Essay

Letters from a Young Poet

Lawyers and cops took Ted Berrigan’s wife away. Here’s how he got her back.

by Justin Taylor

The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan runs 749 pages, and yet I find that almost all discussion of Berrigan’s poetry begins with page 27 and ends with page 76—which is to say that people mostly talk about The Sonnets, or else they don’t talk about his work at all. Which is not to say that they don’t talk about him. In discussions of contemporary poetry and its major figures, Ted Berrigan is often mentioned, brought up, name-checked, or otherwise invoked.

He was a dedicated champion of the small journal and the chapbook press, editor and publisher of C magazine and C Press Books, and an early and active participant in the now-venerable St. Mark’s Poetry Project. There’s not an unworthy cause in that list, or anything that could be described as other than “a labor of love.” And yet, when we think of Berrigan we tend to think of the man who refused his master’s degree; who lived, breathed, slept, and smoked poetry; who objected to most employment as a matter of principle; who had a taste for amphetamines; and whose readings sometimes lasted and lasted (one imagines these last two factoids are correlated). The legend even includes a raucous crowd marching down 2nd avenue after his memorial, bearing as its standard a painting of the poet, stark naked. He makes a great muse for aspiring hipsters who want to move to New York and get laid and never work and write all day and steal from bookstores and be poor all the time but not care too much and stay up all night collaborating on rad projects with their awesome friends—but who don’t want to do all of this under the aegis of Jack Kerouac, like their lame-ass parents (and Ted Berrigan) did.

I think there’s a lot to be said for the tall tale of Ted Berrigan. Poets, no less than any other tribe—and far more than most—require elders to revere and rebel against, models to follow and break. Among the various things Berrigan can be understood to represent or symbolize, one that resonates strongly with me is his outlander origins. Berrigan didn’t come from the leisure class, didn’t go to an Ivy League school, and didn’t have any family money to fall back on. In these ways, he was in stark and stunning contrast to the New York School poets (mostly Harvard boys) whose work he stood in awe of, and whose praise and friendship he quickly won. While many of his contemporaries sought as much or little employment as they felt like having, Berrigan was always in dire need of work—and yet refusing to take any. You can call that foolish if you want to; you wouldn’t be wrong. But you’ll forgive me for thinking that the stance is also rather noble and, in its way, brave. After all, why should rich kids be the only ones who get to be starving artists? This leads me, incidentally, to the second thing I admire about Berrigan. Like Kerouac and Ginsberg, he’s an unabashed American Romantic—one whose myth is unsullied by selling out (like the former, who ditched the counterculture and became a Vietnam War supporter) or cashing in (like the latter, who oversaw his own protracted Disneyfication). There are far, far worse models for an aspiring poet to have.

Dear Sandy, Hello is a collection of Ted Berrigan’s letters, edited and introduced by his first wife, Sandy Berrigan (née Alper), to whom the letters were written while she was confined for two and a half months in a mental hospital in the spring of 1962. In addition to its superlative value as a sourcebook for the run-up to The Sonnets, Dear Sandy, Hello is an astonishing and powerful reminder of, as Sandy puts it in her introduction, “what could happen to a young woman in the early 1960s who went against the prevailing norms of behavior.”

Sandy met Ted through a mutual friend, Dick Gallup, while Ted was passing through New Orleans on his way to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to turn in his thesis. She was 19, a student at Sophie Newcomb (a women’s college), and he was 27. During the course of the week he spent in New Orleans, they fell in love. Here’s Sandy in her own words: “Being a virgin, though, I wouldn’t let myself get carried away. One evening we were horsing around in the Student Union when I found myself on the floor on top of Ted saying, ‘Would you marry me?’ Ted was game. He said yes. For me this meant I’d have to run away from college. My reasoning was that living with Ted would be far more educational than staying in school.”

She was more right than she knew.

They married in Houston, bought a copy of Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind as a wedding present to themselves, and then had sex (Sandy for the first time) in the bed of the woman they were staying with, an ex-girlfriend of Ted’s who later that night had to come join them in the bed to sleep—it was the only one in the house. The newly minted Berrigans went on to Tulsa, where they stayed with Ron Padgett’s parents and did the whole degree-refusal thing. (“I am a master of no art” is the famous punch line of this tale.) Then they went to Miami, where Sandy grew up, so Ted could meet her family and vice versa. Here’s Sandy again: “Things went poorly there. [. . .] My parents became frightened and irrational, and the next evening the police showed up and carted me off to the Jackson Memorial Hospital mental ward.”

From late February to early May, Sandy languished in the psych ward—perfectly sane, in every sense a prisoner—while her parents pursued an annulment. Because she was under 21, and therefore a “minor” in the eyes of Florida law, her parents had standing to contest her marriage. Her father, a well-to-do and well-connected physician, apparently had all the doctors at Jackson Memorial in his pocket; he also had connections in law enforcement. Ted was run out of Miami by the sheriff; later, private detectives hired by her parents tried to find evidence that he was involved in a drug ring (he wasn’t). Meanwhile, back in New York, Ted was writing to Sandy nearly every day.

