Bettina Drew: "Twilight of Two Poets"
This essay was presented as an Editor’s Pick, April 8, 2009.
New York in the early ’80s is the setting of Bettina Drew’s memoir of her brief acquaintances with poets Ted Berrigan and Elizabeth Smart. In this TMR online exclusive, Drew recalls her graduate-school workshop with the self-destructive Ted Berrigan, whose 1963 collection The Sonnets remains a classic of experimental poetry.
A year or so after Berrigan’s death, a fan letter Drew wrote brought about a meeting with the Canadian poet and novelist Elizabeth Smart, known best for her 1945 book-length prose poem By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, about Smart’s passionate but hopeless adulterous affair with British poet George Barker.
In recognition of National Poetry Month, we bring you Drew’s firsthand remembrance of two poets who, in different ways, were both “anti-materialistic and unconventional and believed in love and art.”
Twilight of Two Poets
A year or so after college I financed myself as a working poet with twenty-six weeks of unemployment insurance, finishing about twenty poems in a luscious daze, until the clerk at the unemployment office noted it was my last week. “What do I do now?” I asked, amazed that I could speak, and later I enrolled in an MA program in creative writing at the City College of New York and worked in the writing center.
A former union man, our boss padded our hours to give us a living wage, delivered timely payment and ran a peaceable and effective tutoring lab. He liked to hire literary types and capable but marginally unemployable people, like the gay Latino, Julio, funereally laconic but fine one-on-one and usefully bilingual. The poet Lee Slonimsky had long owed a mystery novel to Grosset & Dunlap, now defunct. The playwright Steve Meyers was proofreading at TIME. Vijay Seshadri, enrolled in the swankier Columbia University writing program seventeen blocks south, was enduring parental fallout after declaring he was going to be a poet. I achieved job success by being promoted to supervisor.
Though tenured faculty who published fiction and poetry sometimes taught workshops, with New York at its disposal, the CCNY creative writing program perennially hired big-name writers on contract. In my second year, a sudden departure or other calamity caused the program to be, as of August, without a prominent resident poet for the workshop. Things were bad all over; phone calls were made. Then the word came down proudly: Ted Berrigan, author of The Sonnets andRed Wagon and key figure in the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, would lead the workshop in time.
I waited for him outside the English Department with Michael Gorelick, a spectral Village long-hair publishing under the name of Sparrow. About forty-six, Ted described himself as “tall & huge of frame,” and as we introduced ourselves and followed him into the office, we saw the comfortable English professors very professionally refrain from taking a huge step back, because Ted looked like a biker. He had long, graying hair and a beard, clothes that were strictly thrift shop and thick, black-rimmed Welfare glasses. Profoundly anti-materialistic, Ted had no class pretensions whatsoever. He walked and talked with us much more than he did with the faculty, and he reveled in his fortune in landing so easily a gig as well paying as the one at City.
“They were in a jam, and I have it all down on paper,” he explained, palms up in conclusion. “Iowa, Yale, the whole bit. They were so relieved I was available that they hired me over the phone.” He loved being able to enter different worlds, as if poetry gave him a passport to many. Of a shortcut from the 125th A-train, where a friend had been mugged with a baseball bat, he claimed no fear: “They take one look at me and think about the next guy.” His workshop was distinguished by struggling guest poets he lured up from the East Village with modest department honorariums by way of sharing his fortune. He also played recorded readings by Frank O’Hara, whose death in a traffic accident fifteen years earlier he still mourned. When we asked about his work schedule, he said that he and his wife, the poet Alice Notley, wrote full-time by working most of the night while their two children were asleep. “They get themselves breakfast and come in and say good-bye before leaving for school, and then we’re getting up when they come home,” he explained. He was an excellent critic, taking care with our poems, and he honored me by handing me an original for the program’s literary magazine. It was handwritten in script in the same thin black magic marker he used for our work and was called “Whitman in Black.”
For my sins I live in the city of New York/Whitman’s city lived in in Melville’s senses, urban inferno, it began, and I had the youthful arrogance to question the second in and be instantly ashamed at his glower, which I sensed from his silence even before I looked up. Big Town will wear you down, the poem went on, but from it you could see the world from its center, the magic-marker script came down to it.
