Showing posts with label Ted Berrigan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ted Berrigan. Show all posts

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Ted Berrigan


in Buffalo, 1968

Friday, October 10, 2014

Friday, May 09, 2014

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ted Berrigan reads The Sonnets (mostly)
New Langton Arts, San Francisco
June 1981

Friday, May 25, 2007

In my note on Paul Auster’s poetry the other day, I wrote:

Auster’s work looks on its surface a little like New York School verse, especially of the uptown Columbia variant that looked more to Ron Padgett & John Ashbery than, say, to Ted Berrigan (who, so far as I’m aware, never published any translations¹).

The footnote admitted that “This virtually is an invitation to be corrected, and I’d love to be.” Several people wrote in, either via the comments stream or via email, including (among others) Jordan Davis, Tinker Greene, Ron Horning & Anselm Berrigan, pointing to a variety of instances of translation in Ted Berrigan’s work. What follows is a synthesis of these comments.

There is a translation of Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre published by Adventures in Poetry with illustrations by Joe Brainard under the title The Drunken Boat that is also the basis for many lines throughout The Sonnets, especially the first I-VI and LXXIV. There are at least eight copies of this side-stapled mimeo volume currently available in used or rare book shops in the U.S., the very least expensive of which is $110.

Life of a Man is collected in the In the Early Morning Rain section of the Collected Poems tho it first appeared in Bean Spasms. The notes to the Collected characterize this sequence as “transliterated from Giuseppe Ungaretti’s Vita di un uomo.” The version in the Collected contains two poems not in Bean Spasms while dropping two others. In Nothing for You is a translation from Rilke called “Autumn’s Day.” Tinker Greene typed the whole thing into the Auster note comments stream.

In Easter Monday is a translation from Leopardi done as a collaboration with George Schneeman & Gordon Brotherston. There is another collaborative translation with Brotherston in the Collected, in a section right near the end entitled A Certain Slant of Sunlight Out-Takes is “Der Asra,” a working of Heinrich Heine’s poem of the same name. A chapbook of eight collaborative translations Berrigan & Brotherston did together is apparently in the works, under the title Water Under the House. In addition to these two poems I am told that there is a work by Neruda in that collection.

Compared with, say, Ron Padgett or Anselm Hollo, this is not a vast quantity and in some ways this is surprising. Translations invariably are a mode of forced collaboration, not just for the translated poet but for the translator as well. And Berrigan was easily the most collaborative poet of his generation – indeed many of our accepted ideas about what collaboration is can be traced directly back to Berrigan’s practice and the huge influence it has had over the last four decades. What we can say about the translations here is that they’re of poets who were already canonic before Berrigan got to them & that he’s very much following the Poundian model of using the process to access different modes of being. This is nowhere more true than in Life of a Man, in which the ex-GI Berrigan writes through the Italian poet of World War I. Further, as a Jew born in Alexandria, Egypt & raised partly in Paris, Ungaretti’s own relationship to his family’s ancestral home of Lucca is at least as complicated as that of the relatively unlettered Berrigan thrown in with all the Ivy-League graduates-turned-art-critics who populated the New York School.

Perhaps Adventures in Poetry should reissue The Drunken Boat. I’ve heard two people in the past week claim it to be second only to The Sonnets among Berrigan’s achievement & tho I’m a “late poem” guy myself, I take that as a serious claim. The other obvious book that should come out – I would be surprised to discover that nobody’s working on this – is a Collected Collaborations. Now that will be a volume to conjure by.

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.

Monday, October 28, 2002

It was summer 1985, the week after the Vancouver poetry conference of that year, and I was still in Canada, having a conversation with Vancouver poet & film maker Colin Browne. Specifically, I interrogating Browne about what the implications might be considering how few U.S. poets appeared ever to have read the work of Louis Dudek, a writer I had heard characterized as the “Pound” of Canadian poetry, though I think I may have told Colin I’d found Dudek more to be the Edwin Denby or F.T. Prince, if one were to yoke together those sorts of analogies.* Who else was out there that I didn’t yet know about? Which poets did the Canadians worry about? “Our monsters are your monsters,” Browne replied.

