Outlaws & Outliers
Ted Berrigan, Get The Money, The Collected Prose, Nick Sturm, Anselm Berrigan, Edmund Berrigan, Alice Notley, eds. City Lights, 2022
Ted is back. Ted is what has been missing from poetry. And it’s exactly what is needed right now (more than ever before). Get The Money, The Collected Prose presents another piece in the unfinished mosaic of Berrigan’s contribution to AmLit. As iconoclast king of the irony age, his impish irreverence (pookah like) and no nonsense built-in bullshit meter was a refreshing attitude, one that could be aspired to. It’s the audacity of approach familiar in a failed Irish Catholic kind of way that is also found in the works of Flann O’Brien, and of Ted’s contemporary, Tom Clark.
Get The Money is a testament to the idea that artists get to amuse themselves. In fact, it is through this self-amusement that great art is accomplished. The Collected Prose is an everything but the kitchen sink gathering of miscellany that by its tenor evokes a period in literary history in which Ted Berrigan was making history by remaking history and putting himself at the center of that history.
Berrigan’s prose is a time capsule in which we learn, among other things, that he and Ron Padgett popularized the use of the word “terrific” and developed the phonetic mistranslation of non-English texts (maybe) now an exercise used in many writing workshops. The various journals are entertaining, making the mundane magic, and offering insight, gossip, and a behind the scenes look at the daily aspirations and works in progress. They are compelling in their revealing the uncertainty, the calculation, the triumphs of a hand to mouth existence. Ted did not have or maybe even aspire to a cushy academic gig.
Ted’s appropriations of Basho, Cage, and Bachelard are purposely and purposefully outrageous, something that would have shocked the readers of little magazines and mimeo newsletters they appeared in, stirring up little dust devils of controversy. The mock proclamation submitted to the editors of Life Of Crime in the early 80s was accompanied by a note that said, “print this and duck.” The same disregard that Berrigan showed for poetic convention is as evident in the anything goes prose of Get The Money.
Hugh Kenner wrote that the American genius is not about virtuosity but purity of intent. This fits Berrigan like a well-worn tee shirt. In fact “tee shirt poets” could serve as the label for a coterie of neo-Romantic Post-Beat working class poets of that generation rather than the regionally exclusive “New York School” fraught with assumptions and presumptions. Ted found it risible. In his words, “If Bill Berkson is New York School, the rest of us are New York Reform School.”
When someone is as charismatic as Berrigan, it precludes the necessity of a solid theoretical line. You go on your nerve. Ted had what some might call “the gift,” an off the cuff genius in interviews and classroom spiels where his ideas about what he was doing were set out with a particular improvisational coherence. Berrigan knew what he was talking about (or could convince you that he did).
Talking In Tranquility (Avenue B/ O Bools, 1991), interviews collected by Stephen Radcliffe and Leslie Scalapino, and On The Level Everyday (Talisman House,1997 ), classroom teaching sessions compiled by Joel Lewis, are perfect illustrations of that confident ability. He had the autodidact’s breadth and erudition, and it was all on the tip of his tongue. “And now I am going to deliver to you what I think about everything, and what I have been thinking all the time, and what I’ve been thinking and made me write. . .” captures the nature of Berrigan’s wide ranging holding forth. These two slim volumes together with The Collected Prose can offer an overview of the man as poet and innovator.
Anselm Berrigan pens the necessary introduction to his father’s writing and provides a valuable and personal overview. It rings true, authentic, and adds to the appreciation of the distinctiveness of The Collected Prose. Of particular interest is his recounting of Ted’s short lived but fruitful career as an art reviewer, the frequenting of galleries and museums with his then roomie, Joe Brainard. It was during this time that Berrigan began to appreciate ideas of form and composition that led to a crossover non-literary approach to poetry that resulted in The Sonnets. The esthetic assumptions made outside the rule of literature were as radical as the arts and artists he associated with in his gallery visits. And the environment of New York City of that time as the center of the art world had a lot to do with shaping the development of an extra-literary mode no longer dependent on the constraints of convention. Berrigan’s approach brought a liberating improvisation and spontaneity to the making of radical new poetry.
Behind a full court press of readings and panel discussions, well-placed reviews and blurbs, The Collected Prose has the juice of a concerted effort to resurrect a dead Ted and make of him a Kerouacian post-Romantic working class anti-hero. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Every generation should produce one and every generation should have at least one, though not necessarily of the same generation.
Berrigan emboldened a segment of the post-Beat literary culture of autodidacts and unaffiliated outliers to define an authentic stance in reinforcing its anti-establishmentarian purpose. That included an understanding that art changes perception but also that it must be subversive, a subduction zone to repurpose sentience under the pressure of recontextualization. Superimposed spatial considerations break literature out of its linear mode. No longer required to track syllogistically, lines, stanzas act as quanta, parcels of reference, inference, information, and when read in sequence, as a wave. Yet when considered individually act as a prismatic particle, a lexical photon.
