Hun 18, 2013

Or, Berrigan and the Whale

3 Pages
by Ted Berrigan
for Jack Collom

DE— Let me just say that my heart skipped a beat when Berrigan's list mentioned the Hunt for the Whale. I read Melville in my youth when no teacher required it of me, and it was one of my greatest reading experiences. In fact, when the line struck me, the whole poem was suddenly flooded by the novel's immense waters. Even the title reminded me of Ahab's own 3 "pages," Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask, petty officers and middlemen on this the grandest and most foolish of ventures.

AN— the first part of the novel is encyclopedic, a sort of melville's a dummies guide to whales, whaling, and the color white (that last part is my fave). formally, they're essays. if i remember right, there should be a good handful of lists in the pequod: what to do with blubber, what to do with whale parts (look up cassock!) and others, a lot of how-tos here and there. starbuck was the most practical of them, the least metaphysical, and he must be partial to these lists. of course ahab would dash them all and have it his way! he has his own list. and his methods of staking the ship to his own TO-DO, his theatrics, his mythic references, that sinister, inert doubloon!

AN— schopenhauer sounds right in this case. perhaps not only in our reading of the poem but also in berrigan's writing of it.

[A post was deleted]

DE— Ahab's mission, and this list of ten things to do. They're a whole universe apart in terms of grandeur and scope and yes time (and diction, as I think you're pointing out too). Though they're both America, that much is true. And maybe I'm forgetting (and you've reminded me) that the creation of this poem is itself the hunt for the whale.

AN— it could be a key to this, i agree. one among many, i'm sure bec of the nature of the poem, but still, a welcome entrance!

DE— The last lines after NO HELP WANTED doesn't seem like things you do every day. There's the heart attack, the medal of honor, the house in the country: these are things to aspire to, such that every day builds up to them. I guess in the back of the psyche there's something that gnaws, a less obvious, less acceptable desire, something more Quixotic (forgive the mixed references though I'm fairly certain Melville the sailor was likewise referencing Cervantes the sailor), therefore more grand than any desire. Still, there's that other thing. Ahab was all about revenge. Could this be the hidden motive (motif) of the poem? Berrigan's revenge on US conservatism (prosaic, sorry!), it's pretensions, how if it has any greatness in it, you'll find it solely in the shortcomings? For some deep yearning here is unanswered (WCW on the poem: for lack of which people die miserably every day). Which brings us back to the port of poem as whale as poem.

AN— and maybe beyond the revenge of the poem is the vindictive life. like Berrigan was saying something like: I won't get with your program folks! my poker, my lunch poems these fly in the face of your congressional medal of honor!

DE— Forgive the re-post here; I'd like the Mates in my ship as well. I tried to read Berrigan by using the 3 MATES of Ahab (as you suggested). There's something there, though not so clear-cut, but perhaps the others can make more of it.

Here it goes. Melville's Pequod is a ship of symbols (although it can be read as a driven narrative even without any eye for allegory, we thus have movies of it here and there) and as such is a very symmetrical construct. The 3 MATES can be read as the stages of the human brain: 1st mate STARBUCK is the voice of reason, the schooled one, a pragmatist at heart. 2nd mate STUBB is much less refined, but in moments of clarity he embodies a folk sort of wisdom. Nevertheless, he's more Gung-Ho and is thus more open to the seductions of Ahab. But 3rd mate Flask has practically sold his soul to Ahab even without him asking for it, and since it's clear we're moving down the brain here, Flask is more bile and vengeance; he really takes the whales personally.

Beer? Jack off? Curse? Probably Flask. hunker down, quite merrily, life goes by: We could probably get a whiff of Stubb's pipe here (though he seems to be smoking with Flask in the earlier parts too). Which means that the last, where happiness is not happiness but something negotiated with weather (sails?), that could be Starbuck there, the only dissenting voice when the ship went mad with Ahab's bloodlust. He's the one with his eye still on Mary, his wife, their "house in the country," their nameless son.

But all of their tempers and powers taken singly or together: NOT ENOUGH

DE— Others in the forum say that it's part of the incompleteness, the "NOT ENOUGH"

Poem says that it's a list of 10, but it doesn't always add up (though it depends on who's counting), almost always amounting to but nine items. In the anthology, it physically takes 2 pages, though it says three. So 3 pages follows that logic. (An aside, Calvino's "Six Memos" contains only five, suggesting we write the last one, perhaps that's the case here too? Add your page. Or add your thing-to-do?)

The others cut the poem into three, following the sectioning suggested by those phrases with purely capitalized letters. What do you think? Perhaps there's an important 3-page document somewhere in American history we should know about?

Anyway, I'm glad to have to think on it/ of it. Hope this helps.

DE— Hi! It's an idea I got from your 3 ages thread. I hope I didn't misquote you. But yes, put like that I see that it somehow not only "clusters" but "furthers" all the cutting that's already been done in/by the poem.

AN— a very good idea. the more you read it that way, the more the 3 "sets" or "pages" distinguish themselves from each other

DE— True and tragic, how the persona "can't even find that wholeness in the lifestyle of other Americans." He lists everything that everyone else is about but comes out empty-handed. Even with fame and security thrown in at the last breath.

AN— perhaps because fame and security was offered in the list? maybe that made it worse somehow?

DE— It's hard (for me) to put the whiteness of the whale out of the picture when inside North Am Lit, but because Berrigan does it in cuts he could evade full reference (as an epigram wouldn't, or a direct quote) and that sometimes makes for more richness, a more textured reading. Perhaps the "paging" I did with the mates was a stretch as well. But it was such fun doing it.

AN— the openness of a cropped line is interesting. that's probably why I loved not only following Tzara's instructions but reading the works of people who did. and now that Berrigan gives us a project like this, it's wonderful to welcome all associations in the tapestry of meaning

DE— Ishmael as the sailor behind (or grafted into) Berrigan's persona, that's promising. What a bummer to miss this, so: thanks! Ishmael's more laissez faire, a down and out man, going where the wind would take him. Melville must have been trying his damnedest to draw a blank of a character, someone who'd soak in the whole Pequod, all its men and methods then live to tell the tale. Ishmael is a survivor (the survivor) of the mad quest, and his presence could change the motif from revenge to just pure survival, openness, going at it one day at a time.

AN— she is on to something. Pip also is mad(dened) enough to deserve a second look as an intertext of this poem

AN— hegemonic parameters of quality? are you saying they are the gold standard of poets of the time? and that they are oppressive somehow as influence goes? if i hear from you, thanks

DE— I do love Berrigan too. He and Corman and Armantout, they're great "finds" for me, and only made possible by "This".

AN— perelman too now, and bernstein and hejinian

DE— I saw this a bit late, here's the summary of some hypotheses offered earlier:

1) NOT ENOUGH. 3 Pages makes you look for a page that isn't there (the poem takes up only two in a book), the texts and contexts from which these lines have been cut. It highlights the insufficiency of the list, perhaps also of listing, maybe of poetry.

2) 3 SECTIONS. Some believe that lines such as "BY THE WATERS OF MANHATTAN" cut the poem physically into three.

3) That the title refers to 3 PAGES known only to Berrigan (and other such "hidden" readings).

AN— or there are (at least) 3 ways of looking at everything here. maybe read/ lunch/ poems are three pages more than enough!

DE— Thanks!

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