DEAR SANDY, HELLO: Letters from Ted to Sandy Berrigan

Edited by Sandy Berrigan and Ron Padgett
Coffee House Press ($19.95)

by Cliff Fyman

Ted Berrigan's 1962 letters to his new bride Sandy capture the determined spirit of young lovers and poets separated from each other for reasons beyond their control; they also forcefully express the spirit of the times in which they are written, a time in which the Beat era was about to push forward and become the hippie movement. The message is universal: the young will always love those they want to love, despite the protests of their parents. The letters speak for a generation of youth who are aware of the hypocricies the older generation has settled for, and who aren't going to take it anymore.

The book is carefully organized in sections, the main body of which is Ted's letters of experience to Sandy; these are followed by Sandy's letters to Ted (a mixture of innocence and new-found experience), then selections from A Book of Poetry for Sandy, Ted's collection of his and his friends’ poems and photos, assembled March–October 1962. There are also three appendices: “A Ted and Sandy Chronology,” which clarifies the narrative drama that propels the letters; “Glossary of Names,” a guide to the relationships of people mentioned in the letters; and “Notes on A Book of Poetry for Sandy.” All combined, the book is an artifact that documents a highly fertile period of development by this second-generation New York School poet, the context in which it happens, and the many personal friends (and a few enemies) who are involved in stirring the pot.

In early February 1962, Ted rides down to New Orleans with Tom Veitch, and through Dick Gallup meets Sandy Alper, a nineteen-year-old student at Sophie Newcomb College. After a week they elope to Houston, where they marry. Next the couple pays a polite visit to Sandy's parents in Miami, and they have Sandy committed to a mental institute, figuring she has to have some loose wires if she'd marry a man who doesn't work—at least that is her parents' excuse for trying to annul the marriage. She is underage, and her daddy is a prominent Miami doctor.

These letters of passion and commitment come almost daily from Ted in New York City to Sandy in Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. During this turbulent stretch, the letters map what Ted is reading and thinking about in the nights and days leading up to his masterpiece, The Sonnets. It is a time when rents are still low, when painters, dancers, actors, musicians, and poets stay up and talk all night, when friendship and poetry mean everything.

In the March 19 letter, Ted writes for Sandy's understanding about the Theater of the Absurd: “The plot is either nonexistant, or else upside down and backwards. The idea is to make the audience view the old tireless problems with new eyes, a fresh approach.” At this time Ted's writing is breaking away from traditional sonnets, and one can read into his excited comments about theater the permission he is gaining in order to open up the boundaries of his own poetry. He quotes critic Martin Esslin:

If a good play must have a cleverly constructed story, these have no story or plot to speak of; if a good play is judged by subtlety of characterization and motivation, these are often without recognizable characters and present the audience with almost mechanical puppets; if a good play has to have a fully explained theme, which is neatly exposed and finally solved, these have often neither a beginning nor an end . . . these seem often to be reflections of dreams and nightmares; if a good play relies on witty repartee and pointed dialogue, these often consist of incoherent babblings.

On March 31 we hear about Ted’s experience sitting in on Kenneth Koch's class:

Koch lectured on Wallace Stevens, and it was the best lecture I have ever seen or heard on a poet. . . . He also read from The Tempest to show that Stevens writes language very much like Shakespeare. He talked about Stevens's devices, and he said that it is the surface that really makes a poet interesting. Because if you cut deeply into poets you find sayings, but on the surface is the way they say them.

Ted's new poems brokered a fresh, colloquial, heartfelt, spunky surface. Also affecting him was his attraction to visual art, as in his April 4 description of walking through the Museum of Modern Art with Joe Brainard, something they regularly did, and being delighted by a painting by Dufy: “Raoul Dufy has always been a favorite of mine. His color is so fresh, so alive, so airy. He uses a dominant color often in a painting, and shapes the painting to the color. His greens, his blues, his reds, always make me feel light and happy and healthy and like skipping rope.”

Dear Sandy, Hello not surprisingly reveals the formative literary works undergirding the poet as well. Ted’s reading list starts with Erich Neumann's The Origins and History of Consciousness, which he told Sandy “deals with the mythology of all peoples of all times,” and it continues with Tropic of Capricornand Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, George Bernard Shaw, his hero Frank O'Hara, Alfred Whitehead, Freud, Reich, and a brilliant list of avant-garde poets across time. His trunk-load of reading signals his brave endeavor to change himself, his poetry and the world around him. Such a meticulous, intimate record of impressons isn't matched today by email, so this correspondence might be among the last of its kind, at least for a while. In addition, letters to be received needed a home address. Ted moved around a lot near Columbia University, and his instructions to Sandy as to where to send mail create a portrait of his friends and comrades getting by with as little money as possible. When it's time to change apartments, Ted takes his books in a baby carriage down Broadway.

Dr. Alper hired Pinkerton detectives to dig up some dirt on Ted, which they couldn't do. Ted's outrage and protest are carefully voiced—in fact, the force of his argument is in how gentle and firm he is in knowing he's right. The attacks on his character don't faze him or diminish his love, but the narrative thread of patiently waiting for her release from the mental ward finally wears out, and Ted urgently writes on April 8, “Run, Sandy. Come to me, or let me come to you. Be my wife. No one, no one, will help us, except those who love us. . . . These people [the doctors, her parents] aren't playing games. There is no rule book. It's run or we both shall be wasted. And that would be a terrible tragedy.”

In addition to their emotional lovelorn narrative, these letters are valuable because they offer the reader a glimpse inside a poet's working furnace, just as he’s approaching the peak of his powers. Co-edited by Ron Padgett, who continues to dedicate his substantial literary skills to bringing his best friends back to life, these letters generously rekindle Berrigan’s spirit more than a quarter century after his death.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011