Ted Berrigan Essay - Critical Essays


Ted Berrigan was an integral part of the New York School of poetry and the general movement toward expressionism in American poetry. Loosely put, works of literary expressionism focus more on the personal than the abstract and more on the day to day than the political. From an aesthetic point of view, expressionist works tend to follow the free-associative quality of everyday speech rather than the more rigid and uniform rules of more traditional forms. In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, literary expressionism manifested itself in three primary forms in American literature: the works of the confessional poets (including Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Sylvia Plath), which focused on the personal experience; the literature of the Beat writers (including novelist Jack Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg), which emphasized energetic and “spontaneous” creativity in writing; and the works of the New York School, which combined approaches from each of the former schools while generating its own voice. The first poet associated with the New York School was O’Hara, whose literary reputation quickly rose before his untimely death at the age of forty. While showing the influence of O’Hara and other New York School poets in his appreciation of the everyday reality of life, Berrigan also brought to the movement a lyrical sensibility and a wry sense of humor.

In his poetry, Berrigan demonstrated his conversance with a diversity of poetic forms and styles. He composed in free verse with long lines, short lines, and spaced lines; he wrote sonnets and prose poetry. The scattered spacing of his famous early poem “Tambourine Life” (anthologized in The Young American Poets, 1968), for example, contributes to the expressionistic, “take life by the horns” attitude of the poem. Additionally, his tendency to be more lyrical and imagistic than other members of the New York School is on display in poems such as “Sonnet LXXIV” (from The Sonnets), in which he writes that “. . . The only travelled sea/ that I still dream of/ is a cold black pond, where once/ on a fragrant evening fraught with sadness/ I launched a boat frail as a butterfly.”

Despite his departure from the familiar, however, Berrigan is often at his most successful and his most touching when he sticks to the common truths, as shown in his poem “Words for Love” (from Many Happy Returns to Dick Gallup), where the speaker states, “. . . If/ I sometimes grow weary, and seem still, nevertheless// my heart still loves, will break.” More than any spontaneous or expressionist style, however, the content that informed Berrigan’s poetry throughout his entire career largely consisted of the personal and everyday. Such a focus is, in a way, a democratization of poetry: One does not...

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