The World's Furious Song

Ted Berrigan - "Red Shift" (3'01"). I first heard this incredible track when poet and editor Peter Gizzi was working on the cd that shipped with the first, and as it happened only, issue of the Exact Change Yearbook, published by Naomi Yang and Damon Krukowski in 1995. Berrigan recorded the poem at Naropa in late July of 1982, a little less than a year before his death on Independence Day 1983, and the performance unfolds as an intense self-elegizing aria with twelve or thirteen discrete parts. It starts hesitantly in the present (a bitter, windy February night in one-tree-to-a-block New York City) before drifting back to a "now" that is "twenty years ago almost," the moment of the poet's introduction to a world that simultaneously impressed and daunted him, the world inhabited by Frank O'Hara, Allen Ginsberg, and eventually himself and his own (unnamed in the poem) friends of the second generation New York School. When the cigarette reverie breaks, the poet catalogs everything that, at age 43, remains "up in the air" for him, everything swirling and burning "now more than ever before," including "love / children / hundreds of them / money / marriage, ethics / a politics of grace" (lineation follows audia transcript not print version). His point is that "nothing [is] wrapped up / nothing buried," and from that pair of nothings forward the poem is governed by negations, first in the triptych of portraits offered between 1'15" and 2'05" ("not that / practically a boy...," "not that pretty girl...," "not that painter...."), then in the brusque beating back of an insipid pop song that threatens him with mawkish solace, then in the tremulous and angry passages in which death's imminence (its immanence too) is palpable even in denial. The emotion that has been audibly rising since the question "when will I die" was posed at 2'14" explodes in the fourteen-second passage beginning "I am only pronouns / and I am / all of them," the heaving emphases landing as often on function words (all, this) as on verbs like the "change" in "I came into your life to change it." The final ten seconds of the poem are among its most poetic, in terms of diction, and complex, in terms of action: the poet's death is figured as a stealing away softly into the air (recalling the lines about O'Hara's death earlier), a disappearing act that leaves behind, like a last work, that empty "costume" (clothes, body) through which the wind, "the world's furious song," flows. • "Air" is the key lexical-conceptual element of the poem (we hear it four times in the first eighteen seconds of the poem, twice by itself, twice bundled with other syllables, the penultimate in "February," the first in "arabesque"), but it's the vowel sound in "lot," "nothing," "song," and especially "softly" that channels the choked-back sob that is the affective core of the performance.

More Berrigan at PennSound. Berrigan soundfiles at Ubuweb. Berrigan's author page at EPC. The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan from University of California Press. And John Palattella's excellent review of same for The Nation back in January. Berrigan on

Wednesday -- 31 May 2006 -- permalink

The Lipstick of Noise is a product of the Third Factory • Inspired by the music blogs • And by Paul Blackburn's reel-to-reel deck. Intending to make good use of PENNSound and other sources of digital audio files of poetry • Comments welcomeXML.