TED BERRIGAN

from THE BUSINESS OF WRITING POETRY

 

Iíll tell you a story, actually, which you may know already. The Argentine writer Borgés tells a story about a man whose ambition in life was to write Don Quixote. What was that guyís name? Pierre Menard. And his ambition was to write Don Quixote. And Don Quixote had already been written. See. So there was a difficulty there. Not an insurmountable difficulty perhaps, but a difficulty. So he thought that what he would do would be to live . . . if I donít get the details of this right, if I get some details wrong, and you know better, donít correct me, pleaseóI mean itís how Iím telling it thatís important, not the story, I mean, for the purposes of this class. Pierre Menard thought that first the best thing that he could do in order to write Don Quixote would be to live the life of Cervantes. Now Cervantes was born in a certain place, so you know he couldnít really do that, but there were other things he could do. Cervantes had lived in a certain part of the world, he had been a soldier, he had been in prison, he had been on voyages across the seas and so on. Now this guy thought he would do all of these things. He would live as much of Cervantesí life as possible, literally all of Cervantesí life except for actual birth and babyhood, and then he would of course be able to write Don Quixote.
     But, of course, he soon realized, as one must realize it, that that would take too long. He didnít really have 40 years to spare, or 50 years to spare, to get ready to write Don Quixote. He wanted to write it right now. So, and thereís more to that, but the point is that he then decided that he would not do all that, he would simply write Don Quixote. Just sit down and write it. So, he wrote Don Quixote. Well, he wrote at least the first twenty pages. He may have written the whole thing. But, he wrote Don Quixote, and Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. And if I remember correctly, the rest of the story by Borgés consists of a word by word comparison & analysis to these two Don Quixotes. And now, they are exactly the same. The exact same words. Because they both wrote Don Quixote. But the point is, Borgés makes this clear in the critical analysis of the two Don Quixotes, that while the two books contain exactly the same story, in the same words, that Pierre Menardís Don Quixote is vastly superior to Cervantesí Don Quixote, when one realizes how ĎI difficult it was to write Don Quixote after the telephone, the airplane, trains, electricity had come into being. As opposed to how much easier it had been to write Don Quixote before the existence of these things. It is a point well taken. But itís not a very interesting point, otherwise. Whatís more interesting is that Pierre Menard did write Don Quixote.

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     When you begin writing, you donít know how to write. Presumably most of you have already begun, but itís never too late to begin over. I mean itís necessary to begin over constantly. And the best thing to do when you begin is to pick some poet whose poems you like, and imitate some. And then find other poets & other poems and imitate them. The worst thing you can do is to tell anyone who you are imitating. Because then everyone will think that all the good parts in your poems come out of being a good imitation. When, in fact, the exact opposite will be true. The good parts will come out of where you misunderstand entirely what the poet you are imitating is doing. & so write something that is completely dumb, but that turns out to be very good. Misunderstanding is one of the truly creative procedures in writing.
     In 1960 & 61 I wrote a bunch of poems saying "itís 5:15 a.m. in New York City & Iím doing this & that & now I think this & this & this, & next this happens, that happens, & in conclusion I can say blank blank & blank." I thought I was blatantly imitating Frank OíHara. But I was wonderfully dumb, and thank god! It turns out that when Frank was writing his poem and saying it is 4:16 a.m. in New York City, he meant that it wasnít 4:16 a.m. at all. It was a flashback. Whereas when I wrote my poems, whatever time I said it was, thatís what time it was. So, I wrote an entirely different kind of poem than he did, and not only that, but in the language of the critical periodicals, I actually extended a formal idea of his into another area, actually extended his formal idea into another place. And my poems were pretty good too. And in fact theyíre not very much like Frankís at all, because I was too dumb to be like Frank. But I wasnít too dumb to be like somebody. So I did that actually. All right. I want to read you a few poems that I think are amusing. The trouble with these two books isóI have two books that Iím going to read from. One is called The New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen, this book is out of date, generally, it was also better than 50% crap when it came out anyway, and a lot of it was out of date already then, too. But thereís enough in it thatís really great, that you should want to have it anyway. There are poems in here that will just survive, you know, and that are really very good. But if you discover this book newly and freshly and read through it, youíre liable to fall into the error of liking imitating all the poets in here that are horrible. Donít do that. Now itís important when you write poems, to write good poems. Better yet, itís not so important to write good poems, because, thatís what academics do; what itís important to do is write terrific poems. And thereís no reason why you canít do that. All you have to do is look at lots of poems by poets that are terrific, whose poems are terrific, and see what makes up a terrific poem, and then write some terrific poems yourself. Youíll have to use parts of the way that they did it, but you will think of some ways yourself. One way, for example, to write a terrific poem, is to have every line be terrific. As has been pointed out here I think, by some of the teachers, if you canít think of any terrific lines, just take them from other poets. I wrote a couple of poems by taking some translations of John Ashberyís and typing them up double-spaced, so that there was room between every line for another line. and then I wrote a line between every line, making my Line run into his next line. So that I was literally interrupting him. And then I retyped them and left out all his lines, and then I tidied up what I had, and what I had wasnít very good, but I was able to take some of it and put it in some other poems, some of it did come out very good. What Iím saying is that there are a lot of ways to write terrific poems, but thereís only one way essentially to write poems that are no good. And thatís to be not very amusing. And so donít do that, donít be unamusing. Donít write poems about how much you love your dog. Unless you can make a terrific poem. On the other hand, donít write poems about the death of your father unless the death of your father and how you feel seems much more important than how terrific the poem is. The only way you can make that be is by having the poem be so terrific that itís not noticed.

Ted Berrigan "The Business Of Writing Poetry" from Talking Poetics From Naropa Institute: Annals of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics Volume One, Anne Waldman & Marilyn Webb, eds., Shambhala, 1978.