Friday, November 16, 2012

Incredible Masterpieces by Ted Berrigan


Incredible Masterpieces
by Ted Berrigan

Some things we all kind of know, but we need to keep hearing. 

This is my edited version.  The full version can be found here:

http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/berrigan/incredible.html


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I am a poet. There's no question about that, because I have these books, you see, with my name on them. And so I am a poet. You'll find, that's not so funny, actually; you'll find that it'd be very difficult for a long time after you start writing poetry and get interested in it, to have any way to verify the fact that you're a poet. When you go to get a passport and you write down your occupation, you'd be surprised how few people ever write "poet." When you're sitting on the airplane next to a man with a briefcase, and you're going to give a reading, and he's going to a business conference, and he says to you, hello my name is Herman Bluewinkle, and you say, my name is Ted Berrigan, and he says, I'm in electronics, what do you do? And you say, I'm a poet, and he says, holy shit, man. And his eyes get completely glazed over, and he's sure that you're going to whip out all of your poems immediately and read them all to him. Which is the last thing that you want to do. You don't really want to read your poems to anyone, unless

a, they want to pay you for doing it, or
b, they ask you to do it, or
c, you're stoned out of your brain, and you just feel like doing something like that.

But at this age - I'll be forty-two this year - there's no question in my mind that I'm a poet, and that's really all that I am. I've been a schoolteacher, a university professor; I've done a number of other things, too, but essentially I'm a poet; that's my profession. In that sense, I'm a professional poet; it's my career. . . . Lots of people don't like the idea of using professionalism with, in conjunction with the idea of being a poet. . . .

Poetry is my business. I don't know how many of you are interested in making poetry be your business, in the course of your life. It's my conception that it would be a good thing if everybody wrote poetry, in the world, because it seems to me that it's a natural human activity. Just like singing is for the birds. Birds don't sing because they think they're Neil Young, you know; I mean, they sing because that's what birds do. Writing poetry is one of the things that human beings do, and can do. Writing poetry is how you tell your parents, your lover, all the people who don't know you and yourself, who you are, how you feel. The connections are not always made directly.

This is, you can write a poem called "To My Mother," and the chances are ninety-nine out of a hundred that your mother will find the poem out to lunch, and I mean . . . You know, that wasn't the point. But it's very important to write it anyway. If you don't do that, if you don't write poetry, if you don't express yourself, that is who you are, in one or more of the many art forms that exist in the human sphere: . . . [y]ou find yourself slightly gathered up at the shoulder or at the knee, or something like that; you're slightly tight somewhere. Nevertheless, none of that means that you have to be a . . . or make poetry your business.

In the long ago past, poetry was a court activity, and everybody at the court is . . . The ladies-in-waiting and the hand-maidens and the courtiers and the friends of the duke and the king and so on, they all wrote poetry. In China and in Japan and in the European countries, it was expected of you that you do that. It was somewhat of a surprise when someone like Shakespeare, say, wrote poetry. But it wasn't too much of a surprise, because being an attractive youth and being attracted to members of the court, he aspired to that kind of social circle.

[P]oetry is a business; it's a full-time business; it doesn't take up all your time the way working in the A&P may take up all your time, because you don't have to be on the job in that respect all the time; you don't have to go there and be there for so many hours a day and come out. But being a poet is a twenty-four-hour-a-day thing. You're always on. I could be talking about being a painter or being a musician or being whatever, but you're always on. What Allen refers to as mindfulness is simply that. It's a matter of being awake, alive, alert, aware of possibilities. If you're a poet, all of that is partly channeled into the fact that maybe you're going to write some of them down, too.

And so you're caught up in that consciousness if you're a writer that you are; you might write it down, you know, but that's not an unpleasant consciousness, actually; so what if you might write it down; I mean you might not write it down either - you might get hit by a car, too. The thing that I'm stressing is that poetry and being a full-time poet is a full-time thing. And you can hardly do anything else and be an artist, a poet. Probably some of you in the audience . . . and maybe some of you could cite examples of people who have done other . . . William Carlos Williams was a doctor, and Wallace Stevens was an insurance man; there have been others. They were the exceptions, not the rule. The rule is generally, if you have to spend . . .

It seems to me that anybody that writes a few hundred poems ought to be able to write a very good one. Probably should be able to write twenty very good ones. Because the first, if you start writing, the first couple of years you write quite a number of pretty good poems; it's just after that it gets a little hard. And then one wants to see what you do in the next three or four years, and if you're still around after that six or seven years, you're probably going to be around. You're probably going to be a poet. And everybody is rooting for you to do that, but if you don't, it's all right. What the hell. We get ours, you get yours. I mean, it's not quite that brutal, but in a way, it has to be. It's a full-time thing, and particularly the business of becoming a poet.