My darling Sandy,

it’s April Fool’s Day, it’s raining out, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are being played over the radio, and I’m sitting here in my room with two April fools, Tom [Veitch] and Dick [Gallup]. Tom is reading my secret journals, looking for material to prove to himself that he is better than me, and Dick is reading a French article on poetry. Tom just gave me a picture he had taken in Chicago, to send to you.

It’s 2:45. All day every day in everything I do I find myself mentally writing a letter to you. By the time the end of the evening comes I have so much to tell you that I forget half of it. But I’ll tell you all of what happened today, or a lot of it, anyway.

And that’s just what he does. Reading these letters, you learn a lot about what Ted Berrigan was reading, thinking, eating, and doing. He was living near Columbia University and getting kicked out of one apartment after another. He survived on shoplifting, occasional work as a writer-for-hire of school papers, and handouts from friends. He was awed by Frank O’Hara, interested in Erich Neumann’s Origins and History of Consciousness and Listen, Yankee by C. Wright Mills, positively obsessed with George Bernard Shaw’s Quintessence of Ibsenism, and enthusiastic about the prose writers William Styron and Henry Miller. He was working on a loose translation (he’d later call it an imitation) of Rimbaud’s “Drunken Boat.” He had a stronger interest in theater—especially Martin Esslin and Tennessee Williams—than one might expect. He drank Pepsi for breakfast. He had a fondness for quoting his own verse. His mind shifted gears with disorienting speed. He had a hair-trigger emotional fuse and was disposed toward tirades.

Despite his furious and oft-expressed longing for Sandy (“I am your husband, your brother, your father, your child, your lover forever”), his equally bombastic fury at her captors, and his willingness to entertain any scheme to free her so long as it didn’t entail his getting a job (to try to convince her parents he was no “beatnik”), Berrigan wrote letters that essentially read like diary entries. It’s easy to start thinking of “Sandy” less as a person than as a narrative conceit—or to suspect that this is how Berrigan felt.

But anyone who has ever written to a person in confinement knows that what the correspondent wants more than anything is to hear about what’s going on in the outside world. To the prisoner/patient/exile, the mundane, boring details of daily life are suddenly the stuff of rapturous, engrossing fantasy, and so what scans as staggering self-absorption to me must have registered to Sandy as breaths of fresh air, dispatches from the free world: a lifeline. (Though, with that said, there’s really no disputing Berrigan’s egoism—it’s essentially the cornerstone of his legend, and the constitutive essence of every line of this book.) His epic lists of books read, streets walked, thoughts thunk, Pepsis drunk, papers and poems written, persons met, and films seen are all ways of reassuring the absent party that her absence is only temporary, and that in any case she is not forgotten. Moreover, for people as wholly and earnestly invested in art, literature, and philosophy as the Berrigans and their circle of friends were, to not fill Sandy in on all the discussions, developments, and breakthroughs would have been the greatest and most heinous crime—another victory for her wicked, fascistic, uncultured parents.

So if you’re reading this book and it starts to seem as though only a true sociopath would subject someone he ostensibly loved to a protracted consideration of George Bernard Shaw’s Quintessence of Ibsenism, do both yourself and Berrigan a favor and flip to page 233. There you’ll find about 40 pages of Sandy’s letters to Ted. Though not enough are dated, and too few exist to reconstruct the actual back-and-forth, they are still sufficient proof that Sandy was not a mere captive audience or a naif. She was an acutely intelligent young woman with an active interest in all of the matters under discussion. You read the letter in which Ted includes a copy of Quintessence of Ibsenism along with his affection, and you can only think, “Holy shit, now that’s true love.”

Sandy is also, in her way, the wiser of the two. Where Ted is boisterous, big-R Romantic, and easily distractible, Sandy is a stoic with a subtle but severe sense of humor. In a letter dated March 31, 1962, she writes, “It doesn’t torture me too much that you are out and free. At least one of us is and you share everything you see and do with me.” A few pages later, in an undated letter: “Because you write longer letters than I, I am including a picture of my room even though you didn’t ask for it.” Trapped between her evil parents and their bought-and-paid-for doctors on the one hand, and her angel-headed but materially ineffectual husband on the other, she’s clearly the only sane person in the entire situation—an irony I doubt was lost on her.

The book ends abruptly. One day the letters just stop. There’s a good reason for this—one day in early May, Sandy Berrigan got a good-behavior pass to leave the ward for the afternoon and visit the library. Ted, who had snuck back into Florida, was waiting for her, and they ran away together. Her parents pursued them to New York, where in mid-June Sandy was committed to Bellevue, then to a halfway house in the East ’20s. It took a court ruling on July 26, 1962, to declare her sane and free (cf. Berrigan’s “Personal Poem” and “Personal Poem #9”).

