Ted Berrigan on Jack Kerouac – 1

Ted Berrigan (1934-1983) – photo: Mark Hillringhouse

We’ve featured here on the Allen Ginsberg Project many transcriptions of presentations from the 1982 Jack Kerouac conference at Naropa (celebrating 25 years of On the Road) but Ted Berrigan‘s hasn’t been among them. So, to right that wrong.

Ted’s class begins with an aborted attempt at playing a record of Kerouac reading (Jack Kerouac & Steve Allen – Poetry For The Beat Generation (1959)) but it’s scratched and it skips and it’s finally all too much. Here’s a cleaned-up version:   

TB: Don’t let it worry you, (sic), just listen anyway ….. I’ll see if I can’t fix that a little better in a minute. That wasn’t really…  That was for me. I mean,  I haven’t started yet, but that’s a piece that Jack (Kerouac) wrote for a magazine, when he was writing a monthly piece. I think this was in Escapade magazine, April 1959. In other words, it’s an occasional piece, he just wrote it and the… All this stuff hasn’t been published yet (1982), except here. Sometime it will. [Editorial note – this piece was subsequently published in Good Blonde & Others (Grey Fox Press, 1993)]. There’s a ton of brilliant material by Jack still to be published. And I’ll play some more of it and I think I can make it not have those cracks in it too (sic) .But I want.. I was hoping that that crack hadn’t extended to this one place where.. 

Alright, I can’t read it like Jack, (but) I’ll see where I can.. I’ll tell you what the words say.

(Ted begins reading) – “The tune they were playing was All the Things You Are . . . they slowed it down and dragged behind it at half tempo dinosaur proportions – changed the placing of the note in the middle of the harmony to an outer more precarious position where also its sense of not belonging was enhanced by the general atonality produced with everyone exteriorizing the tune’s harmony, the clunk of the millennial piano like anvils in Petrograd –“Blow”, said Diz, and Charlie Parker came in for his solo with a squeaky innocent cry. Monk punched nervous anguished nub  fingers crawling at the keyboard.”. etcetera….

So let me repeat that one part  – “ they slowed it down and dragged behind it at half tempo dinosaur proportions – changed the placing of the note in the middle of the harmony to an outer more precarious position where also its sense of not belonging was enhanced by the general atonality produced with everyone exteriorizing the tune’s harmony” 

That’s it. That’s it. I listened to that with a friend named Lee Crabtree (who’s dead now, who was a marvelous musician) and, we were.. (we used to listen to the records a lot), and we were.. we were in this transpersonnified state on this particular occasion (that is, we were high), and I said.. (I mean, I understood it in terms of being.. Lee said.. (and we’d listen to it before too, but when he’d finished, when Jack said that part), Lee said, “That’s exactly right” – just like that – (and, oddly enough, (I’m not a musician, you know, but, I mean), I too understood what.. that a poet, not..)  I also understood it in terms of the fact that that was just what he was doing, he was doing there, too. Now, I advise you all to do that in your works as well as all the other things you do. I mean when you have works to call upon, you do that, do that…

Student: There’s a record (Amiri) Baraka (mentioned) called “The Hunt” that Neal Cassady and Jack (Kerouac were bopping to on the road. It was popular in 1948, It’s been re-released,.You can get it now  It’s Dexter Gordon and  Wardell Gray and Hampton Hawes, and all those guys

TB: All those guys, yeah. Dexter Gordon, Dexter and Wardell. – But you see – and this is not a class on Jack Kerouac or even a workshop on Jack Kerouac, but – Jack was an artist (Neal (Cassady) was not an artist, that is, I’m using the word “artist” to define “writer”, and in this case to define “prose writer”, and I suppose this piece is an essay maybe?, a think piece. And it’s necessary to keep clear, you know, to clarify your terms, when you can, as precisely as possible, so that you do know what you’re talking about, so that when something is poetic you don’t say it’s a poem. You understand the poem is made, you know.. You know that, when you’re asleep under a tree and you have a good night’s sleep, you don’t say “my new house is a lot better than my old house” (except if you want to be poetic!), but I mean, it’s not a house, you know, it’s a tree! I mean houses have mice and rats and things like that in them, and trees just have crickets under them, for one thing!   

But, no criticism of Neal implied, but, Jack was the writer. And Jack did not write the way Neal talked, or the way Neal wrote letters, or anything whatsoever.. He just wrote – (and he heard that other stuff – and it changed the way he had written before), tho’ in some ways it didn’t change it that much, it gave him permission to write faster, and his natural tempo was much faster than when he had written The Town and the City.  And I sometimes wonder, sometimes think about, how many poets, for example, those poets in the universities, with suit-coats on, (some of whose works I like very much, nevertheless..), how how many of them broke their own hearts fighting against their own natural tempo and pace in order to write what was supposedly the right tempo and pace for English-American Literature.  

You have to write, you have to make your work at your own pace (that is, you have to insist on that, to begin with). From there, you should be good enough, you should get good enough, where other peoples’, other good artists’, other tempos, are available to you too. I mean, you don’t want to be monolithic all the time but.. and you do want to.. You don’t want to be a solipsist, you do want to have other people in your works, other voices, etcetera, but it has to come out of you  – where it comes onto the page in words is some place in-between (but on a different level) –  how everything comes into you and it’s all there, and its doing whatever and comes out of you. And the written thing is neither of those two but it is the art. It’s made of word – word (one word after another). And some people you can say, well, they do it in phrases, others, others are beautiful writers of sentences. Some are actually… some are simply beautiful writers of one word at a time.

