The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510

In the work of Ted Berrigan, the mode of modernism sometimes called kitsch or camp, in which everything becomes jokey, a parody of serious intentions, received a new lease on life. In reading his work, one must keep in mind that the sentiment it contains is probably being mocked rather than uttered naïvely. Yet ultimately the sentiments are very likely being uttered with a degree of naïve genuineness that is protected by a campy tone; the poet can then deny having meant them too seriously. For all of his sophistication—Berrigan lived in Manhattan throughout his poetic career—he cultivated his naïveté and was able, behind his affectation of simplemindedness, to stay simple to the end.

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“Last Poem” is at once more and less than its title may suggest. The title is dramatic. Does the poem represent a deathbed dictation? Was it discovered in Berrigan’s will? Is it a farewell to the pursuit of poetry? At the same time, it is flat in tone, uninspired, the merest chronological notation. From its position in A Certain Slant of Sunlight (1988)—about halfway through the book—one deduces that it is in no absolute sense a last poem, but rather the most recent poem Berrigan had written at that time. The title becomes another joke, an undercutting of readerly expectations and of the grand poetic tone of yesteryear that Berrigan so often targeted.

From one point of view, however, the title can gain more than these meanings. The poem concerns a strike and violent strikebreaking event in a working-class English community. It is dedicated to Tom Pickard, a poet from Northeast England, and by its vocabulary (“When you were just a wee insolent tyke”) and other clues (“Management set upon us/ Jarrow boys”), one finds that “Last Poem” is a sort of dramatic monologue, with Berrigan speaking as if he were Pickard or one of Pickard’s mates or forebears. (Jarrow is a shipbuilding center in Tyneside, near Pickard’s home; there was a landmark strike and strikebreaking there.) The poem ends, “They/ outnumbered us 5 to 1; & each had club/ knife or gun. Kill them, kill them, my/ sons. Kill their sons.”

Acted upon, this poem would become literally the last poem for those killed. On the other hand, one can see in a feud that spans generations the futility of all attempts at finality; every attempt to strike the final blow leads only to further acts of revenge. If read in this light, the poem becomes ironic in that its title is undercut by the events, or at least by the would-be events, referred to at its end. The poem then becomes a sympathetic yet ironically distanced act of comradeship, the American Berrigan understanding the social situation of his friend yet not wanting to allow him to continue in his attitude without trying subtly to show him something important that Berrigan has discerned about that attitude. Perhaps, however, Berrigan is simply saying that a time comes when poetry can do no more and the time for killing begins.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 366

This eleven-line free-verse poem employs the dialect of Northeast England—Tyneside—on occasion to imply, rather than perform, a dramatic monologue. Although the subject, a strikebreaking, is serious, the tone is comic. “I am the man yr father & Mum was,” it begins, making a man out of Mum. This confusion of genders yields to a confusion of dialect tones, for “wee insolent tyke” and other working-class terms are laid next to expressions such as “days of infamy” and “ensuing brouhaha,” taken from journalistic diction. The “Kill them, kill them, my/ sons. Kill their sons” at the close has the violence of farce, not of tragedy, largely because of the lack of preparation for it. The farce shows the tragic aspect in another light—sublime vengeance becomes ridiculous mechanical reactiveness.

Berrigan’s refusal to enter with formal seriousness any of the issues his poems raise operates as a critique of the conventions of serious poetry. By an ironic twist, this refusal itself becomes, therefore, a serious formal gesture. His homespun, slap-dash ways implicitly ask why others persist in climbing on a rhetorical high horse before addressing reality so earnestly, since reality happens anyway, like it or not. All the poems in A Certain Slant of Sunlight, in common with Berrigan’s production overall, exude this casual, down-home air of spontaneity, and when one learns something of how they were written, this does not seem surprising.

Alice Notley, the poet’s widow, in her introduction to this posthumous book, reveals that it was initially written on postcards, the postcards having been supplied by Ken and Ann Mikolowski of the Alternative Press. Berrigan’s method of composition on these cards—of which five hundred were sent to him, each measuring 4 by 7 inches—is also discussed by Notley, who says that her husband would give a handful of the cards to someone and ask that person to write a few words on them. Among those who collaborated in this way with Berrigan were Allen Ginsberg, Steve Carey, Greg Masters, Joanne Kyger, Steve Levine, Tom Pickard, Jeff Wright, Eileen Myles, Anne Waldman, and herself. It seems likely, therefore, that the poem dedicated to Pickard was also a collaboration with him.

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Themes