The classification most frequently ascribed to Ted Berrigan is “second-generation New York School”—as if the defining feature of his poetry is his having rolled into town a little too late to break into the ultimate literary cool-kid clique alongside John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and Barbara Guest. Berrigan admired and learned from them all, and, reading his poems, it’s easy to identify moments that seem Kochian, O’Haraian, Ashberian—hell, sometimes he steals their lines outright. But he integrates them in a way that suggests polyphony, not slavish imitation, welcoming different voices to create a kind of euphoric, experimental mix tape shot through with personal feeling.
It’s not always clear who the person behind those feelings is, which is to Berrigan’s advantage: it lets him have personality without a psyche—at least the sort of psyche that led his more mainstream contemporaries to write confessions about the dark recesses of their hearts. Rather, he comes off as an extroverted host: in “Tambourine Life,” for example, he channels the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, the folk singer Huddie Ledbetter, the countercultural comedian Paul Krassner, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, and Tarzan of the Apes.
When you do hear a voice that sounds like it belongs to Berrigan, you get the sense that he spends his time scampering around the city or writing at high speed in his apartment, fueled by Pepsi and pills as people drift in and out. “Hello Lee / Mr. Lee Crabtree / of The Fugs / just came in,” he writes, greeting his friend both in life and in poetry. Not that all of his guests get stable identities, as when Berrigan riffs on a Mad Lib: “I am in love with / (fill in name of person in room).” That parenthetical is a form of inclusion, even as it constitutes a sophisticated joke about the nature of poetic address and the fickleness of feeling.
Describing the name-dropping and playfulness in Berrigan’s poetry can make it sound like so much candy—delicious but not necessarily good for you—or, worse, like a series of chatty valentines to an in-crowd. But his poems are as probing as they are fun, as inviting as they are specific, and as fresh today as they must have felt over forty years ago, when John Ashbery wrote that Berrigan’s sonnets “feel like what tomorrow is going to be like.” When Berrigan brings in all the voices from his periphery, it’s as if he’s gotten everyone together, including the reader, at one fantastic party. Of his role as poet-host, he writes, “The world’s furious song flows through my costume.”
At other times, Berrigan seems more like a song-and-dance man who’s practiced his routine so much he appears to be improvising for a crowd. “Don’t lay back, look pretty, & strike a pose,” he writes, “be Showbiz naturally, & / Give everyone a chance to regroup.” Sure, he’s the star, but he’s just trying to make you happy—because, as he puts it with disarming frankness at the end of “Tambourine Life,” “Joy is what I like, / That, and love.”
A poignant example of Berrigan’s generous engagement with other voices is on display in the collection’s final poem, “This Will Be Her Shining Hour.” He typed it while his wife, the poet Alice Notley, was watching a Fred Astaire movie in the next room, hollering at him to come check out the dance scenes. “You’re making a big mistake, / writing a poem, / and not watching this,” she teases; he replies, “Shut up. I’m getting the last lines.” “You are not,” she says—and those are the last lines. She gives them to him unwittingly, and, in the world of the poem, he gives them to her.
Notley edited this collection with her sons, Anselm and Edmund Berrigan, who were ten and eight years old when their father wrote his final book, A Certain Slant of Sunlight. He died the next year. In their introduction, Berrigan’s sons write that editing their father’s Selected Poems helped them “to ask the type of vital questions poetry is especially poised to answer: who was he, and, by extension, who were we?”