Rejoice! Berrigan Is Back

May 23, 1994|By ANDREI CODRESCU

NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans.-- At last the works of my master and teacher, Ted Berrigan, are back in print. Penguin Books is bringing out ''The Selected Poems'' of Ted Berrigan, an event that sends a shiver of delight through his devotees.

Ted Berrigan was the poetic guru of my generation. Like Socrates, he taught in the agora, in this case the corner of 2nd Avenue & St. Mark's Place, where he could be often found, with a rolled-up New York Times under his arm, smoking a Chesterfield with a long ash that threatened to end up in his beard -- it often did.

When I could barely speak English, he taught me American. He pointed out what was specifically American in the poetry he championed, and he told me whom to read, especially his own masters, Frank O'Hara and Jack Kerouac.

Ted lived and made poetry 24 hours a day because he never seemed to sleep. The best time to see him was 4 a.m., when he shone most brightly in his apartment at 101 St. Mark's Place. When he died, his books were barely available, probably because most of them were published by small presses and

their runs were quickly exhausted.

From the mid-Sixties until the mid-Seventies, American poetry underwent a splendid transformation, leaving the staid pages of academic quarterlies and taking residence on the streets and in coffee houses. This transformation had in Ted Berrigan an immensely educated watchdog who made sure that the exciting populism was also formally brilliant and that the American language -- which he loved -- was furthered.

After he died, the excitement of the art seemed to die, too: it retreated between the faux-ivory (plastic, really) walls of MFA programs. But suddenly, America is once more in the throes of a poetic revolution; the coffee houses are full of young poets, bardic contests rock the bars, the human voice leaps off the pages and the street corners ring once more with red-hot language. And, appropriately, Ted Berrigan's poems are back in print.

TC E7

Andrei Codrescu is editor of ''Exquisite Corpse.''

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