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 New York, never the best way to hear someone else’s work. Last week, I had the deeper pleasure of hearing Anselm once again at Temple’s center city site, across from City Hall. This time he read with Duncan Regan, a Temple grad student, who read a piece that played with comic book vocabulary and effects (and indeed was illustrated & projected on a large screen) – thus when a saw was cutting through the four walls of the strip, Regan voiced every instance of the word saw, which appears in some panels by the dozens. The work combines the cagey sophistication of postmodern critical thought & the wide-eye comic stare of, say, Joe Brainard, an almost impossible pairing, but one which Regan handles with dexterity. I made a note to myself to remember his name, since I expect to be seeing it more often.

Looking around the room, realizing just how many in attendance were in fact students at Temple, I wondered if this was an occasion in which the majority of Anselm’s audience will be getting to his family members at some point because of him, rather than the other way around. It seems a reasonable presumption, even as it jars me.

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 New York School. But to hear him, I find, gives a different sense. He doesn’t vocalize his line breaks & statements that might run two or three lines on the page come across more evenly. I sometimes think of the poem “Pictures for Private Devotion” (also the title of his Narrow House CD) as looking on the page more exactly the way I hear him.

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 Temple). Thus the title performs multiple functions, as not coincidentally so does that phrase in real society. Perelman even suggested that we could hear the work as a series of one-stanza pieces in which that was always the last line and I suppose that’s right. But what I think is more important is how it moves around, how you can hear each of these possibilities, one after another, without it ever settling into just one. I will be curious to see how this is treated when the work finally shows up as a book – it will be almost impossible to avoid shifting the balance at least a little in one direction or another.  

Readings from Zero Star Hotel and Have a Good One can be found on Anselm Berrigan's page at PennSound.


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 Aram has had to deal with that his entire life.

³ Ginsberg’s brother, Eugene Brooks, was also a poet, “the most talented poet in the family” according to Allen.


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