Any possible way of making words

Ted Berrigan with Lyn Hejinian and Kit Robinson on 'In the American Tree,' 1978

Editorial note: Ted Berrigan (1934–1983) was the author of several books of poetry, including The Sonnets (1964), Nothing for You (1978), Easter Monday (1978), and A Certain Slant of Sunlight (1988). He also wrote a novel, Clear the Range (1977). His poems were collected in The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan by University of California Press in 2005. This interview was originally broadcast on Berkeley’s KPFA-FM on August 11, 1978, as part of In the American Tree: New Writing by Poets, hosted by Lyn Hejinian and Kit Robinson. Listen to the program at PennSound here. The interview was transcribed by Michael Nardone. — Katie L. Price

Lyn Hejinian: This is In the American Tree: New Writing by Poets. I’m Lyn Hejinian and with me tonight is my cohost Kit Robinson, and a very special guest. Kit, why don’t you introduce.

Kit Robinson: It’s my extreme pleasure to introduce tonight, which is actually this morning, Ted Berrigan, who has arrived from New York, and is going to read for us.

Ted Berrigan: I’ll read some recent poems to start the show off. This is a poem called “Whitman in Black” and it’s from a new book, which I just finished, of fifty poems. It’s called Easter Monday.

[Reads “Whitman in Black.” MP3]

And now I’ll read one that’s maybe a couple of years older, but not so dissimilar from that. This poem, in its title … well, the title contains my entire sense of what it’s like to live now: in this century, in this time, in the United States of America. Or maybe anywhere else for that matter. It’s called “Buddha on the Bounty.” The Bounty being the ship, His Majesty’s ship, the Bounty from “Mutiny on the Bounty.”

[Reads “Buddha on the Bounty.” MP3]

And I’ll read this poem, which actually you requested me to read, Kit, called “Here I Live.” It’s from my book Nothing for You, which was published earlier this year by Angel Hair Books in Lenox, Massachusetts. I wrote this poem, I think I wrote it in maybe 1969. I wrote it by a method. In fact, I write everything by a method, but I wrote this by a method in quotes. It’s called “Here I Live.”

[Reads “Here I Live.” MP3]

Robinson: The counting thing is like, I mean, you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to do in a poem, except that you’re actually counting. When you say “one,” “two” and “three,” you know, the syllables have a certain duration and a certain rhythm. You’ve done that in other work too, right? You’ve got that thing when you count, right, with the numbers?

Berrigan: What other work?

Robinson: Actually, in The Sonnets, there’s a point when you say “one, two, three, four,” right?

Berrigan: I don’t remember. But I’m sure I have done that before because it’s something I do, in fact.

Well, in this poem, the person talking is named “I,” and that’s really all the name you are given for the person talking. There was a need to give some definition to that character. The clearest definition I could think to give in the state — the psychophysiological state that that person was in when saying these things — was to show that that person was made up of, constituted, a nexus of parts named one, two, three, and four. I mean it could have been named I, you, he, and it. It’s pronouns broken down to a more —

Robinson: So there are planes, so that it’s like an x-axis, a y-axis —

Berrigan: There are planes, yeah.

Robinson: And then there’s a time axis —

Berrigan: You just mentioned the secret actually of my entire poetry, which is that it has to do with planes: of reality, of perception … Not of reality, because that sounds theoretical, but with planes of being, not in a theoretical sense but in a sense of trying to get accurate. I am talking to you, but he is thinking about it while I am talking. You know?

Robinson: And “they”: they said something about this, too. And other peoples’ voices come into your work.

Berrigan: “They” are over there, though, and “I” is here. And “he” is a little bit over there but is near.

Robinson: So there’s an incredible sense of location. Like when you say three hundred and sixty degrees, you get a center.

Berrigan: Right.

Robinson: And you get a circumference, and a point at the center.

Berrigan: There’s something feminine if you can actually get three hundred and sixty degrees. I didn’t realize, I suppose, until a few months ago that you could have planes and still have a circle, which is a really nice idea.