Ted made no bones about baring the simple spontaneity of his method, a magician showing the apprentices how it is done using the materials at hand. The extra-lyrical nature of The Sonnets proves this point as well as releasing anyone and everyone from ever having to write a sonnet again (unless they want to be ironic). Berrigan understood framing, that there were no beginnings or ends, just many aspects of the middle, which meant that everything had potential as a poem, the more undiscriminating the better (a lesson learned from Pop Art). He also was a practitioner of the collaboration because of the way it broke down the authorial ego of the sullen art, making no distinction between the living or dead collaborators, present or merely as texts. The list, an ancient form reanimated in the “Things To Do In” poems (among others), provided an opportunity for stepping outside literary conventions in ways similar to the “personism” of O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” poems. There is irony in that the methods Berrigan reintroduced into the dialogue, some obviously sourced from DADA and the Surrealist, would become mainstays in writing workshops as it was his opinion, “The only good thing about writing workshops is that you might meet someone who dislikes writing workshops as much as you do.” That provocative mindset is always welcome. Thanks to Get The Money a new generation gets to experience it.
Bill Bathurst, The Collected Bill Bathurst, edited by Bob Arnold, Longhouse, 2022
If there ever was an underground, Bill Bathurst belonged to it. Not one of anarchist commie bomb throwers, but of poets, jazz, and drugs, and yet just as subversive. In the introduction to The Collected Bill Bathurst, master printer and poet Clifford Burke remarks on Bathurst’s personal honesty, his rare, raw candor. “[Bill] will not soften the truth of his person or his story, much of it not so pleasant, wrenching such beauty out of anguish.” Bob Arnold, the Longhouse publisher, has gathered together, in a beautiful, lovingly made book with old school production values hardly ever seen in the commercial book trade, the stuff of legends or at least legendary if you were a young poet in late 60s San Francisco. Under one cover are careful replications of the work Bathurst was known for, a slim collection of sixteen poems, For Julessa, originally published in 1967 by David Sandberg’s OR Books, The Greystone Poems published in 1970 in the Maya Quarto series edited by David Meltzer and Jack Shoemaker, printed letterpress by Burke, cover by the talented linoleum print artist Michael Myers, and How To Continue, a celebrated word of mouth work (much as Steve Carey’s AP was) designed by Burke with cover by Myers. The remainder of this handsome 236 page tome collects a miscellany of prose and poetry (some previously unpublished) interspersed with photographic memorabilia from Bathurst’s personal archive.
Bill Bathurst, born in 1935, was of the generation that made him old enough to be a postwar delinquent in the 50s, and by the 60s, into jazz, looking to score, and always on the lookout for the heat. To be “beat,” an understatement if there ever was one, was a symptom of the police state’s racist terror, not the sanitized version of painted-on goatees, berets, and bongos. Bathurst graduated from UC Berkley with a BS in Pharmacy in 1958 and soon was employing the controlled substances for his own enjoyment which led to complications with the law and prison time. and which is thoroughly examined with humor and panache in How To Continue.
A lifelong California resident, Bill spent the years 1989 to 2003 in Czechoslovakia as an expat jazz DJ for Radio Prague. His intimate knowledge of the jazz scene and its proclivities in the States and his lyric bent when extolling the pleasures of the music made for avid listeners.
Bathurst might be considered a poet of the Noir School that would include such luminaries as Jean Genet and William Burroughs. His is not the glib word mash of the Beats nor is it the sanitized pabulum of the overeducated. Bathurst, in a very real sense, was an outlaw, served time, lived rough from fix to fix, loved hard, too hard perhaps, and endured personal tragedy explicitly examined in his poetry and prose. In a previous century he might have been called a poète maudit, like Baudelaire, and like Baudelaire, he was a flaneur, a hip man about town, a hard boiled persona who always knew the score. His is a hard scrabble romanticism, the vulnerable sentience beneath a tough exterior. There’s no turning away from the angst and the agony and the price paid to reveal it. It is all too real but beautifully put.
In the late 60s, Bathurst divided his time between his family home in Chico, California and The City, San Francisco. He roomed with Steve and Mary Carey when they lived on Stanyan Street directly across from Golden Gate Park and Kezar Stadium during the “summer of love.” He was part of a coterie of writers whose work could be found in printer poet Clifford Burke’s Hollow Orange poetry magazine and included Mary Norbert Korte, Keith Kumasen Abbott, Pat Nolan, Pamala Milward, Steve Carey, Mary Carey, Richard Brautigan, and Lew Welch among others. He was also good friends with the legendary Price Dunn who served as a model for Brautigan’s first novel, A Confederate General In Big Sur. San Francisco was a smaller town then and everyone knew everyone else so it was not unusual to wander into Gino and Carlo’s in North Beach to hear Jack Spicer’s rant or run into Brautigan at Enrico’s or to be panhandled by Bob Kaufman outside of Caffe Trieste. The poetry and prose in this collection evokes that time in a very special literary milieu. It is a quieter, less flamboyant regime that flourished under the conventions of a pre-Beat metric and sensibility. The irony, what there is of it, is that of an inextricable existentialism. And that style, that predilection has been paved over by a more cynical view of the arts and literature, a drive to commodify personal sensationalism over long term esthetic goals.
Ted Berrigan and Bill Bathurst are of the same generation. Ted is Bill’s more audacious NYC counterpart. Bill is the smoky sentiment of West Coast Jazz to Ted’s innovative improvisational free jazz. Ted breaks all the rules. Bill rules all the breaks. Ted has scads of adherents, and rightfully so. Bill appeals to the connoisseurs of a fine limited vintage. They are two distinctive yet related branches of the American poet tree.
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Pat Nolan — wish I’d met you and half the characters you describe when I was living in Noe Valley roaming the streets with Cloud House Kush from his Mission storefront back in the Sixties (’65 to ’75 in my paleohippie calendar)
Hello Pat Nolan–thank you for this “terrific” issue. Always good to read Bart, but especially good this time out.