Monday, December 18, 2006

I’ve been reading The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan for what must be the sixth or seventh time. Not only does reading this series every few years never get old, my experience is that, for me at least, it has never been the same book twice. Reading it now in the sumptuous UC Press edition of Berrigan’s Collected Poems, I am struck with the air & light & infinite good humor that is at the heart of these poems. I’m particularly taken with the first two qualities, reinforced as they are by the large fields of white space the 6-by-8 UC format extends to the text. I agree with Alice Notley’s assertion in her introduction to the Collected that “The Sonnets, in fact, could reflect no other setting than” Manhattan, although “air & light” are not qualities I associate with that densely populated island. They’re functions here more of Berrigan’s own personality, which can grin very wide & be fairly barbed all at once:


I like to beat people up
absence of passion, principles, love. She murmurs
What just popped into my eye was a fiend’s umbrella
and if you should come and pinch me now
as I go out for coffee
… as I was saying winter of 18 lumps
Days produce life locations to banish 7 up
Nomads, my babies, where are you? Life’s
My dream which is gunfire in my poem
Orange cavities of dreams stir inside “The Poems”
Whatever is going to happen is already happening
Some people prefer “the interior monologue”
I like to beat people up

Ellipsis in the original, as they say. If there was a better sonnet in the 20th century, more complex & subtle, more full of human emotion or life, more well crafted, it’s somewhere else in this same sequence, but it’s of course always open to debate.

There are 79 poems gathered into this particular edition of The Sonnets, a few from as early as 1961, the bulk from 1963. That’s 13 more than appeared in the first two editions, but still nine less than Berrigan actually wrote. Given that he used cut-up or splicing techniques, some of them in such a way that you can’t miss the device – the same lines pop up over and over – and that some of the source material was his own very first “not-so-good” (to use Notley’s own judgment here) poems, I’ve wondered – during maybe three of my read-throughs – if a devoted scholar could reconstruct the “uncut” poems, the translations from Rimbaud, the miscellaneous additions that, in fact, make these so much more than verbal collages.

The very first work in The Collected Poems, The Sonnets is in some ways the most radical poetry Berrigan would ever write. Notley calls it, rightly, “Ted’s most famous book.” It is probably the work through which more poets have learned the core strategies of abstraction in language – it doesn’t have to be “non-referential;” a line, a phrase can go in one direction, the next one along an altogether different path; the whole itself will pull together disparate elements to construct “a voice,” etc. – than any other single text.

There was, in the late 1960s & throughout much of the 1970s, some dispute among younger poets as to who might have been the actual source for such procedures in poetry. The core of The Sonnets was constructed in 1963, one year after John Ashbery published “Europe,” the work of his that most clearly “predicts” the poetry of Berrigan (and not just The Sonnets), one year earlier in The Tennis Court Oath. William Burroughs, in his 1965 Paris Review interview with Conrad Knickerbocker (which I’ve also been rereading this week), assigns credit to Brion Gysin, but does so in a way that is carefully hedged:

A friend, Brion Gysin, an American poet and painter, who has lived in Europe for thirty years, was, as far as I know, the first to create cut-ups. His cut-up poem, “Minutes to Go,” was broadcast by the BBC and later published in a pamphlet. I was in Paris in the summer of 1960; this was after the publication there of Naked Lunch. I became interested in the possibilities of this technique, and I began experimenting myself. Of course, when you think of it, The Waste Land was the first great cut-up collage, and Tristan Tzara had done a bit along the same lines. Dos Passos used the same idea in “The Camera Eye” sequences in U.S.A. I felt I had been working toward the same goal; thus it was a major revelation to me when I actually saw it being done.

The argument thus goes: Gysin did it first, tho maybe there were others, and in any event there are antecedents dating back to the high modernists, so does it really matter? What counts is that Gysin blew my mind. Burroughs makes a similar claim at the start of his essay, “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin:”

At a surrealist rally in the 1920s Tristan Tzara the man from nowhere proposed to create a poem on the spot by pulling words out of a hat. A riot ensued wrecked the theater. André Breton expelled Tristan Tzara from the movement and grounded the cut-ups on the Freudian couch.

In the summer of 1959 Brion Gysin painter and writer cut newspaper articles into sections and rearranged the sections at random. Minutes to Go resulted from this initial cut-up experiment. Minutes to Go contains unedited unchanged cut ups emerging as quite coherent and meaningful prose. The cut-up method brings to writers the collage, which has been used by painters for fifty years. And used by the moving and still camera. In fact all street shots from movie or still cameras are by the unpredictable factors of passers by and juxtaposition cut-ups. And photographers will tell you that often their best shots are accidents . . . writers will tell you the same. The best writing seems to be done almost by accident but writers until the cut-up method was made explicit  (all writing is in fact cut ups. I will return to this point
) had no way to produce the accident of spontaneity. You can not will spontaneity. But you can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors.

