Berrigan, Ted

(1934–1983)
   Ted Berrigan represents the vital link between Beat poetry and the New York School of Poets. A highly visible member of the New York School’s second generation (which is associated with the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village section of Manhattan), Berrigan was not only a strong advocate of jack kerouac’s writing in numerous classroom and lecture settings; he was one of the first poets to have adapted William S. Burroughs’s cut-up techniques as a strategy for writing poetry. Berrigan is best known to Kerouac fans as the interviewer of the famed Paris Review interview of 1968—the novelist’s last major interview. The published interview was culled from more than four hours of a taped interview. Although they were played publicly at Andy Warhol’s “Factory” in midtown Manhattan at the time that the interview was published, the whereabouts of the tapes are currently unknown.
   Berrigan’s background was similar to Kerouac’s: a Roman Catholic New Englander from a working-class background. He was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and was raised there and in nearby Cranston. He was educated at Catholic parochial schools and began to attend the University of Tulsa (Oklahoma) while still a private in the United States Army. In Tulsa, he met up with a trio of talented high school students, poets Ron Padgett and Dick Gallup, along with the artist– poet Joe Brainard. Padgett as a high school senior was publishing a magazine called White Dove Review that managed to publish submissions received from such established poets as Kerouac and Frank O’Hara.
   When Padgett moved to Manhattan to attended Columbia University, Berrigan and Brainard followed. Berrigan, who in an interview referred to himself as “a late beatnik,” scuffled to survive. One of the more imaginative ways of earning a buck was by writing elaborate and questioning letters to famous authors—if they responded, Berrigan would sell the letters to a rare book dealer. Although he had a few legit gigs, after 1966 he supported himself entirely on poetry-related jobs—despite the hardships that decision caused him.
   His breakthrough work was The Sonnets. Inspired, in part by the cut-up experiments of Burroughs and Brion Gysin, Berrigan created a series of sonnets that were either rearrangements of conventional sonnets or sonnets composed of lines appropriated from other poets—often by such friends as Ron Padgett.
   The 1967 Grove Press edition of The Sonnets (the original edition was a mimeo chapbook) gave Berrigan a level of attention and notoriety that led to a series of academic jobs, including stints at the Iowa Writers Workshop, Yale University, SUNY Buffalo, University of Essex, and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Berrigan published prolifically, ranging from mimeo books to limitededition letter-press books. His major collections include: Many Happy Returns (New York: Corinth Books, 1969), In the Early Morning Rain (London: Cape Goliard Press, 1970), Train Ride (New York: Vehicle Editions, 1971), A Feeling for Leaving (New York: Frontward Books, 1975), red waGon (Chicago: Yellow Press, 1976), Nothing for You (Lenox, Mass., and N.Y.: Angel Hair Books, 1977), and So Going Around Cities: New & Selected Poems 19581979 (Berkeley: Blue Wind Press, 1980). Never tenured and often working temporary or part-time gigs, Berrigan and his family often endured long spells of poverty. No matter what his financial circumstances were, he always took his role as a poet in the community with utmost seriousness. Even plagued by ill health in the last few years of his life, he continued to give readings, teach classes, and talk poetry to any poet who visited his family’s apartment on Saint Mark’s Place. He died on July 4, 1983.
   Berrigan’s connections with Beat culture intertwined his literary influences with his choice of lifestyle. Although a strong advocate of both Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, he was also strongly influenced by the poetry of Paul Blackburn and charles olson—although he was less forthcoming about their influence. The later poetry of his short writing career is more focused on a speech-based poetics and is the source of such popular anthology pieces as “Whitman In Black” and “Red Shift.” In fact, Berrigan’s influences are rather wide ranging. His Collected Poems represents a poetic mind willing to be influenced and open to all influences. He often said that his political stance was best summed up by Kerouac’s quip, “Avoid the authorities.” His only extended prose work, Clear the Range (New York: Adventures In Poetry/Coach House South, 1977) is a novel that is a cut-up and reconstruction of a Zane Grey western. Although the work has garnered little, if any, critical notice, it stands as a crucial link between Burroughs and kathy acker, Burroughs’s most imaginative disciple.
   Joel Lewis

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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