Hejinian: Right.

Berrigan: All that sounds so abstract, but it’s not abstract when I’m doing it. It’s simply trying to have something exist without describing it: to name its parts rather than describe it. Description is slow. I can’t keep up to the pace of my metabolism when I am using description usually, but I can do it while simply naming things. You know I don’t use images much but I will name an image. I mean, I will say “a tree.” I don’t try to make a picture of a tree for you. I assume —

Hejinian: What about in your novel, in Clear the Range?

Berrigan: What about it? I mean, that’s another story entirely. I mean, that’s a poet’s novel. I wrote it as this poem, was writing it … It’s a genre work, a genre which I was thoroughly familiar with: the Western novel. And I used the genre then to make everything be very slow and to make this setting in which there was a hero and a villain — almost like Commedia dell’arte. Then there was a girl. And then there were various other characters, including a horse and a mule. But, I mean, the main thing that was going on was that the villain and the hero were constantly having these Western confrontations, in which they didn’t finally pull out their guns and shoot each other. And they were very similar sort of, except that the villain was obviously villainous, and the hero was obviously the hero. Anytime one of them did anything like go into a restaurant or a bar, then the other one was a waiter or the bartender, and they had these confrontations every minute. I think I thought I was making something similar to Camus’s book The Stranger, in which the guy, Meursault, the hero, walks around and becomes totally bemused by the sun smashing on his brain every minute and in the end, it seems, he killed somebody. He doesn’t quite remember, or he does remember but he doesn’t know why he did it or any thing in particular, but he did it for a very good reason: it’s too hot.

Robinson: So how does logic or narrative get you to that? Like “too hot” you know? Like you got to move, right? In this poem —

Berrigan: Wait a minute. You’ll have to explain this question. What is that?

Robinson: Well, like, okay, so you’ve got a narrative in Clear the Range.

Berrigan: Yeah, but it’s a given. The narrative path is given by a genre, whereas in poems it’s not. Or maybe it is, but in a different way.

Robinson: Right. But it seems like in this poem, “Here I Live,” what does that is not narrative but it is some kind of sense of logic, you know. In the end you say, “And so. One. Two. Three,” like that follows.

Berrigan: What does it say? It says —

Robinson: Does it?

Berrigan: No, it doesn’t. But it practically does.

Robinson: Well, okay —

Berrigan: My sense, I suppose, quite often when I am writing poems, is that I’m going to tell a story. So, in that sense, it is kind of narrative. It is narrative in the kind of sense that it’s telling, but I don’t really want to tell. I don’t want to be this teller. I don’t mind being a teller of tales in which you make a story. I’m making something, but I’m also telling. So, I start out to tell a story, and I have this structure of the story, but I’m not very interested in the story, but rather in the feelings involved. And so I take out as much of the plot as possible. I mean I just leave out as much of the plot as possible. I don’t even consider most of the plot. I simply put in the complete structure —

Robinson: You’ve got scaffolding —

Berrigan: Yeah, scaffolding, sure, the architecture of the story. And then I leave out, and put in the things that are necessary. In that sense it’s a kind of impressionism, but it’s not an impressionism of making pictures of impressions, but of using words to get details, because I’m mostly involved with rhythm, tempo, pace, color, and so on in order to get the feeling that’s being involved. And yet, pure feeling is not enough. You need to have some sense of what kind of person is talking in this poem. And I do try and give you that. Not the person that I think I might be all the time, but the person that is talking in that poem. And there you have it. I mean, I give you a story, but I don’t want —

Robinson: But the poem is there —

Berrigan: I’m not interested in telling you —

The poem needs to exist very much like a tree.

Hejinian: We’re going to continue on now with our guest Ted Berrigan. This is In the American Tree: New Writing by Poets. Ted, you have a sequence of things?

