Ted Berrigan Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ted Berrigan had a poet’s career that only a poet in the United States could have. Berrigan received a master’s degree in English but had an intense dislike for academia. He later reasoned that if one is a poet, one must “do that” and nothing else. Nevertheless, Berrigan was fortunate enough to hold teaching positions at the famed Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, at Northwestern University in Chicago as poet-in-residence, at the Poetry Project of St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery in New York City, and finally, toward the end of his life, at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Despite his having published some twenty books, and despite his teaching positions, Berrigan was constantly broke, always borrowing money from his vast collection of friends—money that he invariably was unable to repay. Big publishers ignored his poetry as being too flighty and too comic until after his death. Of all his books, only the posthumous Selected Poems is from a large publisher, Penguin Books, with blurbs on the back from Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley.

However, Berrigan was not without friends or influence. Other poets flocked to him wherever he went. In Chicago, he was influential in starting the magazine Milk Quarterly and the Yellow Press, which published his Red Wagon. He also stood behind the Stone Wind poets and their reading series, run by Henry Kanabus. In New York, Angel Hair books would not have existed without Berrigan’s support. Toothpaste Press in Iowa City (later the major Coffee House Publishers) owed a good deal to Berrigan’s influence. In Boulder, the magazine Bombay...

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(Poets and Poetry in America)

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1934, Edmund Joseph Michael Berrigan, Jr., briefly attended Providence College before joining the U.S. Army and serving during the Korean War. Although he never engaged in combat, Berrigan spent three years in the U.S. Army. He subsequently attended the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, earning a B.A. in 1959 and an M.A. in 1962. In Tulsa, he met young poets and future collaborators Padgett and Joe Brainard, who would be among Berrigan’s closest friends for the rest of his life.

In 1960, Berrigan moved to New York to make the connections needed for success in the poetry world. There he met Sandra Alper, also a poet. They married, eventually having two children, David and Kate. The New York City poetry scene in the early 1960’s was particularly vital, featuring not only the established poets O’Hara and Kenneth Koch but also younger poets such as Berrigan and his friend Padgett; in all they were part of the New York School of poetry. Although Berrigan may not have been as influential as his friend O’Hara, he was nevertheless essential to the group.

In 1964, Berrigan published The Sonnets, which established his reputation and his career. That same year, he began C magazine and then C Press, where he published the works of many of his friends as well as those of new poets who shared his sensibilities. In 1966, he helped organize the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, where he would teach workshops and support the project for years to come.

Berrigan was a visiting lecturer in the prestigious University of Iowa writing program from 1968 to 1969; he also taught for short periods at a number of colleges, including the University of Michigan, Yale University, Buffalo University, Northeastern Illinois University, and the University of Essex. Berrigan became known as a particularly gifted and insightful teacher and was often sought out for advice. While at Michigan in 1971, he divorced his first wife and married his student, the poet Alice Notley, with whom he would have two sons, Anselm (named for Berrigan’s friend, poet Anselm Hollo) and Edmund. Although Berrigan remained prolific throughout his career, his reputation was largely founded on his work during the 1960’s and early 1970’s. He died of hepatitis in 1983 at the age of forty-eight. His health had been compromised by recurring episodes of methamphetamine abuse.