Dear Sandy, Hello: Letters from Ted to Sandy Berrigan edited by Sandy Berrigan and Ron Padgett
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, Minn. 2010)
A brief recounting of the events leading up to these letters: Ted Berrigan met Sandy Alper in New Orleans during her first year at Tulane. After a weekend whirlwind romance they were married in Texas, stopped by the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, and then visited her parents in Florida who after making a swift negative decision towards Berrigan’s general person incarcerated Sandy in an institution for the mentally unwell. Berrigan was briskly sent out of town by local law enforcement. Having returned to New York City without his bride, Berrigan immediately begin writing to her, including her in his world…
“Your Husband Forever”: Rimbaud, The Sonnets and becoming ‘Ted Berrigan’
This collection of letters is not only (as Sandy Berrigan muses) “perhaps the longest and most intense sequence of such letters Ted [Berrigan] ever wrote” it is also (as Ron Padgett notes) “the prelude to his masterwork, The Sonnets.” These statements guarantee this collection is indispensible to all readers of Berrigan’s work quickly dispelling any concern that publishing such letters is an invasion of privacy or posthumous mistreatment of Berrigan. The material contained within serves only to bolster the argument for his central position in developing experimental poetics and does so without surrounding his quite hip streetwise rap on how one lives and goes about the practice of being a poet beneath any uncomfortable layering of academic jargon. As with the two collections of Berrigan’s talks and interviews, Talking in Tranquility and On the Level Everyday, we’re able to thankfully read Berrigan on Berrigan, getting the skivvy on his own understanding of how he went about accomplishing the writing he did as he was going about it.
That’s not to say there’s not plenty here to keep various sides of the Berrigan myth going. The beginning of his lifelong pill (amphetamine) use shows up throughout, not surprisingly, most amusingly in his Spontaneous Zen Parable from a letter dated April 23, 1962:
Dick Gallup went to the Zen master and said, “Master, speak about taking pills.” The master said, “Gallup, you got any pills?” Gallup said, “Yeah.” Then the master said, “Pills are a good thing.”
Sandy Berrigan went to the master and said, “Master, speak about taking pills.” Master said, “What’s your kick, baby?” Sandy said, “I just don’t think pills are right!” then the master said, “You are very wise. Pills are no good.”
Tom Veitch, observing these two incidents, said to the master, “God damn, master, that’s contradictory!!” The master replied, “God damn, I’m hungry, let’s go get some hash and eggs.”
Notable—in addition to his use of “The Snake” as a sign-off which also occurs in Sonnet LXXVII—is Berrigan’s non-committal stance on pills, they are simultaneously both “good” and “no good,” depending on who’s asking, as Berrigan explains to Sandy, “to comment on my own parable, since I’m the master in it[…] [the master] knew that he was expected to condemn or condone… when he saw that Gallup had pills, therefore was for them, he said they were good. When he saw Sandy was against them, he said they were bad.” Berrigan believes precisely that whatever works best for you individually is what works.
At this point in life, Berrigan has been through the rigid structures of both the U.S. military and the University of Tulsa, playing by a set of imposed rules. He has decided going forward in life he’ll stick to his own rulebook. “The idea, thought, motto, joke, whatever else you want to label it, that I base my life upon, is a pure Zen doctrine, although I never read it anywhere associated with Zen. It’s ‘all those who are going to make it will, all those who aren’t, won’t.’” Importantly, he goes on to further identify poetry itself with his understanding of Zen. “Zen says nothing, gives no answers, makes you responsible. But it doesn’t say that. Words are words. What do they have to do with Zen. Zen is poetry. Zen is living. Poetry is living.” And as Berrigan repeatedly makes clear throughout the letters, poetry is to be the single most important focus and reward of his life.
There is no question that Berrigan is spending his time intensively reading, constantly searching for examples of writing he admires and openly looking for examples as to how he should go about beginning his future life as a poet. In a letter from April 3rd, 1962 he reports to Sandy:
Last night Dick [Gallup] and I made lists of ten or eleven men, literary men, whom we thought influenced our lives, and still influence them. We made the lists independently, and then compared them Here they are:
Francois Villon Albert Camus
Thomas Wolfe Percy Shelley
Albert Camus Lord Byron
Walt Whitman Rene Rilke
Percy Shelley Ralph Emerson
Andre Gide Bernard Shaw
Rene Rilke Ezra Pound
Paul Goodman Thomas Wolfe
Arthur Rimbaud Alfred Whitehead
John Milton Friedrich Nietzsche
The near identical lists for Gallup and Berrigan are no doubt unsurprising for those familiar with the history of their friendship (along with that of Ron Padgett and the artist Joe Brainard), these were poet friends who openly shared their notebooks and private thoughts with each other, indeed there are references in the letters to Berrigan reading through the journals of his friends and them likewise reading through his own. They as well came and went from each other’s living quarters, borrowing food and money, just as easily as words and influences.