Now what is a poet? A poet is someone who writes poems. They don't have to be good poems. There are many ways to write poems, but it would probably be more preferable to say a poet is someone who makes poems. What is a poem? A poem is anything that anybody wants to call a poem. Basically because we don't want to bother with that kind of question. It's a stupid, ridiculous question, and one does not want to get into those kinds of definitions. If you think you'll be a poet, you'll know what a poem is. Because you'll recognize it when you see them. And some poems, you see them, and they're good, and that's great. And some poems, you see them, and they're not so good, but both those are poems. Some things are called poems, and you see them, and they're not poems, but they're good to read. If a person wants to call them a poem, that's fine. Some things that you see are writings; you look at them, and they're called poems, and they're not good to read, and they're not poems, and so you just forget, you just ignore them, because everything that's no good will disappear of its own accord in time. You don't have to really worry about that. It's like bad poets, you don't have to worry about who's a bad poet; you know you don't have to go around thinking, god there are fifty bad poets in the world –

Given the passage of a few years and a few more years and a few years, everything finds - in the cultural world in the arts - generally everything finds its own level. And we're left with it. It might take a hundred . . . For a hundred years everybody might think that Shakespeare was reasonably good and Ben Jonson was totally great, but actually in that hundred years, most people probably didn't really think that, but some scholars wrote down that that was true. But in any case, by now everybody knows that Ben Jonson was pretty damn good; he was even more than that, and Shakespeare was wonderful. Everybody knows that so much that everybody thinks that they've read Shakespeare. Which is very funny, actually, because most people haven't read Shakespeare hardly at all. It's imperative that you do read Shakespeare, and everybody else that you're supposed to have read. However, you don't have to do it by tomorrow. I mean, take your time; it's all right. But don't mouth off about something you think you know, that Shakespeare's included in, around somebody that's read Shakespeare. Because they'll just give you, if they have any wit . . . They'll just give you a look that says, huh, what's this guy saying - I mean he's saying something about poems and sonnets and this and that, and he hasn't even read Shakespeare, obviously.

I'm still emphasizing the business about it being a full-time thing, and it's particularly a full-time thing when you're young. Now, it's impossible to be both a student and a poet. What you generally are is a student-poet. Now, there's nothing wrong with that at all, but on the one hand you shouldn't let it crush you in any way that you are that. That's fine. On the other hand, you shouldn't be too overambitious; that is, when you get your fifteenth poem done, you shouldn't necessarily run up and shove them under Allen Ginsberg's or Bill Merwin's or my nose and say, here's my poems, man - take me to Bobbs-Merrill, Random House, immediately, you know. Don't worry; if you're good, and you write good poems, you'll get published, and everybody, and you'll get famous like people do in the poetry world, and everybody will know about you, and you'll be a poet, and that will be fine. And you'll still be fat, old, toothless, boring, and not have any money, and all that, but you'll get to come to Boulder, Colorado, and sit up here and act like you're doing something. And that's not so funny, because you are doing something, actually.

One of the things that you are doing is that you are a carrier of the culture, sort of like Typhoid Mary, but in a good way. The words stay. Which is very nice; I mean words do stay. That's one of the reasons why Ed Marshall was saying that the word is dangerous. Leave the word alone; it is dangerous. That is, don't tell your own story if it's going to give you a nervous breakdown to hear it. And believe me it's going to come close, if you tell the truth. Because human beings are a rotten lot, I mean, generally speaking. However, they're very amusing, and like that's the redeeming quality.

The point that I'm trying to pull out of that is that as a beginning, at the time when you're a student, you're a student, and that is what you are, and that's good. It's very good to be a student; it's good to be a student as long as possible, as long as you can stand it. One of the reasons why it's good is that it's better than most things. At some point you stop being a student. I'm using the word "student" very specifically, that is as an enrolled member of some institution. Not some insane asylum necessarily, but some university of something like that.

When you stop being a student, you're generally faced with the problem of how you support yourself in the world. Many people face that problem while they're students, too, but they're not really faced with it; if they were really faced with it, they wouldn't be able to be students. When you're a student you can always pull some hustle and keep on being a student. But when you stop being a student, then you are faced with how you are going to support yourself in the world. You have these two situations. One is that you have to exist in terms of physical needs, a place to live, things to eat, and all the vast possibility of necessary luxuries, like radios, records, TVs, cars, things like that, shoes, things like that. That's one.