Berrigan: Yeah, I’ll read three poems from a book, which I just completed three or four months ago. It’s called Easter Monday, and it’s fifty poems. Most of them are close to the same size, my favorite size, which is about fourteen lines. Well, they are sonnets, in fact, but they don’t really work at that too much. Not all of them are. Some are longer and none are shorter. But some are quite long, quite a bit longer, because they just got longer sometimes, and when they did I just let them be longer. Fifty was an arbitrary number I decided upon ahead of time based on a theory that if you do two or three works that are fairly similar, and you liked them — even if you just do one, you do one work and you like it and can do another one that’s similar to it — there’s no particular reason to do the next one, a second one, and there’s no particular reason not to do it. But if you feel you have a number of them there, you can set yourself this arbitrary number and just decide, well, I’ll do fifty of these. Then you’re sort of clear as to what you’ll be doing for a while. I got that idea from a painter friend of mine. So, I did fifty of these, and it took me a lot longer than I thought it would. I said that I would do fifty. It’s called Easter Monday because it’s really about a second life: life beginning about the age of forty. And since it is personal … I mean it is the second half of one’s life. It’s about being young, a young older person. I was involved in a second marriage, second family, but even if I hadn’t been, it still could have been the same thing. Consequently, it is like Easter Monday. Easter Friday you die and Easter Sunday you rise again from the dead, and that’s really glorious and wonderful, but then Easter Monday you have to get this job and support yourself for the rest of your life. [Laughter.] The poems were all written two or three or four years from the time I was thirty-eight until last year when I was forty-two. So they are not all about one’s whole second life, but rather about being aware of coming into that. When I say they are about something, I strictly mean “about.” I don’t know what each poem is about particularly. I could study them and tell you what each one is about, but that’s not what I’m willing to do. Each poem is a very separate poem. They are not like my work, The Sonnets, where, although every poem can stand on its own, they were sequential and serial in a certain way. There is some repetition of things, but it’s really like fifty separate works which were done knowing I was going to do fifty, and therefore they relate that way. I knew what the themes were, though I didn’t work at them too hard. I just knew what they were. I’ll read the first three. The first one is called “Chicago Morning.” It’s dedicated to the painter Phil Guston simply because I was looking at a painting of his while I was writing. It was hanging on the wall over the typewriter, and so I actually used some things in his painting to refer to when I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

[Reads “Chicago Morning.” MP3]

The second one is called “New Town.” New Town is a section of Chicago.

[Reads “New Town.” MP3 ]

“The End,” this is the third one. And these are the first three, actually, that were written. And it was after writing these three that I then decided I would go on and write forty-seven more. Which is why I call this “The End” because I, you know, I wanted to get the end out of the way right away.

[Reads “The End.” MP3]

I’m going to read one more of those since my voice started to click in about the middle of the third one. This is one that came later, maybe about the thirtieth one. This is a made work, and it was made from a master list in a psychology textbook. The title of it is “From a List of Delusions of the Insane, What They Are Afraid Of.” And this is a fairly classical sonnet of fourteen lines, which works, in fact, in three fours and a two.

[Reads “From a List of Delusions of the Insane, What They Are Afraid Of.” MP3]

Hejinian: What a list!

Berrigan: Yeah, well, the children are burning. And we are those children. And they are those children too. And they are not insane. All those things are very true. I mean, evil chemicals are in the air.

Hejinian: And they are poor.

Berrigan: And we are in the control of another power. We have stolen something, namely those lines. [Laughter.] I mean, one has to be as witty as one can in the face of the Holocaust.

Hejinian: You mentioned earlier on one of the earlier poems in the first part of this show about montage.

Berrigan: No, Kit mentioned it. I don’t use such highfalutin words.

[Laughter.]

Hejinian: Does collage or montage technique come into your work at all, consciously? I mean, is that one of the methods that you use?