Hear clearly here, see with affection, bleakly cultivate compassion
Whitman’s walk unchanged after its fashion.
Though he didn’t exactly say so, I sensed that Ted felt my poems relied too heavily on angst and a bleak worldview, but I didn’t feel like venturing into dark territory with him. I soon found the happy talk and the sweating and the big pupils and the dining on Pepsis and junk food painful to watch and think about. Yes, he was living each day as he wanted to and celebrating life in his work, but looking at it from the dark side, he was destroying his life with speed. The pills kept me going, until now he had even written in a midlife obituarial. Other students noticed less his dilated pupils than his energy, but I noticed them and they angered me because I was still recovering from having someone I loved hooked on methedrine. Indeed, working four days a week ten to four at the Writing Center and teaching English at the college, I was trying to believe there could be happiness in a normally paced life in a one-bedroom apartment in the untrendy reaches of Inwood, Northern Manhattan. It was true that at the end of the week I bought liquor against the coming solitude, so Ted did have a point. But Ted was getting less reliable, and I couldn’t bring myself to work with him on my thesis because I didn’t want to watch him rush headlong into heart failure or have to deal with the already too-familiar and unreliable life patterns of the speed addict. So instead of working with Ted I worked with the faculty jazz poet, Barry Wallenstein, who could meet regularly and assure the completion of my degree by May. I felt that could not be done with Ted, though I know now that I was dead wrong. I knew I was making one of the more foolish mistakes of my life, but I simply couldn’t bear to stand before speed again; I had to have reliability. As a result I was forced to listen jealously to Gorelick’s tales of his visits to the Notley-Berrigan home, where Ted had, as he put it, verbalized himself “a place in Society, 101 St. Mark’s Place, Apt. 12A, NYC 10009 New York.”
The next spring, Ted died of heart failure.
The memorial at St. Mark’s Church was standing room only. The wake, in a surprisingly large old East Village apartment, was the best party I’ve ever been to, a place where I felt completely comfortable for hours and hours on end. Food, drink, talk, flirtation in the many rooms one could wander into without the slightest sense of intruding or bothering-it was lively and loving, and I met Anne Waldman and Anselm Hollo and Alice Notley, an Irish-looking woman with long, dark hair who for most of the party remained in a small pantry with a few close friends. I spent much of the evening talking to an attractive poet who turned out to be a very nice man, and later someone turned on the radical New York radio station WBAI-wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute-and Ted’s voice was right in the room. And soon there was laughter and cheering and hooting and whistling at the sheer happiness of hearing him again, as if he were still alive, as his poems were. I went home with the nice poet, and it seemed like a lovely way to end the evening: an ending that was, as Ted had written in the obituarial, “suitable, & fitting.”
A tragedy, a doctor friend remarked recently of his early death. Yet Ted lived fully the life he wanted and gave of himself as best he knew how until he couldn’t give anymore: Let none regret my end who called me friend.
Somewhere I found the Penguin paperback, and Elizabeth Smart’s prose poem By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Weptcompletely rocked me as a writer; I had never read anything like it. Told in the first person, it is the story of how a young woman falls in love with a poet through his work and invites him to America in 1940. He arrives with his wife but begins a passionate affair with the young woman. The wife is informed, and the pair takes off for New York. In a dream-like poetry the lovers, one English and the other Canadian, are stopped and incarcerated by Arizona authorities under the wartime Mann Act; they are separated, and the now-pregnant young woman writes feverishly in the months before the baby is born. InGrand Central Station the language is poetry, the narrative novelistic and the story memoir; it seemed to transcend all these genres. Though still obscure, it has been called a masterpiece; Elizabeth Smart was profoundly and deeply romantic in a way that her contemporaries Djuna Barnes and Anaïs Nin were not. I was so moved by the book that I wrote Smart a fan letter and mailed it to an address in England that I found in Contemporary Authors, but I didn’t hear back.
