Ted Berrigan and the Nunguesser Poets*
by Ed Smith
This is what Ted Berrigan looked like in 1982-83 [Mark Hillringhouse photograph of him in front of Stevens Tech] when he taught English to engineering students at Stevens Tech under Ed Foster's care. Shakespeare said in Sonnet 71, "No longer mourn for me when I am dead." The same should be said of Ted Berrigan. We must go on with the work. Poetry. The War was raging in Vietnam and I was reading Edgar Allan Poe's "Lenore" or perhaps "Annabelle Lee" as my mind was wondering wonderfully. Then I read Ezra Pound and Marcella Spahn's Confucius to Cummings Anthology (New Directions, 1964) from the Clifton High School Library stacks. Here I got the poetry bug, so I wanted to write big poems, serious poems.
Then in 1973, I read Jack Kerouac's On the Road and that changed everything for me. Really it did. First, I read all of Allen Ginsberg's poems I could get at the Clifton Public Library (my home library). I interviewed Allen Ginsberg and his father Louis for my college newspaper The Beacon in 1974. Then I went to the Passaic Library (where I had a business card) and I read all of their William Carlos Williams poems which were locked up behind a large glass case. Then I started reading everything in sight including Mario Puzo's The Godfather, assorted short stories, and a lot of novels like Topaz.
While studying for my political science degree at William Paterson College, I ran into Mike Reardon, an English major, on The Beacon, where I had been the resident circulation manager for 4 years. Mike later became the sports editor for The Beacon. A year or so later, Reardon brought me around to Jazz, Etc., the music store, on a sunny day in North Bergen. He introduced me to this round heavy smiling 5'7" guy who was Joel Lewis. After introductions, we talked about Kerouac and the Beats. So, Joel points at this guy who is actually leaving the jazz store, and tells me, "STOP HIM! HE HAS THE LAST COPY OF DESOLATION ANGELS!" Like a fool, I ran after someone I didn't know who was boarding a bus to NYC. And what was I to do--tackle this fella? Luckily, he disappeared on that bus.
About 2 years later in 1975, Joel Lewis formed the Nungusesser Poets with Mike and me as the opening poets. Joel did not read in those days. He was MC when Mike was studying at Bath University in England. We had a real poetry reading in the basement of Joel Lewis' parents on 80th Street in North Bergen. Mike and I read while Joel encouraged people in the audience, including some of our professors at William Paterson, to read some poems. I even taped the evening. The reading ended with a Thelonius Monk piano key suspended in mid-air from the Straight No Chaser record as Mike's voice closed out the set with his last poem of the evening. We saw it as a gift from the Muses. A sign that we were poets.
About this time, Joel Lewis started writing mimeo books on Gaede's Pond Press. We were fooling around and not taking poetry seriously. Kevin was a friend of Mike and Joel's from North Bergen High School in the early 1970s. In fact, Kevin caught Mike's fastball as a catcher for the high school team. Mike tried to make it at William Paterson as a pitcher but he never made it past practice. No longer was the fastball enough, he needed a curve and his didn't curve.
The Nunguesser Poets knew each other from high school and William Paterson College. We would have a beer or coffee at local establishments in the area of North Jersey like Schaeffer's in Hoboken where Joel would get the Yankee bean soup and rye bread for 75 cents. We spent a lot of time in diners like the Tick Tock in Clifton.
About this time we would call ourselves by our literary names. I was Kerouac, Mike was James Joyce, and Joel Lewis was William Burroughs. We took these nicknames from our readings of their literary texts. We started to read our own poems at Lady Jane's Café on 70th Street next to Braddock Park. Some of us drank heavily, others wrote a thousand words, and some of us walked backwards. We were human beings first and poets second.
Let me give you some background. When I met Ted Berrigan, I was working as a shipping clerk at the Sanyo warehouse in Little Ferry. I was a card-carrying member of Teamsters Union 560 unloading stereos for mass culture. I was also studying to become a paralegal in January 1979. So I was still living at home with my parents in Clifton. My girlfriend, Sharon Arbo, who worked as a radiologist at Clare Maass Hospital, Belleville, moved to Boston. Every weekend I went to see her because she got a new job at Mass General. I would read short stories, Kerouac's Maggie Cassidy and any Beat literature like John Clellon Holmes' jazz novel GO! on the Greyhound bus north to Boston out of New York.
Joel had met Ted Berrigan at a bookstore on East 8th Street, NYC. Joel asked him if he could read at Lady Jane's in North Bergen for Ahnoi Magazine. He said sure. Here is a poster of that time with Ted reading in Hoboken with Harris Schiff.
On May 15, 1979 I met Ted Berrigan at Lady Jane's. Joel had arranged for Ted and Harris to eat some food provided by Jane. We told all our friends and passed a basket around, so we could pay Ted.
Joel introduced me to Ted that night and he autographed my copy of On the Road, the Viking Critical Edition which contained Ted's interview with Kerouac on page 538. This is the famous Paris Review interview of Kerouac in 1967. In the margins he wrote: "Here I Am, Ted Berrigan, NJ 15 May 79."
Of course, I had my own notes in the margins. My notes of this night are recorded as: "such a jovial man" and his words to me: "Don't believe all that Momism about Jack Kerouac. He was a French-Canadian Catholic who loved his mother more than Allen Ginsberg did."
Ted on William Carlos Williams:
"Breath unit" -- I don't know what it means. And I don't think William Carlos Williams knew either."
