Critics Page

Anselm Berrigan

Why & Now

The distinction between private and public registers has always been hard for me to find, & I think the specific logic of address often takes care of it as a non-distinction, however accidental, unknowing, or haphazard the insistence of that invented logic gives itself off to be. When John Wieners writes to himself under the guise of Vice President Gerald Ford thanking him (John) for congratulating him (Ford) in 1974 for his new post in a piece called “World War I Historical Text” (from Behind the State Capitol, a hard-to-find book that, as I’ve heard it, was published by the Good Gay Poets Press in Boston, which had their building burned down by arsonists, along with much of the book’s run) he uses Ford’s voice, which is his own, to cut across registers and be being told by a U.S. political demi-power that one day you wake up and find yourself saddled with a mental illness. It is a plain, complex, profoundly civic instance in an astonishing poem that is a formal letter that becomes a collage in prose that breaks into a poem before the actual signature of Ford ends things. It’s all these things in progression and of them at once, while somehow always feeling untouched upon reentry, no telegraph. It closes and opens all the way through, at its own pace. I don’t understand its strength, and I know it exactly inside the experience of reading with it. I have pushed myself to get involved with works that insist upon their need to address multiple urgencies, univocally and poly-vocally. I respond most to the ones that go into and hold up time, rupturing, ignoring, and otherwise disobeying its pretense. Time is so fucking pretentious. Or at least it’s weirdly amusing to say so, when you know we dive into it, in the writing, which is performing itself as such way before it gets out to some version of the public. The reading, that performance, out loud or internally, is bound up with a dare to get lost, which is why playing at readings so often leaves everybody outside as shared experience, but not on the outskirts of anything, unless life overwhelms the voice into letting the poems, in time, take over. Harryette Mullen’s long poem “Muse & Drudge” is one of the great works of the twentieth century, or perhaps any century—and if you dare to give in to what it does, you’re always going to know it’s coming from her, and you’re always going to know she’s channeling some kind of many, and that singularity and multiplicity is the combined action that turns everything on, inside. And none of that prepares you for how it sounds. Fake news is a loose form for repurposing intention and situation that’s always kind of good for poetry, if reactivity is where is you look for openings. But I think reactivity is just one more space in which we posture for crumbs, and a few cool costumes aren’t worth the entry fee. For all the troubles we carry, I fear most our capacity to train ourselves into creatures consumed by the horrible truth. I write poetry because now is always a means to address possibility on the move, and to diminish truth as a frozen, powerful thing. That it’s one of the few ways I feel most used, in the best ways possible, has something to do with it too, that why.


Anselm Berrigan

Anselm Berrigan is the Poetry editor at the Brooklyn Rail. His next book of poems, Something for Everybody, will be out later this year from Wave Books.