The other one is the fact that in order to be a poet you have to spend your full time on it. Now, what you do with that full time is another story, which we can possibly discuss a little bit later, but the fact that you have to make a living and the fact that you're going to be a poet are contradictory; they're . . . The tensions of the two work against each other, and it's very difficult to do both, in an orthodox way.

You can't get a job and work five days a week and be a poet on weekends. Because if you do that you'll be an amateur. There's nothing wrong with being an amateur, but I'm assuming that you aspire to be something more than an amateur. You'll be an amateur. It's also bad karma to work at a job fulltime and not go at it as seriously as you were going to go at being a poet. Wallace Stevens, incidentally, was not just an insurance man; he was vice-president of the Hartford Casualty Company. I mean there's no sense fooling around; if you're going to do something, you might as well be good at it. You can also be bad at it which is a pleasure, too, but if you're going to be good at it . . . I mean, I mean if you're going to be able to do it, you have to be able to do it well. What you do about the problem of staying alive, making a living, while you're going about being a poet, frankly I can't really tell you. Everybody has to find their own solution.

[Y]ou have to insist with all that natural rage that every human being is born with, and has all their life, that you are, and are going to be, a poet. And that you are going to make the time to do what you have to do, and that you're going to do it all the time, and that if anybody doesn't like it, I mean you know, too bad; I mean you're just going to do that.

Now some of you - you being you and everybody else - some of you probably have talents, and you can go out and do journalism and do various other little jobs for ten or fifteen years like say John Ashbery did, and meanwhile become some sort of major poet. Or you can do what Allen Ginsberg did; you can be a sort of shocking figure in the universe; by virtue of that plus a few nervous breakdowns, and Time magazine, you can become famous and modestly rich; say you could have $6,000 a year, or something like that.

What do you do as full-time poets, twenty-four hours a day? O.K. I don't know what you do each day; I couldn't make you out a daily schedule, but what you do is you read every poet that you can possibly find to read and write as many poems as you can possibly bring yourself to write for as many years as you can possibly do that. And if you stick that out for a sufficient number of years, you will be moderately well-educated about poetry. That will infect your own writing; your own writing will show your mindfulness of the potentialities, the possibilities in poetry and the writing of poetry, and you will become a better and better poet. It may be given to some of you to become a great important major poet, and it may only be given to others of you to be just a good poet.

I didn't even know ’till I was about twenty years old that there were such things alive; I thought there were only these dead people that had been poets. But the poet is anybody that can get to be a poet, because it is within a natural human sphere and scope. And it does require that effort; that is you have to write many many poems, and you have to read many many poems, and you have to cultivate those two habits, so that you will write many times when you don't particularly feel like it and so that you will read, consistently. So that like when you would think that you haven't been writing for six months and then suddenly you feel like writing again, you look in a drawer and you notice that you've got about four hundred fragments of little things that you dashed off here and there and threw in the drawer, because you didn't want to took at things; you didn't think you liked poetry anymore. I mean you have to be very serious about it. Being very serious means, again, mindfulness; it means being alert to the humor of everything.

It's ridiculous to be a poet. It's one of the silliest imaginable things you can be; it's also one of the most important things in the universe, that somebody be. But somebody will be that, because it is that, so you don't have to. I mean if you decide next week that you don't like poetry anymore, and you'd rather be a conceptual artist and make anthills in Colorado, that's all right too. Because somebody else will be, you know it's all right.

But once I read . . . I remember reading once in a copy of Kulchur Magazine a critical article by a fellow named Gil Sorrentino, who believes in the power of the mind to exert itself in some sort of mathematical fashion so that everything in the world generally can be explained in terms of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The synthesis becomes a new thesis which you can have an antithesis to, and so on. And everything is completely explanatory. Except that he doesn't really believe that that means that a god exists. He has never made himself completely clear on that point. But he does think that it means that if you're a poet, you have to sometime in your life read Robert Browning. Now I thought that was very humorous, because in the first place I hadn't read too much Browning because I didn't feel like reading him because he was too muscular and I didn't . . . I always wanted him to take it a little easier when I was reading him, because I like to read; I find reading very intense, and I don't like to be disturbed by guys that are always shouting when they're writing, like Browning is. But eventually actually I read quite a bit of Browning, because I had to teach him. One way to get out of your head sometimes is to become a teacher. Last year I read The Scarlet Letter, actually, which is one of my great achievements in life, and it was a great book, just like they had been saying all this time. I thought that was really terrific, you know. I don't know what good it did me, but it was a great book. I remember I read Ulysses three times, and I never had a fucking clue, as to . . . I mean, there was the implication, that was given by Ezra Pound and everybody else; you know, that if you just read Ulysses, you would become Batman tomorrow, you know.  Alas, that will not happen.