Many of the names in the above lists occur frequently in Berrigan’s letters to Sandy, but one that should hold interest for readers of The Sonnets is Arthur Rimbaud. In a letter of March 21st, 1962 Berrigan mentions that he’s “reading Enid Starkie’s biography of Arthur Rimbaud” and in a letter the very next day, “I’m working on a translation from French to English of a long poem called ‘The Drunken Boat’ by Arthur Rimbaud.” Up until fairly recently, copies of Berrigan’s translation were few and far between to be found. The only copy I ever remember seeing being a C Press (?) edition with artwork by Joe Brainard came across while browsing the wondrous stacks of Serendipity Books in Berkeley. Thankfully, this situation changed when a copy of the poem appeared in the Translation issue of Vanitas in 2009.
Several lines in the following stanzas (this is only a sampling, there are several more phrases and lines in the poem easily recognizable) will be familiar to readers of The Sonnets:
Where, dying all the blue, the maddened flames
And stately rhythms of the sun, stronger
Than alcohol, more great than song,
Fermented the bright red bitterness of love.
I’ve seen fermenting everglade-like weirs
Deep in whose reeds great elephants decay;
I’ve seen vast oceans crashing into ruin
And calm horizons cataracting away,
Sometimes when I grow weary, feel betrayed,
The gently rolling sea sets me at rest,
Lifting her shadowy waters up for me,
And I fall on my knees, womanly.
The only traveled sea that I still dream of
Is the cold black pond where once
On a fragrant evening fraught with sadness,
I launched a boat fragile as a butterfly.
Just when Berrigan may have finished reworking his version is unclear (Vanitas supposes “circa 1963”) however it is clear that he sent drafts to Sandy during this period in 1962. While Sandy’s letters are not clearly dated, we know she was finally released for good on July 26th 1962 and in two letters written sometime prior to that date she mentions, “I read the revision of ‘The Drunken Boat.’ I feel so good that you dedicated it to me.” (No such dedication appears in the Vanitas copy.) And she writes of the “final version being more idiomatic and modern and concise—much less 19th Century I guess.”
At any rate, Berrigan’s version definitely ended up serving (as did so much of his own recent work at the time) as textual site to pillage for workings of lines to recycle into The Sonnets. The letters demonstrate some of the thoughts concerning writing poetry which he was confronting and challenging himself to overcome. Sandy writes, “I wish you could explain the various changes. Some of them affect the flow and rhythm and style a lot […] many of the good parts you left the same.” And “I think it’s good to know the reason for picking certain words over others in translation. Some sound better but there must be other reasons.” Much of this Berrigan addresses (it is difficult to know whether in response or perhaps prior to Sandy’s remarks) in a lengthy digression running through several pages of a letter written on March 27th. He immediately distances his work from Rimbaud:
My poem is not meant to be considered a translation, and is called an imitation in deference to Rimbaud. The poet often uses other material, and the test of validity as art is how the poem itself stands up to itself. […] mainly it is a poem by Ted Berrigan. I myself do not know more French than you, if as much. The poem in its final version is almost all mine, each image coming to me as a result of the organic development of the poem, not because of Rimbaud used them. I did not hesitate to use my own meter rhyme rhythm et cetera.
While with the breakthrough of Berrigan’s conception of ‘form’ evidenced by The Sonnets, such reference to “organic development” does not play as large a role in his poem-making, his preferences having given over to semi-controlled decision-based chance operations inspired to some extent by John Cage, it is possible to witness a feeling for it creep into later works where he spaces words round the page with a somewhat Black Mountain School splash of exuberance. However what is obviously being developed while he works on his Rimbaud is indeed his “own meter rhyme rhythm” which he later heavily exploits in order to create the dizzying array found within The Sonnets.
Berrigan continues in the same letter, “Honey, I’d like to talk to you a little about the poem, mostly for my own benefit, to get straight a few things in my own mind.” He then commences an exegetical sketching out of his approach in writing the poem. It’s remarkable how possible it is to read Berrigan’s reworking of “The Drunken Boat” as providing encouragement for the possibility of his breakthrough with The Sonnets (shortly to come): “That is, life is a creative process, striving for more life, life as a flowing stream endlessly moving on toward high consciousness, more life, more light. In the first stanza the “I” of the poem says that he has shed all “masters” and is on his own, trusting his own whims.” What is holding Berrigan back from his imminent breakthrough is the concern with moving “toward high consciousness,” he’s shortly to realize how “more life, more light” is to be found within his immediate needs and circumstances. With the writing of The Sonnets comes Berrigan’s utilization of the fact, as he says here to Sandy (writing of the speaker in the poem), that he will “not turn back, away from his journey, which is in itself marvelous.” By catching up with words by way of removing much of his decisive will over them, Berrigan comes in The Sonnets to revel in words as discrete substances contained within themselves allowing for them to interact with each other without his intervention.