But not really, as it turns out. For the past month Louis Cabri and I have been trading emails over the absence, as a Canadian influence, of the New York School. I had mentioned Louis’ superb The Mood Embosser in a piece I’d written on the blog about Ted Berrigan’s poem “Bean Spasms,” given how deeply simpatico the two poets strike me as being. I had simply presumed that Berrigan was a Yankee influence that had been internalized by Cabri, since he and I had never discussed him during Louis’ time here in Philadelphia.** But, as it turned out, Louis hadn’t read as much of Berrigan as I’d imagined. In a note that Cabri sent to a list of Calgary poets for a reading group he’s summoning together there, he spells out his thinking in response at greater length:

But, here are my motivations, guiding at least this email, in case you're curious. I could see reading some poetry from the 3+ generations of the so-called "New York School": John Ashbery to Ted Berrigan to Bernadette Mayer to maybe Lee Ann Brown or others. My interest in this partly stems from an email I sent Ron Silliman, who has recently posted some thoughts on his blog about Berrigan. I wanted to give Ron my sense of how Berrigan and the New York School generally has been received in Canada: hardly at all. Why? That’s the question that would interest me most of all. A New York School influence in Canadian poetry can be detected in the work of some poets associated with the founding of Coach House Press (e.g. Coleman), and CH did publish Lewis Warsh (Part of My History, 1972), co-founder of Angel Hair Books, a mainstay press of the second generation NYS. But, the various spokespersons and their ideological filters that brought continental theory to the Canadian poetry scenes (and to the academy) in the 80s left a poetics such as Berrigan's off the redrawn map. The story on Berrigan the way it got told me, for instance, was that he was "off limits." One might even say that leaving Berrigan off "the map" was key to opening new lines of influence for the poetic word, particularly the influence of "Language Writing" as understood in Canada via Steve McCaffery's famous mid 80s essay in North of Intention. Clint Burnham rehabilitated Berrigan's name as a general contemporary influence, in a short essay Rob Manery and I published in hole 5, in the mid 90s.

I’ve put that one phrase in boldface because I find it so intriguing. What it proposes, at least implicitly, is that what New American Poetry might have looked like without the active influence of the New York School is something not too dramatically unlike what Canadian poetry became.

It does seem, at least at the distance from which I get to observe things***, that the two primary sources of influence were, first, the migration north to Vancouver in the mid-1960s of people around Jack Spicer and his circle – Robin Blaser, George Stanley, Stan Persky – and then somewhat later the presence of Olson & Creeley in Buffalo, in close enough proximity to Toronto (and with some Canadians actually trekking to the eastern shores of Lake Erie). With the Spicer Circle to the west and Projectivism to the east, it does seem harder to see where exactly either the New York School or, for that matter, the Beats, might fit in.

In an email, Cabri expands on this take:

The absence of NYS is to me precisely how "Canada" differs from the "US," and by an unconscious social logic of mutual exclusion based on divergent histories.

Some for instances. American abstract expressionism hit French Quebec before the rest of Canada (around 1948 with Emile Borduas and the highly politicized "Refus global" manifesto for secular independence for art and culture in Quebec) and 1st gen NYS was not to my knowledge ever translated then (ever in Quebec? I doubt it) -- and, besides, the poetry would not necessarily have served the self-interests of political autonomy that the Refus global artists translated out of US abstract expressionism. Quebec poets nurtured surrealism, what with its anti-religious furor and suggestive connection to the idea of a repressed unconscious, long after Breton visited the eastern coast.

NYS is culturally sophisticated, urbane, American, and, with the 2nd gen., decadent, in a way that, say, Olson/projective verse never was, appealing as it did to those who had such as Davey, Wah et al rural working class backgrounds and a sense of the "autochthonous." NYS was literally urban in a way that Canadian city living could not understand in the 50s/even in the 60s and 70s (look at Ray Souster's squeaky clean city -- poetry of the individual, of pitiless "loneliness" and observation). And Berrigan et al flourished in the 70s when Canadian cultural nationalism and a befuddlingly stupor-inducing "regionalism" was at its heralded peak.

2nd gen NYS seemed to be of interest to some of the poets first associated with Coach House -- Dewdney, Coleman. But these poets were sidelined by both the kind of rustic theory that Nichol invoked in a straight-forward but entertaining way (pataphysical invention, concrete) and the highly abstract kind that McCaffery distilled from continental philosophy and art (in Steve's version, as you know, a conceptual artlike approach to language never gives language back to the five senses).

When I asked Louis yesterday if I could quote from his emails, he expanded even further:

Hi Ron,

Sure. Thanks for asking. A "second-order commodification" role that I perceive formally innovative Canadian poetics playing in its contribution to US/Canadian poetic tendencies -- from projective verse (the Vancouver 63 conference) to Language poetry (the 85 conference) -- connects to my sense of NYS's absence in Canada.

