The [Attempted] Assassination of Ted Berrigan

The [Attempted] Assassination of Ted Berrigan

(researched & compiled by the Z-D Generation
originally published in Life Of Crime in 1985)

“Why is it that seven out of ten years San Francisco is a boring poetry scene, and now it’s hotter than New York, and why is it that the most obnoxious people are the energizers of the whole scene?”  –Ted Berrigan, 80 Langton Street, June 1981

Ted Berrigan, c. 1981

In June of 1981, Ted Berrigan was writer-in-residence at 80 Langton Street in San Francisco. On the first night Berrigan read and talked about his first major book, The Sonnets.  The second night featured a talk entitled The Last Word On The New York School, to wit: “If Bill Berkson is New York School, the rest of us are New York Reform School.”  The third might was taken up with a panel convened to discuss the topic, “What Are You Making?”  The final night consisted of Berrigan reading from recent work.  This was a usual enough program at this south of Market emporium of avant-garde art & literature.  Just below the surface however there seethed a conspiracy marked by jealousy, self-righteousness, and infantile anxiety.

Berrigan’s opening remarks make it clear that he realized he was in the same fix as Caesar on the Capitol steps or JFK in Dallas when he spoke, “I stand in the dock in judgment, condemned. . . .” As the residency progressed attempts were made to discredit Berrigan and to undermine his position as a major figure in contemporary American poetry.  There were two such coups de claques attempted, one on the evening of the talk and the other on the evening of the panel.  To his credit, Berrigan ignored them both.  At the end of his four days, he left the residency at 80 Langston Street with new respect from all but a very few.  It is indeed unfortunate then that the final word on this important literary event has been left in the hands of the very few who could easily be deemed antagonistic toward the late great poet’s esthetic.

80 Langton Street, as part of its art program, commissions a descriptive narrative of each of its residencies and then publishes them in a yearly compilation in catalog format as documentation of the events.  The 1981 edition features a description of Ted Berrigan’s that literally drips with condescension.

“When Ted Berrigan took to the rostrum to begin the four day residency at 80 Langton Street this past June, it was the actual start of an event that had already been taking place psychologically for some time, given all the anticipation, excitement, rumor, and resentment that only the arrival of a major figure can engender.  This first, and final, fourth night were reserved for readings by Berrigan, a well-conceived bracketing for the residence, a gesture reiterating the primacy of the work amid a flurry of official and unofficial conversation about to ensue.  However, a definitive accomplishment at 80 Langton’s series of residencies has been the public interchange among serious writers about issues in their work.  Berrigan’s ambivalence about this element of the series was not the only thing soon apparent.  His informal yet highly revealing introduction to the first public reading of the entire Sonnets became a microcosm of the residence and perhaps Berrigan’s esthetic approach in general.  Rather than the straight-forward, clearly-stated goals, interests, and principles that the Langton audience has come to expect from its residents, it became apparent that Ted Berrigan doesn’t care to articulate his poetic so much as embody it.  Additionally, the issues raised by this introduction include those of autobiography and personality in post-modern writing, issues which came to dominate the residency, and these issues were raised, typically, not by confrontation but by constant reference to them in a de facto manner.”

If one is to believe the innuendo, Berrigan failed to live up to the pretentions of this arts organization’s over-ambitious expectations.  Berrigan is “ambivalent” meaning that he would not be drawn into the obscurantist foolishness.  Besides, only the pompous and pretentious would ever concern themselves with such things as “the public interchange among serious writers about issues in their work.”  And since it was, after all, Berrigan’s residency, he was certainly free to call the shots.  Then it is inferred that Berrigan disappointed the audience.  Berrigan was not “straight-forward,” he had no “clearly-stated goals, interests or principles.”   And, of course this was done purposely because “Berrigan does not care to articulate his poetic.” The veiled hostility of this paragraph is indicative of an attitude Ted Berrigan encountered during this residency.