The winter after Ted died I received a reply from Smart thanking me for my note and saying that she would be in New York from Canada en route to England on such-and-such dates, and perhaps we could meet. I was amazed at my luck that a writer so accomplished would actually want to meet me, but she lived abroad and maybe didn’t know many people in the city. And some weeks later I met her at ten A.M. at her hotel on Waverly, right off Washington Square in Greenwich Village, which she confided was only twenty dollars, an incredibly savvy find. She was a small, slightly stooped woman at seventy; she had the beaten-down look of a smoker but a fiercely self-confident expression and an intellect that was apparent the moment she spoke. “We must see the Village bookstores, especially the Strand and St. Mark’s, and then figure things out as we go along,” she said brightly and took my arm, “and I want to hear about your work.” I was surprised; I thought that we would just have coffee. But we spent the whole day together, and after much book-looking I felt like the consummate New Yorker guiding her downstairs to a tiny and inexpensive restaurant right on St. Mark’s Place called EAT. There we continued the conversation that was mostly about poetry, and she was shocked enough to put her sandwich down when she surmised my ignorance of Stephen Spender.
I watched her as she reacted emphatically to nearly everything interesting we talked about or saw. “If you are the butterfly type you will never forgive my intensity,” she once wrote, and it was still true. Earlier in the day I had asked about her children, and it was if I had punched her, her face so collapsed in pain.
“My youngest daughter Rose died four years ago,” she said. I felt I had to ask how, and she said an overdose, and I felt horrible. For all her bravery, Elizabeth was extremely vulnerable. She had deftly procured a free and safe literary guide to the Village, accepting me as a fellow poet, though I had published very little. But at times during the day I felt crushed that a woman who had given the world such a tremendous gift should have no one more illustrious to see in New York.
“Oh, I could just tell from your letter,” she said when I confessed I was surprised and flattered that she’d wanted to see me.
I remember, as we walked the streets, a long conversation about Stevie Smith’s line “not waving but drowning,” which was not surprising considering how well Elizabeth Smart knew darkness. For she was the pregnant young woman in Grand Central Station, her lover the British poet George Barker, the wife Jessica Barker. In the late 1930s Elizabeth Smart, Canadian, aged twenty-four, fell in love with George Barker through the printed word and announced immediately that she wanted to marry him. In 1940 she somehow managed to procure funds for Barker and his wife to come and meet her in California. With Jessica’s knowledge but not consent, Elizabeth and Barker began a passionate affair and had four children in the next six years, a fecundity that for Elizabeth was the blessed fruit of love and desire. Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Weptwas published in 1945, when they already had three children, and she had high expectations for the book, despite its experimental style. But it was packed into fifty-eight tight pages because of the wartime paper shortage, and though Cyril Connelly saw her “genuine gift of poetic imagination” and “a deep candour in suffering which does not degenerate into self-pity,” it largely disappeared. Meanwhile, her mother in Ottawa called the book the “erotomania” of a Henry Miller disciple, burned every copy she could find and seems to have helped make the book unavailable in Canada for decades.
Even before her fourth child, Rose, was born, Elizabeth understood that George Barker was a faithless lover who would neither let her go nor commit to her, and her brain reeled from “the pressure of my captivity, and my helplessness.” She so loved Barker, who alternated between his two families, that she never seriously considered another man. “I am old enough to know that nothing I want will ever happen,” she wrote at thirty-one. “I might get a faded facsimile. . . . This isn’t at all enough, but I see I must make it do. I must. I see I must.” Barker, a full-time poet, rationalized his lack of financial support for Elizabeth and the children by believing her rich Ottawa relatives were helping her, though the rich Ottawa relatives had only once been rich and were appalled that by age thirty-one Elizabeth had had four illegitimate children. Supporting them at a London office job, Elizabeth saw very clearly that she was “spending my days punching holes in telegrams because of the consequences of my own desires” while her talent lay unused: “pressed below into unbelievable obeisance, lie mal-formed, undernourished wishes, starved, ill-treated.” She loved and wanted all of her children, but there was no time to write. “A couple of decades will see you out of this bondage,” she wrote with brutal honesty, “A couple of decades will bring honorable discharge.” Surrounded by her young, she had to “bash on regardless” and during the long months without George she developed a “newly-brightened eye” and made a fine cynicism of her despair. After fifteen years she broke with him and sent her children to good schools by working for London magazines. Later there was a kind of marginal retirement, in which she was able to publish a sort of sequel to Grand Central called, aptly enough, The Assumption of Rogues and Rascals. But after so much time away, writing was more difficult.