Berrigan: Yeah, oh yeah. I mean, I use any possible way of making words. And I don’t remember it too much now. I mean, I just do what it is I do. When I was doing things early on and learning how to make poems my way, I was very heavily influenced by paintings, and by music as well, but to talk just about one thing … On one level, I was tremendously influenced by Cubism, basically because I see flat anyway, and I am interested in planes. When I first saw Cubist paintings, it seemed to me they made great sense. I’m sure that was a misunderstanding in many ways, but they made great sense to me. And then I followed that immediately into the use of collage, and the idea of making assemblages, all sorts of things like that. Sure, I’ll use any material from anywhere, and I like to do it. And I will; I’ll make works like that one that I just read which is made entirely of material, selected material, from one particular source. Sometimes I collect material. I write it down in notebooks when I’m reading. I like to read. I read all the time, all sorts of things. If something strikes me by how it sounds, if it sounds like something that I actually might have thought if I were thinking that way in those very words, I might copy it in a notebook. Then I’ll use it later in some poem because sometimes when I’m making poems, I just thumb through my notebooks and put in anything that seems appropriate to what I’ve already put in. Of course, I don’t credit the sources. Why should I? Those that recognize them will see where it comes from, and get some added sensual brain cell pleasure from noticing it, and those that don’t, it doesn’t matter anyway. I mean, I don’t mind if I don’t make up all my own words. Yeah, I use all sorts of techniques like that. I read in a book once that someone said — it would be nice if it were Whitehead that said it — but it was someone like that who said, “No great art without great theories.” And I believed it. So I have great theories, and I can’t entirely remember what they are. But I remember when I conceived them initially, and I still go by them, even if I don’t remember the theories too well. I have millions of theories that have to do with rules for writing, ways to write and ways to make things. For example, that poem that I read called “Cranston, Near the City Line,” part of the method that I used, the rules I used governing it when I wrote it, had to do with some of the ideas that Kenneth Koch used teaching poetry writing to old people in nursing homes.

Hejinian: Oh, that wonderful book that he has.

Berrigan: It was something like six ideas that he used, and I tried to see somehow if I could use all six in one poem without having it be a poem by an old person. I didn’t want to go to a nursing home and do it.

Hejinian: Or by Kenneth Koch.

Berrigan: Yeah, well, I don’t have to worry about writing poems by Kenneth Koch, because he’s a Harvard educated guy. Kenneth is a wonderful poet, but, as Ron Padgett said, poets like Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery, they’re too clean actually. Those guys are very clean. I mean, that’s not a criticism, it’s just a joke.

Robinson: I wanted to ask you about rhyme. I noticed a few rhymes in your poems, but I sort of have a sense that there were even rhymes there that I didn’t hear because —

Berrigan: I’m sure there were —

Robinson: Because there were delayed rhymes. Like in the first one that you read, you’re talking about hearing other peoples’ voices, then you say “the soup.” And my take on that was that the soup was like alphabet soup or something.

Berrigan: That take is included in the word.

Robinson: Right.

Berrigan: I mean, I’m not as imaginative as that, but once I will think of a word. Then I can see how that can work. That’s actually the way everything looked out the window in Chicago in the morning.

Robinson: The soup, right. The air … And then you get to the Loop, like it was a really long-delayed rhyme, like four lines later —

Berrigan: I’m glad you pointed that out.

Robinson: But it was a stretch. And the same thing happened from the title to the last line, because the title is “Chicago” and the last line is “Europe at night,” which is almost like a negative or something, you know. So, when you’re writing, do you have a sense that you’re holding something in your short-term memory that you’re going to turn around, but you don’t want to do it yet?