For the author of the document, and undoubtedly this is a collective opinion. Berrigan was not “text-book perfect” enough in his presentation.  He was not pedantic enough to satisfy their anxious anality.  He was too personal, relying on (horror of horrors!) autobiography to inform the audience of his intent.  But then being Ted Berrigan was never having to say what you were expected to say.  Hence he left himself wide open for such gratuitous judgments as “This is not to imply that this (the opening remarks) was wholly inappropriate” which serves to imply exactly that.  He is also subject to pronouncements such as “Berrigan can never be more than an observer of his peer community exchange, no matter how important his work is, by the simple fact of age” and “The audience is being coerced into dealing with the theatrical nature of any public self-presentation.” It is very doubtful that anyone there felt that they were being coerced.  As Berrigan himself said, “I’m not trying to impress anybody with my story, I’m just talking about myself to inform insights into my work.”  Another judgment doubts the success of the residency: “Perhaps the choice of an historical, retrospective cast to the residence was a planning error.”  To paraphrase John Cage: what plan, what error?

This judgmental attitude is typical of the tiny minds that operate this petty little piece of poetry turf.  Ted Berrigan was a great poet with a personal sense of his own importance, and rightly, a sense of his place in the pantheon of American poetry.  This particular self-awareness was begrudged him as an egotistical affectation and was the cause of much resentment on the part of the envious few. He had a true sense of his own worth, and it was entirely unpretentious and honest.  This very honesty and revealing self-appraisal is what is being attacked in this narrative as it was during the residency.  Why, if for not some trivial, self-serving end, were these tactics even employed?  There are not many poets who had such a sincere presence as Ted Berrigan.  He was an artist whose belief in himself and his art was positively inspiring.  He was his art and his art was him.

The first attempt at the disruption occurred on the evening of the talk on the New York School.  Berrigan was reading from a piece entitled “Talking” when he was interrupted by a member of the audience who demanded that he paraphrase what he had just read.  This was clearly harassment.  Berrigan ignored the question and went on talking in a casual, conversational, even rambling fashion, about the experiential value of being alive as opposed to being buried in a book, dead to the world.  The heckler persisted, however, demanding answers to such questions as “How do you relate your post-Sonnet work to the fact of The Sonnets?  Are there constant new frontiers?”  To which Berrigan responded, “Can you put that in fewer words?

Ted was continually barraged with demands that he fit his answers into a prescribed mode, that he get “intellectual” and come on like he had no emotional attachment to his own writing.  Berrigan objected to the inferences that all writing could be fit into some preset linguistic formula as a test to its “rightness” or originality.  He also admitted that “maybe newness isn’t all that important right now anyway.”  He expressed the fear that some kind of moral litmus test was being devised by the so-called “language” school to root out and kill, literarily, those who did not prove positive, a possibility he alluded to as waiting to happen to him in the wings.  He was bothered by the perceptible arrogance and closed minds of a particular faction who were attempting to restrict the field of poetic experience with gratuitous, qualitative judgments. “No mode is ever closed down or used up, only the writers who use them,” he said.

The tone of the third night was set when one of the panelists was taken aside by another, more partisan member and told that they had to stick together and not take any of Ted’s “bullshit.”  The fix was in.  The documentation, however, continues in its biased assessment, apologizing and making excuses for the inept intellectualization of one of the panel’s members, claiming that he did not feel comfortable “showcasing” himself (a likely story), and instead “took the opportunity to raise the issue of the meaning of self , and the values attached to that meaning, especially in terms of contemporary writing’s agenda.”  This approach was certainly more in line with what the narrator, and apparently the arts organization, had in mind.  It unfortunately, with its incredibly dull, self-congratulatory smugness, had the effect of putting the audience into a stupor from which it was seldom roused, except for two instances, the whole evening.  After offering what can only be termed as pseudo-Freudian, Marxist encounter group half-baked Jesuit didacticism, the panelist ended his “prepared presentation with a reading of one of his works, one which exemplified (his) concerns (at least for himself), if not so clearly for the audience.” 