After Rose died, Canada suddenly claimed her as a national writer, and she took a prestigious university position in Toronto. It was an almost immediate disappointment. Place was important to her; she had lived in a converted mill and other nonconformist houses with access to the outdoors, but in Toronto she was housed in an unimaginative high rise where there was no poetry at all, and it was very cold, and easy to become isolated and depressed. She ultimately had a pleasant affair with a man there, but Canada had been in many ways a mistake, and she was happy to be going home to England.
She took my arm as we walked forward into the wind. “Listen,” she said conspiratorially, “I’m going to a dinner party tonight at the loft of a Soho painter, and I wondered if you’d like to come. I’m the guest of honor and can invite whomever I want. I would enjoy it because I don’t know the people who are hosting it at all. They’re friends of friends.”
And upon learning I could bring a friend, I called Peter Bricklebank, an English short-story writer and adjunct I had recently begun seeing. That evening he and I took the subway back downtown. When we reached the building we entered a big, hideously industrial elevator that clanked like it really needed service. As we reached the right floor the doors opened, however, into the huge space of a converted loft apartment with a wall of windows on the right and a sleek expanse of hardwood floor. A long glass dining table waited near a state-of-the-art and expansive open kitchen. The place shrieked of money, and our hosts, overly friendly sixty-something New Yorkers, were cooking up a gourmet meal. “Pour yourselves some wine,” they said, and I noticed that Elizabeth, slightly disheveled and smoking, had already started. The other guest was a friendly Scotsman who’d known Elizabeth for years, but I could see she was worried about being either bored or not tolerated.
“Be sure to see the paintings in the bedroom,” Elizabeth said with her back to her hosts, giving us a look of the utmost irony, and Peter and I wandered in. There was no white at all. Bright yellow walls were packed with large, primary-colored abstracts by the same artist, presumably one of our hosts. While we were looking at them the telephone rang, and in locating the sound I saw that the room was so highly decorated that even the phone was a sculpture, a huge and interesting black and pink thing by the bed. The room was a fantastic example of self-indulgence, and there was something awful about being there while Elizabeth, who had had to struggle so fiercely, sat outside in the sky-gazer living room.
Our hosts kept our wine glasses filled and offered fresh mozzarella so we could talk and walk around the rest of the loft while they cooked dinner. Mutual friends had asked them to cautiously look out for her, “as if I were an objet d’art entrusted to them,” she told us. The mutual friends had described Elizabeth’s talent very clearly and said she had finished a collection of poems and was working on a book about her mother. The hosts seemed a little in awe of her.
But awe was not the emotion that Smart inspired. It was something far more heart-rending. Though physically fragile, she was tough, deeper and more complicated than they sensed, with a smoldering hate for wealth and convention and its power to ruin people. Love had betrayed her, and poetry had taken a back seat to life, and as the evening wore on she drank more and often seemed close to tears. After the stuffed chicken and salad and more wine, she lifted a glass at the table and declared,”Love and poetry are the two great things in life!” We all cheered. I remembered “Whitman in Black” and said, “The late Ted Berrigan said the same thing: ‘love and work were my great happinesses.’”
That other people die the source of my great, terrible, & inarticulate one grief seemed too close to the dead to add on. And as the evening ended with many thanks, I had the sense that deep down Elizabeth Smart had lost the belief that anything really good could happen to her anymore and that “bashing on regardless” was a cloak or a habit rather than anything she thought could fix her heart. Two years later, I learned that she was dead.
Aesthetically and intellectually, in almost every way, as poets and people, Smart and Berrigan could not have been more different. Ted also had children, but the “cruel sexual bargain” does not at all seem to be the subject here. Both of them were anti-materialistic and unconventional and believed in love and art and are connected in me to a certain time in my life, but that is not the subject either. Nor is it tragedy, or the deep need of writers to verbalize themselves a place in society or to be invited, as Elizabeth never was, to take a seat at the table. In the end it is always, always, always about love and the lack of it.
Bettina Drew is the author of a biography of Nelson Algren and a collection of essays,Crossing the Expendable Landscape, both of which won special citations from PEN.