The Wikipedia article on cut-up techniques largely replicates the Burroughsian view. The “as far as I know” qualification of the interview, however, suggests that, even by 1965, Burroughs had begun to hear of the cut-ups and chance techniques of others, such as the work being done in Britain by Bob Cobbing. Robert Sheppard, in “Bob Cobbing and Concrete Poetry,” invokes Burroughs in a somewhat deprecating manner:

Cut up, an analogous technique used, more occasionally than supposed, by William Burroughs, himself British-based for a while in the 1960s, was practised by Cobbing as far back as the 1950s. The procedural and permutational works of the Oulipo movement, founded in 1960, and still active, suggests another relationship, one seen in Cobbing’s sideswipe at the inane figurative play of much contemporary British poetry when he generates lines such as ‘rock ’n roll makes me feel like roly-poly / a little lechery makes me feel like spotted dick’ from Liz Lochhead’s ‘a good fuck makes me feel like custard’.

Jackson Mac Low, forever attentive to documenting his forays into new territory, notes in Representative Works: 1938-1985, that his initial two “biblical poems” were “the first works I composed by means of chance operations (30 Dec. 19541 Jan. 1955).” Mac Low’s texts differ from, say, The Sonnets or even Burroughs’ cut-up fiction in that they might not have been recognized even as literature when they were first composed. The opening lines of “!11.6.7!4.,a biblical poem,” are:

In /_____/ /_____/ wherein the /_____//_____/
/_____//_____/ eat lest they /_____/ and taken /_____//_____/ the

A text that appears to predict Armand Schwerner’s later The Tablets.

Earlier even than Mac Low, however, is Kenneth Koch’s When the Sun Tries to Go On, written originally in 1953. Like Berrigan’s The Sonnets a decade later, one could argue that The Sun is Koch’s most radical, even his best work. However, because The Sun didn’t come out in book form until Black Sparrow brought it out with a Larry Rivers cover in 1969¹, long after Koch’s role as the straight clown amid the gay New York School males had been cemented in the imagination of readers, it had relatively little impact. But how else might Koch have composed:

Bong! went the faery blotters; Ding Dong! the

Country of Easter! shore! each toes

The marriage-bin, shouts of “Conch!” “Ruthie” “Lurks

Behind the ‘pea’ is basement’s Illinois

Obtuse radio-lithograms!” “Coptic!” and “Weak Beddoes

Less-us-the- shirt!” Ran behind me-Vishnu, all

Summer. Closet of how it seems! O bare necks

In October, closest apparent “film star” of the

Buffalo. Peter of Carolina’s neatest snow-

Pier condescension. O haughty chapter how

Clear was as apparent cruelty, bonnet,

List, tackles the lace. Hump chariots the summer

Either desires. Ether, so tall

As ice, sees her cuckoo hooves at desire

Margin. Amour dodo cranberries. There

”Art,” “blamelessly,” cashes, D’s, weds hat’s

HEADS! Joyous midnights, different clams!

Oh the word “flotation”’s cosined beaver rotation beneath

The “seelvery” dog-freight cars, mammoth

Stomach-quiz-raspberries we parent

Cuckoo Mary coast-disinterest verst of “cheese” diversed

Flags of the “comma stare” rewhipped

Georgia of teaching cash registers to “hat” side

Of pale “plates,” the bitter “nurse” soothing “ha”-green “stangs” forward!

Clearly Koch is using more than just cut-up materials – his ear forwards the play along in several places – there is even the alphabet (”Art,” “blamelessly,” cashes, D’s). But if Koch is being less systematic than, say, Mac Low, I think it’s impossible to imagine just writing this, say, as it came to him. That really doesn’t become possible, so far as I can tell, until sometime in the early 1970s, most probably in the work of Clark Coolidge, specifically after he dropped the idea of the long poem he’d embarked on after Polaroid and The Maintains, works that equally problematize normative syntactic integration into units of meaning, but do so using systems throughout. Look, say, at Quartz Hearts instead.

So either Koch is 20 years ahead of everyone, but then does nothing with this discovery, a scenario that makes no sense to me, or more likely he is just ahead of Mac Low, Cobbing, Gysin & Burroughs, this same disrupting methodology getting invented repeatedly over the course of one decade.

Another way one might look at all this is in terms of proprietary anxiety, the cut-up as intellectual turf. Here it seems that you have Burroughs at one extreme – it’s not really his move, but Gysin’s, but you Burroughs promoting it from that point forward – and Mac Low clearly is interested as well, tho taking a much wider view if you look at the whole of his career (he’s a veritable engine of different ways of disrupting the ego in the process of writing), while at the other extreme you have Koch, Berrigan & Ashbery, commenting very little if at all on their work in this vein, doing one major piece, then moving on to other work. Cobbing & Gysin work on a third level, people who didn’t go around making major formal claims, but whom others chose to single out as inventors of this exact device.

Ultimately, it’s always the same move – get away from the continuity of syntax & tale & suddenly the reader is plunged into the presentness of what is in front of them. It’s always present, always demanding to be negotiated, interpreted & never getting easier even if you can. Individually, the works that rise out of this breakdown in the narrative chain are all quite different – Berrigan’s “I like to beat people up” isn’t a line we would associate with Ashbery & it’s a lot cheerier than a number of similar statements that occur in Burroughs. But a lot more important than figuring out just who should get credit for cutting up & folding in is fathoming just why this move at this exact moment in history.


¹ Having appeared in a format that telescoped all 104 stanzas down to just 19 pages in Alfred Leslie’s 1960 one-shot, Hasty Papers.