Once again I’m a late-comer to something everyone else knew all about. Where have you been?, you’ll say. I dunno…a person writes some thing off and then comes to discover later that he was missing something he did not want to miss. Anyway, I just got a copy of the recently published Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan and began reading it on my train ride home from work just now. I’m reading Sonnets. It seems to me, so far, that these are very wonderful poems—full of quotidian surprises, sudden intimacies, exaltations and damnations, but all of it conducted with a certain quietness I haven’t seen before, a subtlety that is highly attractive. I’m gleaning this impression from perhaps 10 pages, so I’ll have more to say later, and I’ll be better informed when I say it. The trouble with me is, I had really written off the New York School in a lot of ways, or at least all of it but Ashbery. I had a brief fascination with Koch, but eventually it got to silly for me. Well, and I like Schuyler—or at least I did when I borrowed his collected from my local library when I was briefly living at home after college, meaning I haven’t read him in years—which I guess means that in fact it’s O’Hara that I could never really get with. He’s too much in the world for my tastes. I like ‘em more in their heads. So, anyway, I think I had grouped Berrigan very much with O’Hara and assumed I wouldn’t enjoy his work. But there is a kind of push in it, a way that Berrigan is prodding the world around him with language that is really quite satisfying. Then, of course, there are the later poems to look at as well, which, at least after a cursory glance, seem different from the sonnets. What a prolific writer he was! 700 pages in only 20 years. I have the giddy excitement of coming across a monumental book.
Also, the new Joshua Clover is out and about. I’m wondering what people are thinking about it. I haven’t read it all yet, though I’ve had the galley for a while, which, I think, betrays my ambivalence about it. But, if there is such a thing, I think it’s a passionate ambivalence. I’ve been looking forward to this book for two years or so, since I first read Madonna Ano Domini in grad school. I didn’t dive into it, I think, because I’m afraid not to like it, or, worse perhaps, not to get it. It certainly seems much more prohibitive to me than the first book, though those poems didn’t do all that much come-hithering. Some of these new poems seem a bit slight, and others seem very impenetrable. Again, this opinion is based on a cursory reading, and I will go at it a bit harder soon. But, does anyone out there have a thought or two to share about the book?
It’s a couple of hours later. Still on Ted Berrigan. I’ve read a bit more into THE SONNETS, though I’m still not done—I’m savoring it a bit. I’d like to look at one of the ones I like so far and see if I can articulate why I like it.
XVIIfor Carol Clifford
Each tree stands alone in stillness
After many years still nothing
The wind’s wish is the tree’s demand
The tree stands still
The wind walks up and down
Scanning the long selves of the shore
Her aimlessness is the pulse of the tree
It beats in tiny blots
Its patternless pattern of excitement
Letters birds beggars books
There is no such thing as a breakdown
The tree the ground the wind these are
Dear, be the tree your sleep awaits
Sensual, solid, still, swaying alone in the wind
I gather that many of these were written using collaging or other randomizing methods. With that possibility in the background, this poem begs to be read as both an unfolding meditation—a kind of pastoral—and a jerking collage of lines or strings of lines that are only vaguely related. A line by line reading may be the best way to get at how these lines work on and against each other. Of course we have the tree and its surroundings, which set a scene, and an emotional landscape in which the poem takes place. The first two lines convey a Zen-like calm, patience. Then the confounding third line—why is "The wind’s wish the tree’s demand"? You would think it would be the other way around, the wind demanding the tree to bend one way or another. Perhaps the tree is "solid," so, while the wind can only wish, suggesting the direction of the tree, the tree exerts real force on the environment around it. And perhaps that’s reading the line too closely; suffice it to say that the third line is an interruption, a pause, a moment where the reader’s mind trips—it complicates things significantly. The in the forth line, a return to the initial stillness, though the diction is clipped this time, almost dismissive of the increasing complexity of the lines that came before, almost suggestive of the nonsequiteur of the forth-to-last line. The pacing wind complicates things further, adding a more overtly human element to the scene, an increasingly pervasive projection of the speaker’s consciousness onto a poem that has waffled between letting nature be itself and forcing it to be a human idea. Then the string of unconnected words: "Letters birds beggars books". The birds and beggars jive pretty well with a panoramic view of where this place might be; I imagine a boardwalk, beggars skulking in the corners, seagulls diving for trash. Of course, that’s just my association—it’s not suggested by the poem, but those big spaces leave room for associative thinking. Then the letters and books bring me into a cluttered apartment. It seems to me that the consciousness of the speaker melds here with the pastoral scene: the speaker can’t parse his cluttered world from the world outside. Then the wonderful nonsequiter: "There is no such thing as a breakdown". This is the point at which the whole poem clicks into place for me. One reading might be, as the end of the next line suggests, that "these are," meaning that nothing in the world breaks down or stops—it just keeps going and it is we who fail to keep up. This line makes the whole poem sad. It’s a little like James Wright’s "I have wasted my life"—as if the insistence of the tree, the birds, the wind, the whole scene in motion forces the speaker to understand that nothing, no one will forgive him (or the "Dear" whom the last couplet addresses) , let him (or her) off easy, for failing to keep up. Hence the lovely last lines: "be the tree your sleep awaits / Sensual, solid, still, swaying alone in the wind". The words "your sleep awaits" confound me a little, but they are beautiful, and the suggestion seems clear—if you wanna be happy, be flexible like a tree.
It’s really a very rich poem, and different in its richness from what I associate with New York School writing, which I often think of as more random or quotidian.