Berrigan: Yeah, that’s a really accurate way of putting it, I think. I love rhyme and I love even just mental rhyme. Every kind of rhyme, I love it. One of my most favorite poems is “Annabel Lee.” I also like Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper.” I like rhyme a lot and I feel that, in the way that one actually says one’s words now, that there is room everywhere for rhyme. That is, when you think of a poem like “Annabel Lee,” written in measure, I mean, written in a really strict measure, and you think of it as how your learned it in school in the sixth grade, seventh grade, whatever, and there are lines that say: “I was a child and she was a child, / in our kingdom by the sea: / but we loved with a love that was more than love — / me and my Annabel Lee.” That sounds. That’s music. But, in fact, if you think of how you would say it if you were saying that, you know, if you were telling somebody that, and it was this quite significant story, and you would say actually: “I was a child and she was a child in our kingdom by the sea, but we loved with a love that was more than love, me and my Annabel Lee.”

Robinson: It’s like the difficulty of actually saying that —

Berrigan: It’s the movement of stress, right. When you put the stress of the emotion on it, rather than the stress of the measure, then you have two beats, two measures going at once, two kinds of melody. That’s actually what I do. That’s where I’m avant-garde. I believe that you can have two melodies simultaneously. I don’t measure. I don’t use —

Robinson: But you get a modulation that you can feel.

Berrigan: Yeah. Clark Coolidge said to me once that I loved old-fashioned music, and you can see it in my works. And he meant it as a compliment, because what I do is take it out of the heart of the matter, and put it all on the surface. It’s kind of like putting the skeleton on the outside in some ways.

Robinson: That’s a very strict formalism in a way.

Berrigan: Yeah, it’s like if you could consider that de Kooning and Vermeer are doing the same thing, then you have a sense of what it is I would like to do.

Robinson: Right, landscape and the body.

Berrigan: It’s just that formalism, that kind of formalism. I’m strictly a formalist. I mean, if I think of a phrase and I have a feeling to write, and then if I don’t have a formal idea, I couldn’t even write. I couldn’t go on. As soon as I have a feeling, and perhaps a sense of the melody, a phrase in the melody, and a few words, then I’m reaching for some kind of formal idea. Then I work with that and against it.

Robinson: Right.

Berrigan: I’ll go directly with the formal idea, or I’ll start to go with it and then try to introduce counter-measures to keep myself from achieving it until such time as I can achieve it. Can I read something else? This is a poem from quite early, and then I’ll read a fairly recent one. We’ll see if they are similar, because I think they are totally similar. Here’s a poem I wrote in 1962, and it’s called “Personal Poem #9.”

[Reads “Personal Poem #9.” MP3]

That was written in 1962. Here’s something I wrote maybe about five years ago, 1973. This is perhaps a little more wordy, but maybe there’s some similarity. This is called “Crystal.”

[Reads “Crystal.” MP3]

Hejinian: I hear that one as more feminine and more tough.

Berrigan: Yeah, it is more feminine. I was really, in 1962, when I was in this certain state, I was twenty-eight and I was butch, actually. I was quite aggressive about everything. Now I’m more campy, but I’ve got to erase that part of the tape — [Laughter.] But by ten years later, I was more able to be. I was able to be mellower about my furies, and more expressive perhaps of my loves, kind of. I wasn’t really having to hack my way through the undergrowth of daily reality so much. I realized that nobody really cared about what I did. So, it was all right to do it well.

Hejinian: That’s part of the liberation of the second half of the life.

Berrigan: Right. I had my … I had been liberated as a woman, right.

Hejinian: Right.

[Laughter.]

Berrigan: I had suffered the pleasures of woman’s liberation for myself. Now I have to suffer the pleasures of women.

[…]

Berrigan: I should read a work that will be the summation of my entire life and career, right? Do I have any works like that? Yeah, maybe I do.

Hejinian: The once and future poem.

Berrigan: This is a regression to an earlier kind of thing. It’s called “Three Pages.” It’s for Jack Collom.

[Reads “Three Pages.” MP3]

Robinson: And on that note —

Berrigan: I’ll close with a very short poem actually. It’s called “Remembered Poem.”

[Reads “Remembered Poem.” MP3]

Hejinian: Thanks, Ted, very much for coming in. It’s been a treat having you here.

Berrigan: Thank you.

Robinson: Tune in next week at the same time.