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Berrigan Sonnet Collage Exercise

(An Aleatory Method) (pdf here)

In this exercise we create two poems with the material from one, learn how chance methods can enhance and inform our work, give us a better sense of how to break a line, if we don’t already know and provide another tool for organic composition. One of the most fascinating poets of the 2nd wave of the New York School is Ted Berrigan (1934 – 1983). Berrigan hung out with the painters of the New York School in the early 1960’s and was inspired by their collage method. His epic The Sonnets recycled old lines of his and repeated many lines and images. A friend of Frank O’Hara, he often used O’Hara’s I did this and I did that method of writing. Pop culture, music and other art references inform the poems, as does Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism. In the 2000 Penguin Poets edition of the book, his widow, Alice Notley, writes: 

There is a key line that occurs only once, in Sonnet L: “Whatever is going to happen is already happening.” It refers to Whitehead’s theory of time and states quite plainly how The Sonnets works, how events are forecast and then ripen, staying on as echoes, or as something built-in, through the use of repetition of lines. The line became sort of a motto of Ted’s later in life, since it also means “If you aren’t doing it now you won’t ever do it.” … Whitehead writes: “In organic philosophy the notion of repetition is fundamental.”

Here is how Berrigan used a particular collage technique in The Sonnets:

Berrigan Collage Sonnet Exercise

Notice the thrill of surprise mind (Ginsberg’s phrase) when we get the image of the narrator being washed by Joe’s throbbing hands. A love of literature, references to pop culture, a playful irreverence and a sense of being in the present moment informs this sonnet and the entire series, but I’d suggest it’s Berrigan’s talent combined with Whiteheadian reality that’s the key to its success.

To create a poem (two poems) like this, you start with going through your old notes, or old poems, or just use your memory. You can even take lines from other poets, but you may want to italicize those. Robin Blaser uses other writings extensively, but rarely cites his sources. He DOES italicize those stolen lines. Be sure to include many imagistic ones that encapsulate an image or perception in one line. Just write the poem first, going on your nerve, then do the collage, but keep the lines tight. Four to five feet is perfect. Sometimes Berrigan got away with longer lines. Here’s how I split up one of the collaged sonnets from my Tuscan Sonnet Ring:

Tuscan Sonnet Ring

So you write the poem, using an opening image or phrase to get you going. Like anytime you are writing organically, you can use the alluvial method when you get stuck, or you can pop in an old line, or a stolen one. Once the poem is finished (and you should be able to use the shorter length of the poem to help you feel the end) you can collage the poem, making two. You may want to have the collaged version appear first, or not. See what interesting connections, or shifts in meaning, are suggested by the new arrangement of lines. Collage can be disjointed, but in a longer series (Berrigan had 88 sonnets) the repetition can aid the enjoyment of those who aren’t addicted to reason and meaning, (not that you’d want to write for THEM anyway.)

Ted Berrigan on the Ideal Line Length

Ted Berrigan on the Ideal Line Length


peN 8:20A – 2.28.08