within a world within a world, exemplified by the various entries about Berrigan's friends, Berrigan himself, or Berrigan and his friends. But wait a sec... Wasn't that what poetry communities, significant or otherwise, were about in those pre-internet age? Even at the risk of over-reach, or, in this case, over-sell, as Berrigan shamelessly tests the limits, however playfully, insisting as always on le droit du poete. A tendency that, in today's world of identity politics and territorial armour, might be questionable. But this is now and that was then. Whatever the subterranean politics, Berrigan remains as large as life, missed by many and forgotten by no one who inhabited that world and its margins. All of which leaves one to speculate about Berrigan's letters, which, if gathered together, would undoubtedly complete the picture of this most late twentieth century of twentieth century poets. 

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