Tuesday, February 17, 2009
There is a growing body of younger readers out there who are getting to know the work of Anselm Berrigan directly & who only later discover that his brother is a poet &, oh yes, his mother. And, oh yes again (& again), his father & his late step-father as well. To somebody of my generation, this is more or less unthinkable – Ted Berrigan was among the very first poets¹ too young for The New American Poetry to become established as a major fixture in the literary landscape. The man read at the Berkeley Poetry Festival in 1965. For anyone now in their sixties, Ted Berrigan has always been there, even though he died in 1983. The situation vis-à-vis Alice Notley & Douglas Oliver is somewhat different, partly because of Notley’s age & because Oliver is more widely read & appreciated in his native England than in the U.S. But it’s not that different. If you are of a certain age, Anselm & Edmund Berrigan will always be those miracles – the kids of writers who write. And you will approach their work with some filter, a frame that has something to do with you think about the writing of their parents. But then there are these other, younger readers, just as there are today readers of Franz Wright who may well never have heard of James, or of Aram Saroyan who never have read a word of William.² I would love to be able to hear with such virgin ears.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Two of the 44 poets in the New American Poetry were themselves children of poets, Allen Ginsberg & Paul Blackburn.³ Today we think of Louis Ginsberg & Frances Frost as the parents of poets, while Omar Pound is a footnote (or perhaps a small chapter) in his father’s biography rather than the other way around. Everyone ultimately stands on his or her own work, not that of somebody else at the table.
Anselm Berrigan is perfectly capable of standing entirely on his own, which his younger readers – the ones who have come to him with no prior knowledge of any of his family members – already know. Even us geezers have figured it out, at least we have if we’ve been paying attention.
The last time I heard Anselm Berrigan, we were on the same bill at a club in
Looking around the room, realizing just how many in attendance were in fact students at
Berrigan has the presence of someone completely comfortable with his work & with the process of reading/being in public. He reads quietly, but in a way that opens the text up rather than swallowing it. If there’s an anxious bone in his body, it is kept well hidden. Thursday he read from three works: Zero Star Hotel, Have a Good One & Primitive State. The first of these is the title work from Anselm’s second book from Rod Smith’s Edge press, while the second is a poetic series – each poem has the same title – that has been appearing in magazines & online for awhile.
When you look at Berrigan’s poetry on the page, it’s mostly in short lines and can take just about any contemporary shape at all. The humor, indirectness & personal tone all attest to his heritage as a son more or less literally of the
That disjunct between seeing & hearing is an active element of the work itself. With the 97 poems of Have a Good One each possessing the same title, any reading from that work turns into an occasion in which the title functions as much as a refrain as a name for the poem, as Bob Perelman noted in the reading’s Q&A. It’s both in the poem and of the poem, so to speak. Of course, Berrigan could read the sections with a more profound pause at the end of a given piece, but he doesn’t (or at least didn’t at
¹ Robert Kelly & Jerry Rothenberg also fit that description, with Ron Padgett, David Shapiro, Joe Ceravolo & Diane Wakoski coming along soon after.
² When I was a school kid in California in the 1950s, every child in the state read “My Name is Aram,” the William Saroyan short story that was written before the “real Aram” was born. I suspect that may have been a regional phenomenon, but I’m sure that
³ Ginsberg’s brother, Eugene Brooks, was also a poet, “the most talented poet in the family” according to Allen.
Labels: Anselm Berrigan