Berrigan’s “Drunken Boat” details the immersion he himself is in the process of to become the poet ‘Ted Berrigan’ author of The Sonnets. He understands this involves sacrifice and that he must set himself apart from his own worries and concerns, likewise those of others. As he continues writing to Sandy of the speaker in “The Drunken Boat,” “He despairs and cries out, as Jesus cried that he was forsaken, ‘O let me burst, and I be lost at sea.’ But his very words deny their superficial meaning. He means to be lost from acrid romances, not lost from life. He goes on joyously. He does not look back and he regrets nothing.” Berrigan is set on his course towards becoming and living the life of the poet. He will accept no other priority, as later in life he says, “I lift my voice in song” and that is to be his sole role as he conceives it. These letters are testament to this gestation period when Berrigan is consumed with his desire to endure an overwhelming absorption of everything which he feels will push him through to a breakthrough point with poetry and “The Drunken Boat” serves as an allegorical and—as far as his recycling of specific lines and phrases show—literal launching point.
The situation of Berrigan’s marriage with Sandy—her parents temporarily incarcerating her in an attempt to annul the marriage—is yet further evidence to Berrigan of restrictions he must overcome on his path to becoming a poet. As he continues his explanation of “The Drunken Boat” to Sandy, “This poem represents to me a manifesto against my own need to hate those people whom I must not be like. Through my love for you, which in itself required a great period of self-development by me, I feel I have reached a stage where I do not have to hate [them].” Berrigan feels he is “no longer afraid of succumbing to intellectual emptiness, or cynicism based on fear, or collegiate poeticism” because as he says, “I have killed in myself these elements.” He is defiantly assertive in his awareness that he is in a period of gestation, “if I am not always up to my best self even with you, it is because I am still trying to grow, still a baby. Have patience with me, my wife, have faith in me and in us, love me, and I will grow strong for you. I shall be forever your husband.”
Berrigan doesn’t mince words when offering Sandy his advice in regards to her situation:
Get tough, honey. Get tough. Run away from the all, fast. And I’m not talking about running out of the hospital, although, I want that, too. I mean run from their outstretched hands, their offers to “talk things over rationally,” run away from sympathy with them. For now, they are the enemy. They want to be your friend. They really do. They want to help you. They want to make sure you are well-fed, clothed, and secure from pain and disease and hardship. The only catch is that you have to do it on their terms. If you don’t, then it’s the lock-up, the padded cell, the prison, the hospital. And their terms are very simple. You must kill your soul. You must destroy your spontaneity, your capacity to love, your generosity, your openness, your childishness, your big-eyed wonder at life. You must get your shoulder to the wheel, be responsible, make contributions to mankind, shape up and make money.
As always in these letters, Berrigan is constantly merging the current predicament and eventual resolution of Sandy’s incarceration over their marriage with his development as a poet. By their disapproval and intervention, her parents not only challenge Berrigan’s abilities as a suitor but also his chances of achieving the cultural freedom of the poet he aspires to be. As he tells her “Your contributions to mankind are measured by your income tax. Louis Alper [Sandy’s father] obviously makes more contribution to mankind than Ted Berrigan. Look at the record. What record? Why the only record available. The income tax report.” Berrigan consciously prepares Sandy for the transition in thinking necessitated by culture wide bias in general during this period to the lifestyle he proposes pursue.
Sandy, the deck is stacked, and so to win at this game, since we have to play, we have to have some new rules, or else a gun under the table. […] I know this stuff because my innocence is not like yours. What I have come from, going through things rather than from being beyond them. I’ve looked at these people carefully, and was very close to them once. […] I didn’t ignore them, I watched them […] I know how to play their games, and maybe I know how to beat them.
Berrigan understands everything is on the line for him. His fight for his wife is equivalent to his fight for his right to live a life of the poet. In this respect, his love for Sandy is not separate from his love for poetry. He doesn’t want to, and isn’t going to be, beholden to anyone in his service towards it. Prior to meeting Sandy, Berrigan has been sorting out his own path towards becoming a poet and from the beginning it has been with the awareness that it would only be possible if he set the terms. In a letter from March 20th he draws the explicit parallel between his path towards being a poet and the current crisis in his marriage with Sandy:
These people, the doctors, and your parents, are evil honey. […] Those people are sick sick people. They would have it that a Dick Gallup who only wants to read and study and find love, and a Ted and Sandy who want to live and work together, are sick and immature. But it is they who are doing evil. We must give them evil for evil, until we are free.
