Get The Money! has the peculiar privilege of neither having to establish or confirm Berrigan’s place in literary history. Instead, it furnishes a refreshing intimacy, which might be the real hallmark of Berrigan’s interpretation of his particular cultural air. In the editors’ deft arrangement of the work between chronology and category, something elusive though cherished about Berrigan is restored to the literary record from out of oral history, archive and folder. Both in terms of what it is to know a person through their writing and to know a writer’s work through their personality, it is perhaps as close to someone’s written essence as can be had.
Get the Money! joins two other collections of Berrigan’s work: Nice To See You: An Homage to Ted Berrigan, edited by Anne Waldman (1991), a commemorative volume in which some of these prose works previously appeared, and The Selected Poems of Ted Berrigan (2011), edited by Alice Notley and Anselm and Edmund Berrigan. Get the Money! shows how Ted Berrigan worked in a range of different written modes, often paid and public, but just as consistently playful and private, bringing his characteristic candor to any written endeavor. With Nick Sturm’s archival steering and editorial eye supplementing the family’s effort, there’s a sense of completion, care, and even relief palpable in this latest volume, closest in spirit to a literary commonplace book. This collection will be indispensable for Berrigan aficionados and newcomers to his work alike. Like the richest records left behind by writers, Get The Money! makes explicit Berrigan’s cultivation of himself as a presence, writer, person, and literary mind.
What’s collected in its 293 pages is a range of work all falling under mid-twentieth century cultural criticism’s auspice, as was the New York School’s purview: book reviews, letters, book reviews as responses in verse, art show reviews, letters, birthday notes, journals, interviews, obituary, remarks, portraiture, workshop and teaching notes, short scripts, introductions, travel notes, and the curiously titled “Longer Works of the More Academic Type.” The contents of this final section come from a folder hand-labeled with the above phrase that Berrigan assembled himself before his death. It’s a loose title, though each piece is saturated with connoisseurship, pith, and sometimes devastatingly funny cracks that even I understand, removed from the scene as most contemporary readers are.
One of the intimacies we see in Get the Money! is that such pronouncements aren’t saved just for the publications: critical assessments in the form of exclamations, annotations, or imitations also shape Berrigan’s thinking in writing. This is my sense of what’s going on with the previously unpublished “Litany,” which annotates remarks from conversation with, presumably, Bernadette Mayer—though this, like a handful of other pieces in this section, requires of readers some contextual guesswork through intimacy’s prism:
Berrigan’s prose, like his Sonnets, frequently takes the form of process-oriented expressions of deep textual and artistic study. Get the Money! offers readers the chance to watch Berrigan develop that skill over time, on and offstage, Desoxyn-driven or otherwise, late nights or long days, it kind of doesn’t matter: a real, and, as this collection shows, self-taught sensibility was at the fore.
Get the Money! collects Berrigan’s art writing, and it shows that in writing about painting, Berrigan practiced the interpretative clarity, instinctive feeling, and scrutiny that would eventually shape his critical approach to poetry. In the most apparent editorial intervention and important recovery of Get the Money!, the editors culled deep cuts from brief pieces to comprise the enigmatic “Sentences from Short Reviews.” As Nick Sturm explained in a recent launch reading, the editors compiled the piece through identifying the author initials “T.B.” in the pages of ARTNews archives. Berrigan had more in common with art and dance writers like Fairfield Porter and Edwin Denby than we previously could have known. Berrigan’s art writing, which he did for money, helps us read his poetry not just as method-driven collages or modulations of personal tone, but as faithful interpretations of experience rendered in sometimes abstract, sometimes representational terms.
Berrigan’s “Painter to the Poets,” a tender commentary on Jane Freilicher, very nearly—and I do mean very nearly, like one click away—compelled me to spend the remainder of my savings on one of her paintings currently listed on 1stdibs.com. He infuses each of his written forms with the meaning of his enthusiasm’s measure—short, long, personal, professional—just as the collagist sees materials’ potential distributed by creative utility, not just by an object’s conventional purpose. Berrigan cares about whatever makes the present feel like history, especially fun, important literary history. Myth-making requires reminders, and certain treasured names pepper Berrigan’s prose like a reflexive idiom. Obsessive enthusiasm, total devotion, true hype, and unvarnished disappointment are the most salient metrics in his responses to art and writing. The killer thing is that he’s just so startlingly correct, as when he makes his perhaps most intimate and most prophetic remark that “Alice Notley is even better than anyone has yet said she is.” Perhaps the crown jewel of this vatic ability is his review of O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, which is where you’ll find his god-level assertion that “It’s a great book! You won’t be able to avoid it.” Reading that review alone leaves me with a real hankering for what’s missing from the thoroughly sanitized reviewing practices we tend to enforce at present. Such consistently flinty reviews are almost categorically extinct. But that’s not his only mode: Berrigan’s more mannered treatment of F.T. Prince, which usefully includes a generous selection of a long poem, reminds me a little of Guy Davenport in tone. Willingness to learn through experiment, risk open proclamations, to relish humor, or to rely on your informed feeling for a poet makes for good and interesting poetry criticism. It also helps if, like Berrigan, you’re right more often than not.