A few years ago, the illusion was, in the world, was that if you read the works of John Ashbery you would become Captain Marvel instantly. Alas that was true. If you read the works of John Ashbery, you would become Captain Marvel immediately.  Unfortunately you would become a junior Captain Marvel of which the giant Captain Marvel was John Ashbery, and furthermore when any other poet read your works, the first thing that they would think is that you've been reading John Ashbery.

I remember Kenneth Koch once telling me, he said imagine what it would be like if you were the only Surrealist at the University of Minnesota. I think that was a profound remark, actually, and it has very much to do with being a poet. Being a poet is very much like the . . . has a lot to do with the way that little children make things. Children can make a game out of anything. And if you leave any special things lying around on the floor the children will get them, and they'll put them, the milk bottle into the shoe, and paper bag, crammed into the milk bottle, and they'll bring it over and say, look what I made, And you say, that's really terrific, that's really great; what is it? And then they say, I don't know; what is it?

Unfortunately, most of you are not little children, And if you . . . actually if you put the milk bottle in the shoe, and the paper bag in the milk bottle, you'd be geniuses, but that isn't what you'll do, what you'll do is say, write down about thirty boring lines about your relationship with your mother, or something, and then you'll bring it over and you'll say, look what I've made. And generally most people will say, Yah, uh yuk, I can't believe it, goddamn are you out of your mind? Why don't you go out and read Dante or something? Consequently, what you need to do - because it is very important when you make something to be able to show it to someone and have them say it is terrific . . . So that you will, I mean it's necessary to get affection, love, a certain kind of understanding; it's also necessary to get encouragement, and it's further . . . It's necessary to be able to make a show.

[W]hat you ought to do is, if you're a serious poet, is to have three or four friends that are equally serious, either poets or other kinds of artists, that you can not necessarily compare notes from - with - and especially not necessarily show your works to and have them say this is really good, but if you just changed this word in the third line, it would be better. Even that's not what you want. What you want is that you're doing something and you're doing it all together and they exist in the world and they serve as character models for you and you for them.

You can't really do it in isolation, is what I'm saying. A next tenet to go with that is I think the greatest thing I was ever told by another artist; I was told this when I was in my twenties, after a specific sort of bad experience, was I was told that it's very important to pick your audience to whom you show your works. If you show your works to jerks, you will get a jerk's response. This may hurt you. It's all right to be hurt, but not if it interferes with the serious business of your being a poet. This jerk that you show your work to may be your best friend, on many levels. But do not show this jerk your works, because they're a jerk about showing works to, you see. You show people your works so that they will be impressed. Show them to people that will be impressed.

[S]tart a magazine, or publish little books, and send a copy to everyone in the world that you want to read them. You'll be surprised how many will read them. They won't necessarily write back, and respond, but they will read them. And if you're good, they'll remember. And at some point in time, they will respond. And you'll meet them, and you'll be introduced to them, and someone will say, John Ashbery, this is Steve so-and-so, and he'll say, oh yes. I've seen your poems in magazines. I enjoyed them quite a lot, and then you'll be knocked out for the next five years, and, you know, you can write incredible masterpieces, you know.

 

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Originally published in On the Level Everyday: Selected Talks on Poetry and the Art of Living, New Jersey: Talisman House, 1997, edited by Joel Lewis and used here by kind permission of the publisher.

 

3 Comments:

At 11/16/2012 12:08 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

I read somewhere that "Allen" had "poet" on his passport. I guess HE could do that, but in general people who write poems--or poetry--shouldn't call themselves poets. If they do, they're making a value judgement about their own work. And about themselves. It's like calling yourself a mystic or a shaman or a saint. You might well be one or more of those things, but it's for other people to say, not for you.

 
At 11/16/2012 4:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a direct, insightful piece. I'd never read it before, and I thank you for posting it, John.

 
At 11/18/2012 6:40 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Even if I disagree with him sometimes, Berrigan is my favorite person to listen talk about poetry. No other writer expresses how ridiculous and essential poetry is with such directness and humor.

I've had the entirety of his Sonnetts n my iPod for years now.

 

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