I wrote a long time ago a poem called Prayer, addressed to a fierce old prophet like poet, whose poems were giving me inspiration:
Old Father, I am young.
I am afraid. Teach me
to run, that I may learn
Sing I would, many songs,
and many candles burn.
teach me to fall, that
I may learn to stand.
guide me now. Help me believe
the necessary lies.
Teach me to hate.
I would preserve my love.
After finishing transcribing the poem Berrigan shifts back to addressing Sandy, holding to the left hand justification of the poem, signing off on the letter while breaking his statements with line-breaks, retaining the look of a poem:
I love you, Sandy, Sandra, my eternal wife.
Your husband forever,
I love You.
Berrigan blurs his love for Sandy with his love for poetry, the latter, earlier passion equaling or even surpassing—if not at the very least buoying—the other. This is seen elsewhere in his sign-offs, as at the end of a long densely written letter from March 26th when he breaks out in jubilance, freely spacing his “love” around on the page:
I love you.
I love you.
I love you.
That’s what I want this letter
I am and mean to stay
forever and ever,
all my love,
Here is the ‘Ted Berrigan’ of the airy lines which sway across the page in later poems such as, “Many Happy Returns,” “February Air,” “Going To Chicago,” and his sections of the collaborative poem written with Anne Waldman “Memorial Day.” Sandy’s presence, both as muse and wife, however, is long gone from these later works. As Berrigan grew into his role of being the poet he matured and shed attachments that did not suit or otherwise match up well with his needs.
There is more than a hint of what the future holds for the Berrigans in these letters. Sandy herself states the predicament well in her preface to the collection, “Ted had a dream of the perfect young innocent girl who would believe in him, trust him, and admire him. The “Chris” in his Sonnets is such a figure. I think Ted hoped that I would be that person. But he always needed more: more people to love and to listen to him. I was too inexperienced to know that.” Indeed, as Padgett takes note in the appendix II Glossary of Names (which appear in the letters) Carol Clifford who later married poet Dick Gallup, “became Ted’s girlfriend while Sandy was in Jackson Memorial Hospital, unbeknownst to Sandy.” There is no need for blaming Berrigan for or lingering over the failure of his first marriage, but Sandy is certainly hitting on something in the preface when she writes, “I also realize that I wanted the book published in order to validate my presence in Ted’s life.” Aside from Berrigan’s published poem “Words for Love” which unlike the recently published version of his “Drunken Boat” does bear the dedication for Sandy, the vast majority of Berrigan’s own published writings infrequently, if at all, acknowledge any role of hers in his life as a poet.
At the end of these letters comes Scrapbook Facsimiles (available for on-line viewing here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/article.html?id=240368)a section of scanned images of pages from a scrapbook Berrigan began to make for Sandy during this time and added to in later years. Here are snapshot photos of some of the characters who make appearances in the letters (& The Sonnets): Ted, Sandy, Marge Kepler, Anne Kepler, Joe Brainard, Lorenz Gude, Ron Padgett, and Pat Mitchell (Padgett). There are also copies of a few previously unpublished poems, juvenilia perhaps, but invaluable all the same. For instance, one page is a handwritten version of Berrigan’s unpublished poem “Prayer” (included in a letter to Sandy mentioned above) with the name of the poet Ezra Pound pasted in above along with a profile photo of Pound pasted in the upper right corner of the page. Another is a collaborative poem, a line-numbered ‘sonnet’ written with Tom Veitch. In addition, being the unbelievably terrific human being he is Ron Padgett also includes an itemized summary of the contents for all 200 pages of the notebook. In this way, the reader gets as near visceral a feel as it comes to holding the notebook itself and it importantly makes, as do the letters, for a private testimonial (now made public) to Sandy’s role as muse and love. This is also a trove of further specific sources such as Rimbaud has been shown above to be, referenced throughout the letters, which Berrigan recycles in The Sonnets. Nothing else previously published so closely documents his reading along with his walking/talking company during this critical period leading up to the composition of his important first book.
Sometimes poets are born and sometimes they’re made, occasionally as these letters show they are self-made. There are prices to be paid for all such transformations and after, once the losses have been tallied, the poet if nothing else is left with his skill to sing of them. It’s a trade off, as Berrigan fiercely laments in his poem “Red Shift.”
Alone & crowded, unhappy fate, nevertheless
I slip softly into air
The world’s furious song flows through my costume.
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco. His critical essay on Creeley's debt to Stevens is slated to appear in Fulcrum 7 anytime now. Poems and such will be appearing in the next issue of Amerarcana. This Spring Post Apollo Press will publish his "There Are People Think That Painters Shouldn't Talk": A GUSTONBOOK.