Everything is alright – and difficult. It’s also easy. Writing is easy. Why people become poets is because it’s the easiest kind of writing to do, (as I said).  Also, just to warn you. Jack had something, Jack had a gift that…. one of those kind of gifts that don’t show up in the species too frequently, so don’t compete! – don’t even try to do it his way – do it your way, but.. but, try to understand it in words, where it’s possible how to say what you hear that he’s doing, because that’s what..  (as he’s doing there) as he’s trying to say what he was hearing from another art.

Jack Kerouac, 1959, Photo: John Cohen

 Jack used to be put down a lot by jazz buffs because he was… I mean, they thought he was not too hip in certain ways, you know, because he was not a “cool”  listener, you know – Jack was always saying “Go”, you know.  And I heard lots of people say, “He was always saying “Go” when nothing was happening, man, up on the stand” –Oh no, something was happening! – It just wasn’t the thing they were interested in. I mean, I never heard any musicians complain about Jack. But I heard a lot of hip people say that Jack wasn’t hip.  Hip? I mean!  You think you’re hip?, try to talk your way out of whatever you did wrong when you’re talking to the policeman.

Whereas he can reach in your hip pocket.  But the policeman is not the guy who’s supposed to reach in your hip pocket for it but someone up higher. I mean it’s difficult to be hip. It’s difficult not to be, too (because everybody knows something). But, as Frank O”Hara once said, “I am assuming that everything is alright and difficult”, okay? I mean that’s what it’s like to be a poet, for example. Everything is alright because it’s easy, it’s fun, there are people that like it, you know, you can come and sit up here and be a great guy or.. or you can come and sit out there and be digging everything, you know, but you can’t make a living, so you’re never sure if your work’s any good or not. I mean, you never can really know.

Again, as I repeated, as I said yesterday, and Morty Feldman the composer said to Frank if Frank were.. if Frank O’Hara were alive and talking to Morty while Morty was writing this eulogy for him, Frank would say, “Morty, never mind this gossip stuff – did I do it?” – You know, and he’d still only be having to take Morty’s word for it. But, yeah, he did it. Jack did it. I mean, it is beyond question, he did it. But, I mean, as for oneself, you can’t use the word “did” ever, see?  because you’re not dead. So, just like, you did that, and you did this, and you did that – but did you do it, you know? did you do it consistently or did you.. how much of it did you… did you do a.. you know..  where were you in all that? But Jack did it..

You can’t do it like Jack. You can do it like you. You can be informed by Jack (which is why we like to talk about him, I mean he’s a great source of information). There are others. It’s up to you to find them, ones who are that for you, Nothing is wrong if you learn everything about writing from some supposed terrible boring academic poet, that doesn’t matter, it’s you as what you learn and what you write), or if you learn it from some horrifying beatnik, it still doesn’t matter, it’s what you write.

And Robert Lowell will say “I learned everything from William Carlos Williams”).  And Allen (Ginsberg) will say, “Good God, what did you learn?”! –  I mean.. but I mean.. No, it doesn’t matter, and besides, he probably did learn everything, and besides, he’s.. Lowell was pretty good too (whether anybody likes it or not, you know) and I mean, in case you wanted to know if anybody was any good or not, you know, ask somebody that’s good, and about half the time, they might, you know, if they’re a person of  some generosity of spirit, they’d probably tell you, (even if they don’t like to think so themselves).

All this business of keeping score, you know and knowing who’s good and who isn’t and all that, fuck it man, you know, I mean, that’s automatic. All those that are no good, why are you thinking abut them? I mean, even if they’re famous. Don’t worry, if they’re really no good they’ll disappear after a while. And even if they don’t, so what?  You know.. I mean, why are you going to be mad at them? Because they’re taking money out of your pocket?  How.. that’s not why you do it. I mean, you want to get some money in your pocket, get some. If you have a talent for it, you’ll get some. If you don’t, you’ve got a problem, but you’ll solve it some other way (ask Allen for some? – only, not this week, but, you know, don’t do something silly like put everything off for five years, or, you know)…

All you have to do is be a good poet, that is a poet that writes poems that work. (its from, like, whatever time you start being involved in that), is to read, you know, about… (I don’t want to sound like I’m making fun but..) I mean you need to read about a hundred poems a week, and write about a hundred poems a week, for about seven or eight years, and pretty soon you’ll be doing it now and then, and maybe you’ll be doing it a lot, and you’ll have periods where you do it consistently, and other periods where you don’t do it very much, but..  And then, like, your first, out of your first ten poems, three of them are liable to be terrific, and then you’re liable to not write any more good ones for five years! Don’t worry, I mean you ain’t getting any special credit for doing it anyway, so don’t let it worry you, you know.

And also, then, finally then be careful, pick your audience when you’re beginning. Don’t show your poems to your best friends because they’re your best friends, you know. That doesn’t mean they know anything about poetry, or even like it. I mean, be selective. Don’t show them to anybody if you don’t want to, but you usually need to show them to someone.  Try to find some company. Try to find someone, find some others, you know, close to where you are. I mean, showing your poems to some hot-shot poet isn’t going to make you any better, necessarily. It might be good for your character – (or bad for your character). No, other poets can’t fix your poems (or they can fix them, but then they’ll be a collaboration, not a poem by you.) Mostly, they can’t even tell you how to fix your poems. In fact, I’ve often been amazed at how stupid I can be when I’m telling someone that you’re not supposed to do something this way, but (that) you should do it this way. And then I look at that thing three years later, and my way was “the right way”, the conventional way, and made it be a lot flatter, deader, and not so interesting. Oh well, can’t win ‘em all ! – because I do give interest, which is nice. I mean I am interesting. You give what you can but..

to be continued

Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at the beginning of the tape and continuing to approximately twenty minutes in

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