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 Gin published its first issue with a cover featuring Berrigan in his underwear.
Born Edmund Joseph Michael Berrigan, Jr., in Providence, Rhode Island, he soon left for the Midwest. From there, he moved to New York City, the one place he would consider home. While still a young man experimenting with poetry, Berrigan met Frank O’Hara, and his life was forever changed. Berrigan was attracted to the casualness and urgency he found in O’Hara’s poetry, and he sought to imbue his own poems with these qualities. Berrigan created a type of poem called “Things to do in (_________) [fill in the blank].” He wrote these poems in every city he lived in, and in some he visited.
Besides O’Hara, Berrigan met and became good friends with Ron Gallup, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and John Ashbery, and he was acquainted with painters Jasper Johns, George Schneeman, and Andy Warhol. All had influences upon the maturing Berrigan. Most of his friends consider his book The Sonnets, written twenty years before his death, to be his greatest achievement.
Berrigan was a great reader, taking in everything from classical poetry and John Cage’s musical notations to Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy and Charles Olson’s poetic principles. Berrigan used much of this material to create his own free-form sonnets, poems that generally lacked meter and rhyme but that employed a sonnet form of fourteen lines that resolved in their ends the issues raised in their beginnings. Berrigan’s sonnets remain interesting examples of experiments in poetic form that started in the 1950’s.
Berrigan was a prolific writer, but his career was hindered by his interest in alcohol and other drugs. He died at age forty-eight from cirrhosis of the liver after suffering from the disease for eight years.
Berrigan injected much-needed humor and elasticity into poetry after the death of Frank O’Hara. Berrigan was known for being a big man with a big beard and a great laugh, someone whose presence dominated the room. He gave and attended countless poetry readings, promoting his own works and encouraging other poets. Until his death, he remained a man who viewed poetry as the poet’s vocation, as the focus of the poet’s life. Berrigan wrote in his poems that he would get up, take some pills with a Pepsi, get his...
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