Red Wagon

by Ted Berrigan
(1976)
   This collection of poems captures ted berrigan in the mode that has made him something of a cult figure among young poets 20-plus years after his death—the uncanny ability to juggle the highs and lows of culture while being simultaneously populist and avant-garde.
   The book was published at the end of a fairly stable period in the poet’s life. He had married the poet Alice Notley a few years earlier and was once again raising a family (his sons Anselm and Edmund, who grew up to become poets themselves). He was at the end of a four-year poet-in-residence position at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, the longest teaching post of his career. A large community of poets gathered about Berrigan, including Bob Rosenthal (later to become Ginsberg’s personal assistant), Rochelle Kraut, Art Lange, Rose Lesniak, and Barbara Barg. Many of these poets followed Berrigan to Manhattan when his Chicago job ended.
   The title of the volume refers to the famed wagon of the William Carlos Williams poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” This image is usually taken by the doctor–poet’s disciples as a return to a focus on the daily drama of everyday life, as opposed to the rarified ether of Williams’s bête noire T. S. Eliot. This volume seems to bring in a more the Williamesque strain of Berrigan’s poetry into play. One of the best known poems in the volume is “Things to Do in Providence.” The “things to do” motif was derived from the entry “things to do in the capitol” in The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (English translation by Ivan Morris), a prose commonplace book that was popular around New York School poets and often was used in writing exercises in the workshops that were given at the Poetry Project at Saint Mark’s Church. The setting of the poem is his native Providence, Rhode Island. Berrigan has returned home because his grandmother is dying. The poet reads the newspaper (“No one you knew / got married / had children / got divorced / died), eats (“swallow / pepsi / meatballs”), takes drugs (“give yourself the needle”), and watches television.
   The almost journallike rendering of the extreme quotidian is offset by Berrigan’s use of a composition-by-field technique that is reminiscent of both charles olson and William’s “The Desert Music.” Berrigan watches a Western on TV, answers a phone call (“ ‘Hello! I’m drunk! & / I have no clothes on!’ / “ ‘My goodness,’ I say. / ‘See you tomorrow.’ ”), and reads all night.
   Berrigan’s use of dailiness is a radical extension of philip whalen’s poetry. The language is speechlike, and the lack of artifice that is common to the mainstream poem of the period is stark. However, Berrigan is also like a good poker player: He refuses to telegraph “the winning hand” that he is holding. In reference to his grandmother’s impending death he notes:
   The heart stops briefly when someone dies,
   a quick pain as you hear the news, & someone
   passes
   from your outside life to inside. Slowly the heart
   adjusts
   to its new weight, & slowly everything continues
   sanely.
   As his widow Alice Notley noted: “I have heard these lines recited at funerals; people use them, the lines say ‘that thing’ right. Why or how? Because the words ‘briefly’ and ‘sanely’ are farther apart than the two ‘slowlys,’ and the word ‘heart’ is accurate and free of sentiment? Or because, as you might say, he knows what he’s talking about? Well, both.”
   Other poems in Red Wagon extend the poet’s interest in cut-ups, borrowings, and collage. “From a List of Delusions the Insane What They Are Afraid Of” is a digest of a longer poem by David Antin (and Antin’s source was from a psychiatric text). Berrigan would quip, “I just used David’s most interesting lines!” when he read this poem in public. A similar technique is used in “The Complete Prelude: Title Not Yet Fixed Upon,” which samples Wordsworth. A number of poems are recognizable as products of writing exercises found in the “teaching writing” books of Kenneth Koch. The spirit of jack kerouac is present in the poem “Goodbye Address.” Using an allen ginsberg-like stanza, the poem is a ritual for leaving a temporary home—a situation with which Berrigan was familiar as he traveled around the country doing various writing residencies:
   Goodbye House, 24 Hungtington, one block past
   Hertel
   on the downtown side of Main, second house on
   the left.
   Your good spirit kept me cool this summer, your
   ample space.
   Goodbye house.
   When he read this poem in public, Berrigan usually prefaced it by saying that the genesis of the poem was reading that Kerouac, during the height of his interest in Buddhism, had a farewell ritual that he enacted every time he left a space in which he had resided.
   Red Wagon was an influential and popular volume among young poets of its era. Against the backdrop of the high-minded moralism that was typical of the immediate post-Vietnam mainstream poetry, the pleasure that Berrigan’s poetry takes in the incidentals of the day world are almost revelatory. Similarly, Berrigan’s radical poetry techniques are unaccompanied by the sort of manifestos and exegesis that would be commonplace with the then-nascent language poetry movement (many former students of Berrigan’s). Paul Carroll was more than on-target when he declares on the back of Red Wagon, “Ted Berrigan is one of Whitman’s most legitimate sons.”
   Joel Lewis

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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