By "second-order commodification" (a term modified from Barthes's 1957 theory of the ideology of myth as a second-order semiotic system) I mean the following scenario. I'm quoting from an essay on hole magazine at

"Second-order commodification" is a condition of reception of the cultural "new" (a relative matter) where the emergence (of the new, from "here") and the arrival (of the new, from "elsewhere") intersect in a contested site-as-dialogue. That condition existed for us [i.e. as hole magazine eds.] in employing the term "language-centred." Second-order commodification refers to a myth-inducing condition in which there is simultaneously (a) the emergence ("here") and arrival (from "there") of primary writing only later to be identified as "new" (for instance, as "language-centred") with (b) the emergence/arrival of a metalanguage (in this case, conveyed by the term "language-centred") identifying the work as new. Second-order commodification results from a cultural context in which primary language without a name, and its metalanguage that brings a name, temporally co-exist. One reception-effect of second-order commodification, particularly in Canada, is to have poetics stances appear clearly staked, already amplified, distinctly audible, a critical lexicon already worked out and available to draw from in identifying aesthetic tendencies in possibly opposing, even reductive, ways.

Further in the essay, I consider three kinds of responses to this predicament of Canadian culture: resolute intransigence (Deanna Ferguson), resolute participation (Lisa Robertson), the resolute itself -- squared (Alan Davies). (Alan Davies is never considered in this inter-border context, but, originally from Canada, some of his first work is published in the anthology Now We Are Six [Coach House, 1976].)

Perhaps, then, the absence of NYS in Canada is due to an absence of a NYS metalanguage?

The role of absence is a traditional motif of Canadian literary cultural history. In its more interesting variants, "absence" is paradoxically ontologized and centred in an author's body of work -- for instance, Robert Kroetsch’s. But absence has never been discussed as a term in relation to poetic lineage, the back-and-forth of influence across the southern border (let alone in relation to KSW's and TRG's 'erasing-something [i.e. NYS]-that-is-in-fact-absent').

But the absence of NYS in Canadian poetry is to me precisely how "Canada" differs from the "US," and by an unconscious social logic of mutual exclusion based on divergent histories -- a difference that in these terms ("NYS") has never previously been articulated, to my knowledge, in all the efforts -- from the 70s on -- to identify "the difference" between "Canada" and "US" poetic cultures.


Cabri here entertains the possibility that the lack of a New York School metalanguage may have contributed to its inability to move north – it may even explain why the sudden disruption in the mid-1980s that the 2nd & 3rd generation New York School poets themselves experienced, wasn’t more immediately & easily overcome directly by those poets themselves. “Personism,” Frank O’Hara’s one serious statement of his poetics, does more to point up the absence of a metalanguage than it ever did to constitute one.+

* Part of the “problem” of Dudek to us Yanks, when one tries to place him alongside the history of U.S. poetry is that he comes along right during that fallow period of the Second World War – that is, after the Objectivists but really before the New Americans. Robert Duncan, the one major poet to have emerged from that same period south of the border during that same period, was cagey enough to avoid by aligning himself with the mostly younger poets of the NAP. Several of the other poets of interest who emerged during the war decade – May Sarton, Muriel Rukeyser – have remained more or less permanently in limbo, never really adopted by either of the major traditions of U.S. verse. To make any sort of simple analogy (Dudek = X) thus really isn’t possible, because X itself doesn’t exist.
Or, another approach, one might argue that Dudek = the Duncan of The Years as Catches, and most especially “African Elegies,” but without the later impact of the New American Poetry. What poet would Duncan have become without the push-pull influences of Olson, Creeley, Ginsberg, et al? It might have been something much closer to the Dudek captured in Infinite Worlds (Montréal: Véhicule Press, 1988), edited not coincidentally by one man who knew both quite well, Robin Blaser. Dudek was born one year ahead of Duncan, closer in age than either Olson or Creeley.

** Cabri’s contribution to the poetics of Philadelphia is worth a blog or two in itself. He proved to be the single most influential spark to the various elements working more or less independently around the region, at least in the seven years I’ve lived here. The scene as he left it had many times the power (precisely of interactivity) as the scene as he originally found it. It left us all asking ourselves, “Who was that masked man?”

*** More distantly than it might have been. In 1962, my grandfather actively explored moving to Calgary as he helped to set up a paper recycling plant there. My grandmother’s mental illness finally functioned as the veto to that impulse.

+ Kerouac & Ginsberg gave the Beats a rough, but very usable metalanguage. In addition to his various notes on spontaneous prose, Kerouac’s ideas about writing creep into his prose on several occasions. Ginsberg’s many public statements served a similar purpose. Of the primary New American formations, only the New York School actively avoided discussions of their own practice. 

