Nov. 15, 2003

Last Poem

by Ted Berrigan

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Poem: "Last Poem," by Ted Berrigan, from Nice to See You: Homage to Ted Berrigan (Coffee House Press).

Last Poem

Before I began life this time
I took a crash course in Counter-Intelligence
Once here I signed in, see name below, and added
Some words remembered from an earlier time,
"The intention of the organism is to survive."
My earliest, & happiest, memories pre-date WW II
They involve a glass slipper & a helpless blue rose
In a slender blue single-rose vase: Mine
Was a story without a plot. The days of my years
Folded into one another, an easy fit, in which
I made money & spent it, learned to dance & forgot, gave
Blood, regained my poise, & verbalized myself a place
In Society. 101 St. Mark's Place, apt. 12A, NYC 10009
New York. Friends appeared & disappeared, or wigged out,
Or stayed; inspiring strangers sadly died; everyone
I ever knew aged tremendously, except me. I remained
Somewhere between 2 and 9 years old. But frequent
Reification of my own experiences delivered to me
Several new vocabularies, I loved that almost most of all.
I once had the honor of meeting Beckett & I dug him.
The pills kept me going, until now. Love, & work,
Were my great happinesses, that other people die the source
Of my great, terrible, & inarticulate one grief. In my time
I grew tall & huge of frame, obviously possessed
Of a disconnected head, I had a perfect heart. The end
Came quickly & completely without pain, one quiet night as I
Was sitting, writing, next to you in bed, words chosen randomly
From a tired brain, it like them, suitable, & fitting.
Let none regret my end who called me friend.

                        —Ted Berrigan

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1763, the surveying of the Mason-Dixon Line was completed after four years of work. It was named for the surveyors who did the job, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. The line was commonly seen as the dividing line between the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War. But originally, the surveying was commissioned to settle a border dispute between families who owned land in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

It's the birthday of American poet Ted Berrigan, born in Providence, Rhode Island (1934). His sister Kathy said, "[Ted] didn't put on airs. He was the older brother, dutiful son, interested in little things around the house, local gossip. He was interested in you." He served in the Korean War as a sentry, went to college at the University of Tulsa, and then went to live on the Lower East Side of New York City, where he met up with poets Ron Padgett, Joe Brainard, and Dick Gallup. To get by, Berrigan wrote papers for students at Columbia; bummed money from friends; and stole, read, and resold books he couldn't afford to buy. He would walk as fast as he could from one movie theater or art gallery or museum to another, and liked to stay up all night long drinking coffee and talking with friends. He and his friends would quote from the work of their favorite poets—John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Shakespeare, Dante. Ron Padgett wrote, "We had become living anthologies of literature, striding, excited and harmlessly obnoxious, through the streets of New York rejoicing!" In 1962, Berrigan married Sandy Alper after a courtship of only a few days, and they had a son the next year. Berrigan wrote in a letter to his wife, "I have no money, only New York, and Dick and Joe and always and ever our love. And because of that this life is all good. The hospital, your mother and father, the deputies . . . the private detectives, the people outside I have not met yet, it's all somehow good in spite of itself."

Berrigan started work on his innovative collection of fourteen-line poems called The Sonnets the next year. He wrote the first six sonnets in one night, and then he wrote two or three per day for about three months. Some of the sonnets were made from lines of poems he or his friends had already written, some were translations of poems, some were completely new. The Sonnets was published in 1964, and it was a big success. Berrigan later said, "When I came to New York I hadn't written anything good at all. I came to New York to become this wonderful poet . . . to find a way to work at it. That only took about a year and a half, then I wrote this major work and there I was. Just as I thought I would be, in my inane stupidity." He went on to teach and write poetry for thirty years, until his death in 1983, at the age of 48.

It's the birthday of artist Georgia O'Keeffe, born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin (1887). She's particularly well known for her giant paintings of flowers, though she once said, "I only paint them because they're cheaper than models and they don't move." She worked for years teaching art at various colleges but found herself unable to spend time on her own work. She said the smell of turpentine made her sick. When O'Keeffe finally returned to her artwork, she painted in a totally new style. She said, "I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me . . . shapes and ideas so near to me . . . so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn't occurred to me to put them down." O'Keeffe married the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. They lived together in New York, and it was there that she started to paint the giant flowers for which she is known. She said, "Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not." On a trip to Taos, New Mexico, O'Keeffe grew to love the desert, which she called "the faraway." She felt that the thin, dry air enabled her to see farther, and she was awed by the seemingly infinite space that surrounded her. She would devote much of the rest of her career to painting desert scenery. O'Keeffe said, "I know now that most people are so closely concerned with themselves that they are not aware of their own individuality. I can see myself, and it has helped me to say what I want to say . . . in paint."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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