—from Thus, &: An erasure of Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets
The following five poems are taken from an erasure of Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets. I used a procedure which erased each repeated word in the entire sequence in order to leave only those words that were graphically unique. By “graphically unique” I mean those words that do not share patterns of capitalization, italicization, or contraction with other words. Thus, in the second sonnet, the word “dear” is unique and is allowed to remain, despite the fact that the rest of The Sonnets repeats capital-D “Dear” eleven times, and all-caps “DEAR” four. The remaining words are in their original location in each individual poem, the text of which is based on the 2000 Penguin Books edition of The Sonnets, edited by Alice Notley. Thus, &: An erasure of Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets has as a companion piece, a sortable concordance of The Sonnets in Microsoft Excel.
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In this erased sonnet, the word “play” is conspicuous by its presence. In a sequence so intensely devoted to “play” as is Berrigan’s, that this word should only appear once—and only in the first sonnet—is striking, as though this one appearance were Berrigan’s quiet announcement of the activity of the whole. Cf. Alice Notley’s note on this sonnet “The author often said that the unnamed figure in this sonnet is Ezra Pound,” where the elder poet presides quietly, playfully, over the whole. Cf. also the suggestion of an ars poetica in the cluster of “architecture / Weave incidents / portentous.” While many of the lines in this first sonnet do not repeat, or do so only rarely, it does introduce the word “night,” which appears 32 times in the sequence, more than any other noun than “dream” (and not including pronouns). Also keep your eye on the missing words “music” and “day” (line 3 of the original).
As with the previous poem, the unique words in this sonnet hint at an underlying method to Berrigan’s project as a whole: epistolary generosity (“dear”), temporal awareness (“8 30 p m”), influence and appropriation (Ashbery’s poem title is still recognizable in the third line), pastiche and collage (“scotch tape notebook”) and amphetamine-fueled energy (“17 ½ milligrams”). The words that are missing also provide an amount of insight into the poem’s fascinations: “day,” which (dis)appears here twice, is another of the more frequent nouns in The Sonnets. The appearance in this poem of two “days,” after the “night” of the previous sonnet, announces the importance of morning, of dawning, to these poems. This insistence is more pronounced given the fact that, once we include graphical (“Day”) and lexical (“today”) variants of “day” and “night,” “day” becomes the more frequent noun (appearing 44 times). The word “green” also appears in this poem for the first of 29 times in The Sonnets, making it the most prominent adjective in the sequence. Scholars of the paragram may be interested to discover that the word “tree” (the most common concrete noun at 23 appearances) first appears in this poem inside “streel” and “streets,” only one line removed from the arrival of green.
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More ars poetica uncovered. Surprisingly, the words “wind” and “tree” remain unerased here in their possessive forms. As previously mentioned the word “tree” (with its variants) is the most common concrete noun in the sonnets; “wind” is also a heavyweight in the concordance, listing 23 occurrences, including variants. “tree” and “wind” occur in the original poem three times, and I find it fitting that the possessive forms of the two words remain in this erasure: they are isolated in the white space, which gives these words (and “wish” and “demand”) a visual prominence and allows this line to retain the force of the original (“The wind’s wish is the tree’s demand”). The erasure similarly allows the rest of the poem to open up into the white space, emphasizing latent insistences in the original. Here the middle cluster emphasizes the “aimlessness” of the wind’s “pulse” through the trees, and “Its patternless pattern” of “Letters birds [and] beggars” “awaits” the final words of the erasure, “Sensual” and “swaying.” The “patternless pattern” of words repeating throughout the sonnets is, like the pulsing interaction of wind and trees, that of an almost physical rhythm (a “Sensual swaying”). The procedure of erasure, as a sort of via negativa to Berrigan’s procedure of accretion, opens up the “patternless pattern” of the poems.
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Given that repetition is so conspicuously at work in The Sonnets, I was surprised to discover that only six of them (“Penn Station,” XV, XXI, LIX, LXIV and LXXXV) were completely erased; I was significantly more surprised that another six (XIX, XLVI, LXVIII, LXXI, LXXXII, and the one above) retained only one word. The reason for these single retentions is the slight modification, in each case, of the graphic mark—either a capitalization, a change to plural, or, as in the present case, a slight change in the word. The line in which “amongst” originally appears—“Where Snow White sleeps amongst the silent dwarfs”—is repeated in sonnets XIX and XLVI with “among” substituting for “amongst.” The isolation of this word “amongst” the otherwise white page draws the reader’s attention to its subtle difference from “among;” according to the OED, “amongst” differs from “among” in that the former “generally implie[s] dispersion, intermixture, or shifting position.” Thus, returning to the line as it stands unerased, we see that Snow White sleeping “amongst” the dwarves suggests a more sexualized and subversive idea of “sleeping”. Whereas when Snow White sleeps “among” the dwarves, we see her innocently surrounded by the careful protections of the dwarves; here, creepily, her sleeping is dispersed throughout them, her position shifting from one dwarf’s bed to the next. It is just this sort of repetition with subtle, supple changes to word order, word positioning, and word type that gives Berrigan’s project its pulse and power.
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Of immediate and apparent significance is the fact that the words “Final,” “Sonnet,” “telling” and “end” are unique only to this Final Sonnet. While “Final” might not be so surprising a word to escape erasure, “end” certainly seems common enough a word that it ought to appear at least one other time in the almost 9,000 words of The Sonnets. Its unique occurrence here, at the end, suggests that the “patternless pattern” works to it’s own aimless ends.
It is fitting then, that in this final erasure of the Final Sonnet we are still able to recognize Berrigan’s appropriation of Prospero’s renunciation speech in The Tempest. Shakespeare’s hand (his words, his signature) persists below the surface of Berrigan’s textual homage to and innovation of the canonical English sonneteer. It is equally apt that, while Prospero’s staff escapes erasure, his “book” does not. The absence of “book” in this poem returns us to its absence in the first poem (and in 17 other absent occurrences), again emphasizing the core of the graphic word. Still, this book is not without its “music” (although this erasure is—“music” is in the original after “heavenly”), another word appearing in the first poem.
Derek Henderson is working on his PhD at the University of Utah. His work can be found in current or forthcoming issues of Dusie, elimae, Bateau, Interim, Free Verse and Versal. He finds comfort and concord in Ted Berrigan’s assertion that “there is no such thing as a breakdown.”