Beyond the friendship affinities for which he’s best known, while reading Get the Money! I began keeping a list of other writers that Berrigan liked (Kenward Elmslie, Barbara Guest, Harry Mathews) and felt a little pity for ones he didn’t much (Norman Mailer, Jonathan Williams, Donald Barthelme). It’s just as instructive to come across his takes on the influence of Wallace Stevens, gradual acceptance of Charles Olson, and friendly hangs with Robert Creeley as it is to see his adoration of Anne Waldman (see “Anne Waldman: Character Analysis”), Eileen Myles, Tom Raworth, Anselm Hollo, or Larry Fagin.
Especially in his early New York days, Berrigan made his name as much by editing as by being a poet. Consider “Some Notes About C,” an account of the first prolific year of Berrigan’s influential literary journal. C Magazine existed to create what Berrigan wanted to see in the world: “And I intended and intend for ‘C’ to exist as a personal aesthetic statement by me. Etc.,” he concludes. The first issue saw four names in its table of contents: Dick Gallup, Ron Padgett, Joe Brainard, Ted Berrigan. C was a calling card at cocktail parties, an opportunity to forge contact with writers he liked, a way to publish himself, his heroes and his friends, and his first hyper-conscious intervention into literary history—“I was conscious every minute that my name was on the title page,” he wants us to know. Frank O’Hara read it; John Ashbery too. Both were in it to boot, and it brought Berrigan’s taste ever closer to the source.
A commonplace book is also a social history, and this wouldn’t be a representational volume without occasional hits of party reportage, seen especially in the popular demi-fiction “The Chicago Report,” or “Ten Things About the Boston Trip” and laced throughout Berrigan’s journals from the sixties and seventies. Berrigan isn’t quite as elliptical in his journals as Susan Sontag; as Alice Notley pointed out in a recent interview, the journals weren’t intended for publication. Nor do we see him here as narratively fulsome as Anaïs Nin. But there’s something privately kindred in each writer’s self-conscious identifications and stylizing in their respective diaries. You can teach yourself how to live as a literary person by reading this kind of work, especially by someone who himself studied and aspired to it—especially if you aren’t exactly born to high culture.
One winter evening in February 1963, Ted Berrigan made an aesthetic vow: “I want to write poems that cannot be understood until they are felt. They must be read, then must germinate in the brain until they flower. Then the [sic] will be apparent—but still they cannot be paraphrased with any meaning for others. Each reader must make something out of them himself, w/o effort,” he wrote in his private journal. And a little later down the page, the only entry from June: “No fucking makes for many Poems.” The Sonnets had been written but they weren’t to be published until the following year; C Press was just beginning. It might seem odd at first to think of Ted Berrigan as an outsider artist, even as he famously sent back his M.A. diploma, and even as his is one of the most beloved legacies of a twentieth-century poet whose life came to an early end. The Poetry Project and this newsletter itself, which he helped to found, guide, and edit in its early days, are part of his literary legacy (and from which several late reviews are drawn for Get the Money!). But he felt keenly that he wasn’t one of those “sophisticated sons-of-bitches, all these Harvard-educated poets who knew very well very talented painters,” as he says in an interview with Charles Ingham, with the exception of James Schuyler, whom he also admired, and O’Hara. Berrigan’s was a different achievement: he was a working class war vet from Providence, and he blew into the city an unknown fireball. Get the Money! makes immediate Berrigan’s quotidian world: the scramble for money, teaching gigs, and support, for childcare and domestic exchanges between friends and partners in loving notes and babysitting favors. This world would become the material particularly for women poets of that milieu, like Notley and Mayer. Taken together, Berrigan’s accounts model the life’s work it took for a working-class poet to become integral to the history of U.S. poetry. It’s a great book! You shouldn’t avoid it.