Monday, October 07, 2002

Actualism vanished as a literary tendency as thoroughly as Objectivism seemed to have done in the early 1950s. While the annual Berkeley Actualist Conventions were one public manifestation of this phenomenon, a rather different version than the one visible in the Bay Area during the 1970s is suggested by The Actualist Anthology (The Spirit That Moves Us, 1977), co-edited by Morty Sklar and the late Darrell Gray. In addition to the editors, the volume includes Allan and Cinda Kornblum, Chuck Miller, Anselm Hollo, John Batki, Jim Mulac, David Hilton, Sheila Heldenbrand, George Mattingly, John Sjoberg, Steve Toth and Dave Morice.

The editors state frankly that “Calling this volume THE ACTUALIST ANTHOLOGY came mainly out of a need for a title.* ‘Fourteen Iowa City Poets’ wouldn’t have been accurate – this is not a regional anthology in the strict sense.” But in some sense, it was: “we have sought have sought to represent the work of those poets most seminal to the Actualist Movement, which began (in spirit, if not name) around 1970 in Iowa City, Iowa. Half of us remain in Iowa, while others have moved….” Almost as pronounced as the crucible of Iowa City was this group’s decidedly Midwestern background – eight of the contributors (Miller, Mulac, Heldenbrand, Mattingly, Sjoberg, Toth, Morice & Cinda Kornblum) were born in the Midwest, Darrell Gray was raised there. Generationally, the Actualists roughly the same age as the language poets, ranging from a few poets born in the 1930s (Hollo, Sklar, Hilton, Miller) to others born right around the mid-century mark (Toth, Heldenbrand, Mattingly).

As a group, these writers proved antithetical to the “Workshop poem” associated with poets such as Marvin Bell or Norman Dubie. The poems were often casual, but always lively. Sklar, in “What Actually is Actualism,” characterized it as a “basically open, generous and positive approach to our art.” Actualists poked fun at the academy & prided themselves on their rough edges: both Sklar and Miller lists bouts of incarceration in their biographical notes.

The literary context for Actualism is worth noting. Allan Kornblum spells out his influences in the greatest detail:

Thanks to my poetry teachers in workshops: Dick Gallup, Carter Ratcliff, Tom Veitch, Ted Berrigan, Jack Marshall, Donald Justice, and Anselm Hollo.

While Justice taught at Iowa for many years, the core of this list is a mélange of second and third generation New York School poets. As different as Gallup, Ratcliff, Veitch & Berrigan are as poets – the range of what gets included under the NY School banner is as broad as that which now gets characterized as language poetry – what one notices about this quartet is how absent they have been from the poetry scene for a very long time: Berrigan by virtue of an early death, Ratcliff having turned to art criticism, Veitch to graphic novels (including an authorized Star Wars trilogy), and Gallup having, in the words of Publishers Weekly,  “disengaged from the literary world in the early ‘80s.” Marshall, who has managed to stay around the NY School, Iowa City and the San Francisco scene, keeping all three safely at arm’s length, is only slightly less reclusive.

By the mid-1980s, this context had all but evaporated. Even more importantly, by the time Darrell Gray died in 1986, alcoholism had effectively silenced him. While Actualism itself cannot be reduced to Gray’s poetry & impact, he was clearly its central figure, both socially and intellectually. Without Gray, none of the other participants, either in the Bay Area or from the Iowa formation, continued to pursue the concept. Without Berrigan, the single most important influence on Actualism, the link between the New York School and these poets scattered mostly throughout the west became nebulous in the extreme.

But if Actualism as a tendency disappeared, many of the Actualists themselves did not. In addition to Mattingly, Hollo and Morice, whom I’ve discussed previously in the blog, the Kornblums have transformed Toothpaste Press, virtually the house organ of Iowa Actualism**, into Coffee House Press, one of the best and most successful independent presses in the United States. In addition to its many other books, Coffee House recently brought Dick Gallup back into print with his first book since 1976, Shiny Pencils at the Edge of Things, and has just another big “new and selected” volume by Jack Marshall, Gorgeous Chaos as well as Anselm Hollo’s Notes on the Possibilities and Attractions of Existence, his largest collection since Mattingly’s Blue Wind Press editions more than 20 years ago. Sklar occasionally still issues books from The Spirit That Moves Us Press from Jackson Heights, NY. John Batki, who characterized himself as the “Laziest Actualist,” has instead grown into one of the finest translators of Eastern European poetry. David Hilton has been teaching at Anne Arundel Community College near Baltimore for over 30 years. And Steve Toth maintains a somewhat “under construction” website that includes memorials to both Ted Berrigan and Darrell Gray. 

* This rationale perfectly matches the one given for Objectivism: letting Zukofsky take over Poetry magazine for an issue required something identifiable, requiring a name.

** When The Actualist Anthology came out in 1977, Toothpaste Press had already published books by both Kornblums, Hollo, Sklar, Batki, Gray, Hilton, Heldenbrand, Sjoberg, Toth and Morice.