Her parents gave up, and the Berrigans belatedly resumed their life together. In November, Ted began work on the poems that would become The Sonnets. They had a couple of kids, and the marriage lasted till about the end of the decade—falling apart for good in 1969, according to Ron Padgett, whose “Ted and Sandy Chronology” appears as Appendix 1 in Dear Sandy, Hello. Many pressing questions are still left unanswered: Did Sandy’s parents ever come to accept Ted? Did Sandy ever forgive them for what they did? Why did the marriage break up? Did Sandy and Ted remain close, or in touch at all, for the remainder of his life? What has Sandy been doing with herself since 1962?

That Dear Sandy, Hello does not have a concluding essay by Sandy herself strikes me as a terrible omission. Her prefatory remarks are likewise too brief. I wonder whether this is the result of some misguided sense of modesty, or perhaps a desire to protect as much of her privacy as she can, in light of the incredible exposure she must endure in making these letters and this story public. Whatever the reason is or was, Sandy’s restraint only deepens her mystery. A silence abides at the heart of everything she says—what little she does say—and while this makes for readerly frustration, it also seems uncannily appropriate. Her perennial elusiveness is the dialectical counterpart to Ted’s incessant thereness. This is a sloppy, sad, and wonderful book about a pair of young lovers who completed each other—for a while.

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Originally Published: October 20, 2010

COMMENTS (7)

On October 21, 2010 at 8:20am J wrote:
Fantastic article. Thanks!

On October 21, 2010 at 11:29pm Tina wrote:
Glad I read this. Thanks for tweeting it.

On October 26, 2010 at 2:02pm terence winch wrote:
Excellent piece. Thanks for it. But I don't get the off-handed slight of Ginsberg, who, to the best of my knowledge, lived modestly & gave away most of his money.

On November 30, 2010 at 8:32am Lawrence wrote:

Your article, Mr. Taylor, did its job. I'm ordering several of Berrigan's books. Some of the comminisms you use are painful ("'Holy s**t, now that's true love'"), but, in light of the wonderful esteem you hold for Berrigan, they pale and blanch. I have to agree with Terence Winch's comment above (26 Oct. 2010). Although Ginsberg was much invested in promoting himself, I think his morals and ethics, universe and grandiose though they were (as well as tongue-in-cheek and humorous and wonderfully, redemptively self-deprecating in a communal milieu much created by himself and sustained by the group burgeoning out of this remarkable conglomerate of beatniks and such), are something you simply cannot cast aspersions upon. Using "Disneyfication" in relation to Ginsberg is hitting below the belt and with brass knuckles instead of a glove. Be careful before Allen makes you look silly in a very Karmic way. His spirit still moves.

On December 9, 2010 at 1:44pm Patrick O'Hayer wrote:
I knew Ted slightly when he taught in
Chicago in the mid-1970s, when Sandy had
been succeeded by Alice Notley. He was
sick much of the time and rarely showed
up for class, though once he brought along
Lawrence Ferlinghetti as a guest reader. I occasionally drove him to the currency
exchange to cash his check and I tipped
him on local dirt-cheap printing for a
chapbook he was preparing. Small services
to the art.

Cheers!

On December 19, 2010 at 7:44pm BaaBaaRaa wrote:
Yes, I take issue with the Ginsberg digs
too. I think he was an admirable man
and had the good fortune to see him
around the Haight in the 60s and
spend a day with him in the Santa
Cruz mountains once with my friend
Cool Breeze. I loved Sandy's book...
epistolary romances (even between
friends like Kerouac and Ginsberg)
fascinate me because they are so
intimate... but now I'm left hanging
with all the questions you've posed
about what happened to Sandy, etc.
Nice work you did here. Thanks. I
hope she writes a book explaining what
happened next.

On February 20, 2011 at 8:07pm Barg wrote:

I too was a Ted student, and some friends and I followed him back to NY and the Poetry Project after graduation. Was a great choice of things to do after graduation. For me, Ted was a most inspiring teacher. His workshops weren't slaughterhouses. The real genius of Ted as a teacher was his ability to exhibit to his students how to create and participate in a poetry community. He encouraged us to do reading series, publish chapbooks, and very small press magazines. He had us so involved in living as poets, that several of us actually became poets. His main teaching philosophy was to "be a poet" and one does that by writing, giving readings, curating readings, publishing in each other's magazines, and read, read, read. And show up for each other. Collaborate. That, for me, was the mechanics of his class. The soul of his class was his particular way of looking at the world and his great love of poetry and poets. He embodied a unique and authentic way of looking and paying attention to the big and the small that taught me a lot. Great sense of humor too. I still miss Ted.

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Biography

Justin Taylor is the author of Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, a collection of short fiction that was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. With Eva Talmadge, he is co-editor of the photobook "The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide." His website is http://www.justindtaylor.net/

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