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Life Arts    H4'ed 12/16/20

Ted Berrigan and the Collage Sonnet: A Tonic for Our Fractal Times

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I. Why Collage? Why Berrigan? Why Now?

Ted Berrigan's collages are eye-opening stuff (ear-opening, too, if you listen to him, and others, read The Sonnets), and while I don't pretend to fully understand many of his connections and references, his technique already feels familiar. Maybe because | grew up in foster homes and moved schools endlessly, so that I lived a kind of dissociated, fragmented childhood, full of abortive memories, snapshot experiences, and life-gouging traumas, which has pre-heated my thinking and prepared me for the deconstructive punnery, iconoclastic juxtapositioning, and temporal relativism that Berrigan's collages suggest. Who knows?

Collage is a linguistic offshoot of the cubist tradition of artists like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who were interested in exploring the fundamental geometrical forms underlying 'traditional' representational art. Such cubism had two stages, an "analytic" and "synthetic," with the latter being the working modus operandi of the New York School poets-a stage "in which fragments of various objects are reintegrated into a new, self-consciously aesthetic object." It is out of the experimental work of such School poets as John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara that Berrigan emerged with his cubist collage sonnets, which at once rejuvenate the senile sonnet by tacitly participating in the form, while simultaneously re-imagining how stanzas, lines and meters relate and 'synthesize' with each other.

Collage poetry is also necessarily subversive, as it seemingly deconstructs and relativizes on the run, but still re-produces a coherent organic whole, what Marjorie Perloff says about pictorial collage principles equally applies to poetry:

...each element in the collage has a kind of double function: it refers to an external reality even as its compositional thrust is to undercut the very referentiality it seems to assert.

This approach supports a phenomenological understanding of how human experience effects and affects "reality."

According to poet and critic Timothy Henry's it is Berrigan's employment of "simultaneity" in The Sonnets that drives its inventive genius and makes it a true reinvention of the form. While an ordinary sonnet traditionally has a rather rigid interior logic and progresses along definite, predictable patterns, Henry observes that Berrigan's "approach to the sonnet eliminates these substructures and gives each line an individual identity." The net effect is that while Berrigan retains the barest sub-definition of "sonnet" -14 lines-whatever imagery or conceit or statement that is introduced in the opening line may or may not bear any direct logical relationship to what happens in the concluding line or lines, although there is, it appears, thematic cohesion. The effect of such atomic level collisions is a new acknowledgement of how form can strangle substance by locking it into a system of arbitrary (and authoritarian) rules and representations, as well as a new understanding of reality's natural simultaneity-our lives, our individual realities, are not an interlocking system of octaves and sestets and rhymes and meters defined only in the present, but a clash of memories and recollected perceptions, doubts, drives and desires. At the same time, Berrigan's collages are not "merely" free-associative or surrealist, because he is after all paying homage to the sonnet form even as he re-construes its boundaries and pulse.

But despite Berrigan's seeming nod to a fractured flowering that has its roots in the mixed soils of the French Symbolists, Imagists, Cubists, and creeping out of the rather artificial fissure separating the West Coast Beats and the New York School, and despite his seeming homage to the fractured everyday experiences of Jo Everyperson, there is, in this reader's mind at least, a question of Berrigan's accessibility to the contemporary reader. In short, Berrigan's not easy to fathom, even after you factor in biographical details, in addition to his literary lineage and philosophical influences.

Equally significant are the post-World War 2 times he grew up in, with the nuke, the militarization of the American political infrastructure during the Cold War, and the emergence of a true counter-cultural movement that rejected all the jingoistic memes and bromides offered up by various apologists and propagandists. It is one thing to download Berrigan's The Sonnets from Archive.Org (it's there in his Selected Poems), as I have done, for a hyper- structured reading experience, and quite another to read some of Berrigan's collage sonnets within the context of the mimeographed pages of Fuck You: a magazine of the arts, which I have also done. It wasn't just poetry; it was part of a social condition and a movement, which may be inscrutable to today's Facebook-Twitter generation.

In any case, given my own biographical details, literary and musical interests, and background in phenomenological studies, I find myself attracted to Berrigan's mode of 'synthetic' thinking, and so have chosen to give emulating his technique and procedure a go.

But one of the best ways of accessing Berrigan's collage poetry, becoming familiar with its unique rhythms and images, is to listen to it. Almost all poetry benefits from listening, rather than merely reading it as text. The Ancients listened to each other. There was no other option. Memory worked differently then. Not only for the orator, but the listener had to recall many passages already proffered by the poet. One can imagine the challenge to ancients who had to recall what Homer said yesterday and build upon it today and tomorrow. The Sonnets is available as audio at Archive.Org and I strongly recommend that you listen to the poems being read before going on to the text. Or some may want to go back and forth. Or you can play the embedded sample (5 poems above) to get a taste.

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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