As panels go, this particular one can be said to have represented a fair cross-section of the various esthetics and attitudes towards poetry that were currently prevalent.  Each panelist presented a prepared piece with the exception of Berrigan who spoke extemporaneously.  There followed an intermission.  The second instance of disruption occurred as soon as the panel resumed for what was ostensibly a question and answer period.  However, the continued insistence of the one panelist to make value judgments and pronouncements only served to kill the discussion with overly ponderous assumptions and presuppositions. The unwieldiness of such cumbersome notions had the effect of grinding the whole proceedings to a halt which then degenerated into a Babel of shouted opinion (from the audience) and counter-opinion (among same and some panelists).  The evening, for all intents and purposes, had been sabotaged by a perverse, selfish, single-mindedness out to prove a point.  The narrator, however, clearly sides with these verbose tactics.  As Berrigan said during the evening of the talk, “Only you agree with me Darrell (Gray)? Then I’m afraid we’re in trouble.”

The description of the final night should be quoted in full as an example of smug, condescending dismissal.

“Berrigan gave a thirty minute reading before some 45 people the last night of his residency.  After all the talk of the recent days hearing Berrigan’s mature and confident new poems reminded those of us in the audience of the reason we had gathered together.  A master poet was up there, best alone reading his work. 

The quotidian was much in evidence, from gossip and the required references and dedications to friends, to great humor and rage.  His final poem was a ‘troubadour love poem’ written in response to another poem written by someone else about Berrigan.  Its concern with his public self, and its searing funny lyricism provided an appropriate end to the residence.”

Considering the time spent plugging the esthetic of a bunch of tight-assed Protestant drones, the consideration given Ted Berrigan’s brilliant, triumphant final evening is unspeakable arrogance and insult.  It is an attempt at literary assassination which with its repressive half truths almost succeed in making it seem that Ted Berrigan’s was a failure.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Z-D Generation takes its name from Z-D GENERATION, a manifesto by poet Edward Sanders. Taking Emile Zola and Denis Diderot as heroes of precise protest, accurate investigation, and intelligent infiltration, he names a new Generation capable of overcoming its enemies and organizing its energies, all in the interest of guarding life and creating a new civilization.

Parole Officer Addendum:

The collected newsletters of The Black Bart Poetry Society were published in 2010 by Poltroon Press as Life Of Crime, Dispatches from the Guerrilla War on Language Poetry.  This article appeared in the August, 1985 issue of Life Of Crime, Number: Not Again! Volume: What Next? edited by Pat Nolan and Steven Lavoie, co-technicians of the obscure. While the button down figurative assassins were certainly deserving of the vitriolic wedgie at the hands of the Z-D Generation, their bias against the college crowd elite is perhaps keener than it should have been.  But as Andrei Codrescu said, it was a fine piece of “hepatic journalism.”  And it was “simply a fact of age.”


from The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan, page 632


From  notes to The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan (University of California Press, 2005):

At 80 Langton Street (S.F.) Dated “1 Dec 83 NYC,” this poem was also one Ted never typed up but left to exist only on a postcard.  It was transcribed by Bill Berkson, to whom the Mikolowskis finally sent the card.  The poem refers to a four day residency by Ted, at the San Francisco arts center, 80 Langton Street, in 1981, where Hollo, Thomas, and Acker had held previous residencies.  There was a clash between Ted and the Language Poets, thus the final word “Duck.”

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2 Responses to The [Attempted] Assassination of Ted Berrigan

  1. Through a back channel source, Andrei Codrescu writes: “Time actually took care of those little snobs, some of whom still infect tiny english deps in mediocre colleges. We still quote and admire Ted Berrigan, as do generations of younger poets who never knew him. The Langstonitas of the decomposing fin-de-siecle are forgotten. Thank you all the same, Black Bart, for reminding us of intensities that once made blood boil and brains freeze. That was fun for a few, me included.”

  2. Further back channel communication: “My favorite line from that series (apart from everything in The Sonnets) was when Ted actively challenged some of the Language [poets] to name their influences, and they said ‘Clark Coolidge.’ Ted said, ‘Clark? Clark Coolidge regards you all as rabbits eating from his lettuce field.’”

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