Study Guide

Last Poem

by Ted Berrigan

Last Poem Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Berrigan collaborated with many poets in his lifetime, and a certain carelessness about ownership—of both words and possessions—was a part of the challenge that these poets raised to bourgeois society. Berrigan’s poetry flourished in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, in the years when the counterculture had such momentum, and revolutionary possibilities were—to an extent—realizable. Such techniques of collaboration as the “exquisite corpse” method (each person writes a line, folds the paper over, and passes it to his neighbor) began with the Surrealists but were revived by Berrigan and his peers in the interests of encouraging community. A sort of utopianism, a kind of anarchy, and surely the old wish to shock the bourgeoisie were at once context and theme for Berrigan and his collaborators. These poets often composed while stoned on marijuana or hallucinogenic drugs; alcohol and amphetamines were also popular. To their detractors, this was mere self-indulgence, producing work of little consequence that would soon fade from attention. An illuminating hierarchy of precedence can be discovered for such a procedure, however, including Arthur Rimbaud’s advice to poets to derange and disturb their senses, the better to see through society’s false orders.

These writers, among whom Berrigan was prominent, might not have believed in possessiveness, but this did not mean that the material was a matter of indifference to them. Alice Notley remarks that postcards hold appeal as materials for poetry, being readily graspable, compact, and manageable. Indeed, the tendency of ownership to interfere with one’s fascination with a given material, be it a landscape (“Get off my property!”) or another person (“That woman is my wife, you cad!”), should be obvious enough to all, and one need seek no further for a connection between these two terms of an only apparent contradiction.

As for the way in which these themes connect with “Last Poem,” the reader need only consider that what is being reported in the poem concerns a union, a brotherhood of shared concern, being beaten up and killed by thugs representing property owners. From this act of repression and murder flows endless harm, the poem reveals, corrupting even those who, as victims of violence, should best understand why violence ought not to be used.