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.
“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...
(The entire section is 510 words.)