Ted on Jack Kerouac:
"You can not make Jack Kerouac a martyr for the Beat Generation. Read the books. Jack Kerouac, he was the real writer among us."
This was pretty much our conversation that evening.
By 1981 Ted had read at cafés in Hoboken, North Bergen and William Paterson College in Wayne. Joel Lewis and Mike Reardon had been dragging him and his wife, the poet Alice Notle, all over the New Jersey landscape for poetry gigs.
"You guys from Jersey are something," he would say.
We would always have questions and he would introduce us to writers we admired, be it at parties in NYC, his apartment at 101 St. Mark's Place, or in Boulder, Colorado. He was ready when we were.
It was in Boulder in 1982 that Joel Lewis and I became roommates for the Jack Kerouac Conference July-August 1982. Besides the Beat writers giving lectures there were poetry workshops Joel and I attended and we wrote our own poems. Joel was out in Boulder in 1980 to study with Ginsberg at Naropa Institute.
"Kerouac, he was the real writer among us, he wrote everyday. Some people thought he just wrote a book in 1 or 2 weeks and off it would go to the publisher. Not so."
More and more of Jack's writing has been coming out since Ann Charters did her Kerouac biography back in 1973. She recently edited a Beat Generation anthology. Plus, there are 25 odd books including poems, sketches, Buddhist meditations, jazz poems, etc.
Let's go back to Ted Berrigan for a minute:
"It's just the words, the words. Look at them," he would say to us guys, the Nunguesser Poets.
He would look at my poems at his apartment. Reading them over TWICE before returning them with comments. On a short story I wrote, Ted remarked: "This is brilliant! And illiterate. The mind boggles! Write some more."
Basically, Ted always encouraged the Nunguesser Poets to work harder. He took us under his wing.
How did a poem become a poem? We were raw and ignorant of the rules of poetics.
I would be amazed that Ted had read the science fiction of Phillip K. Dick, or a book on Lyndon Baines Johnson and that he would recite from memory a poem of Marianne Moore in the middle of a sentence. Which is hard because it would be in syllabic verse, and he would turn to me and say "Try this form," or "You like baseball... read Marianne's work and write up something." So I'd go home and read all of Marianne Moore and start a new poem based on Ted's idea.
When we took a trip to Storm King Mountain, Ted was having problems with his stomach so we stopped at the Red Apple on Route 17 to get Pepto-Bismol. He had written about Barbara Hepwirth and David Smith, the sculptors, for art magazines. As we walked he told me how he wrote for Art News 20 years ago and he was glad their work was at Storm King Museum.
On our way back from Storm King Mountain, he sang with his funny voice along with Alice Notley, Rene Ricard, Joel Lewis and me to Sonnie Terry and Brownie McGee's "On the Road Again." Boy, he loved that song. I had made a cassette tape for the ride up to the mountain and I had commercials, folk songs, Lorrie Andersen nonsense, Elvis, bits of WNEW-FM and WBAI-FM spliced in there. Ted loved that I edited music directly off the radio and placed Elvis next to folk tunes, and commercials next to rock n' roll music, all on one 90-minute tape.
In the four years I knew him, I had seen Ted mad only twice. Once in Boulder and once in New York. I had laughed along with other students at the Kerouac Conference over an old scratchy Hanover record of Jack Kerouac singing and Steve Allen playing piano, when all of sudden Ted stopped the record player and said in anger:
"That's fake hip. I'm tired of that.
What is so funny? Literature is NOT
funny. Poetry is NOT funny
It isn't NOT funny to be a poet.
Isn't not Funny to be alive.
tho' it is pretty funny!"
Again, laughter filled the seminar, but he had made his point about the craft of poetry and the seriousness of writing it on a daily basis. He was very serious about literature. He wanted you to know he knew how to take apart a poem.
Yankee Cap Day May 1983. Mark Hillringhouse, Gerry Bernard and I were returning from Yankee Stadium after sitting in the bleachers watching the Yanks lose that afternoon. We brought Anselm and Edmund, Ted's two sons from his marriage with Alice Notley to the game. They were 6 and 7 years old. Today, they are 20ish poets with books out from Henry Holt.
The last time I was to see Ted alive was Thursday night, June 30, 1983. Anselm and Edmund were at camp. I was excited that my new poems were done. I brought some beer for Alice and myself. Ted insisted he pay for his Pepsi. I supplied the chocolate chip cookies. Funny, I thought we were so happy, joking around.
Ted went to the bathroom and did not come out. Alice said he had been doing that for more than a week. "Good night, Ed. I'm reading your poems," he said behind the closed door.
"He IS reading your poems, Ed," Alice said, reassuring me everything would be okay.
"Okay, I'll see you two soon," I said, as if that particular day would never end.
Ted Berrigan passed away on July 4, 1983 in New York City. Dave Righetti threw a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox that day. Ted would have felt proud the home team won on his last day on Earth.
* "Nunguesser" was the Dutch name of what is today North Bergen, NJ and home of a current bus route which Joel Lewis (founding member of NPoets) still rides.
BROKEN NEWS || CRITIQUES & REVIEWS || CYBER BAG || CYB FI || EC CHAIR
FAREWELL, GREGORY: A POESY BURST FOR CORSO || FICCIONES || THE FOREIGN DESK
GALLERY || LETTERS || POESY || SERIALS || STAGE & SCREEN || ZOUNDS
©1999-2002 Exquisite Corpse - If you experience difficulties with this site, please contact the webmistress.