I’ve played Irish music and written poetry for most of my life, but have generally kept these two worlds separate. A major exception to this practice took place at St. Mark’s Church in lower Manhattan on November 10, 1982, when an Irish-American night at the Poetry Project (organized by my friend Bob Callahan, who passed away last year) took place. Bob asked me and a number of other poets to read, and also invited my band, Celtic Thunder, to play a concert set after the reading. In addition to Bob and me, the line-up included Maureen Owen, Robert Kelly, Susan Howe, Eileen Myles, and Ted Berrigan. It was a historic night — I’m not sure Irish America has seen anything like it before or since.
A friend of Bob’s, whose name I’ve forgotten, took some photos that night, and for reasons I don’t recall, Bob gave me a contact sheet. The photo above is from that contact sheet and shows, left to right, Ted Berrigan, Maureen Owen, Robert Kelly, me, Bob Callahan, and Susan Howe (Eileen Myles, for whatever reason, is not in the photo). At that point in our history, Celtic Thunder included Dominick Murray (guitar, vocals), Linda Hickman (flute, vocals), Tony DeMarco (fiddle), Jesse Winch (bodhran [drum], bouzouki), and me (button accordion). Tony was sick the night of the reading, but the photo below (taken by the late Pat Cady) shows Celtic Thunder's 1982 line-up at a ceili in, I think, Baltimore.
There were many great moments that night at St. Mark’s. I especially remember Eileen Myles striding to the microphone dressed as a Catholic schoolgirl, much to the delight and enthusiasm of the audience, and then delivering a terrific reading. Everyone, really, was at his or her best. But the highlight for me was Ted Berrigan’s uproarious and masterful performance.
Ted had a huge number of friends, fans, and followers, attracted by his charisma and humor, but most of all by his deep love and commitment to poetry and his inventive, expansive, inspiring work. Michael Lally (who, if he hadn't moved to L.A. back then, would certainly have been part of the St. Mark's reading) turned me on to Ted’s book The Sonnets in 1971, right after I moved to D.C. from New York, and I was hooked. Besides the night of the reading, I think I met Ted only one other time, in October of 1977, when Doug Lang invited him to D.C. to read at Folio Books, the site of Doug’s legendary reading series. Ted hung out for a couple of days and we got to know each other a bit. He even signed my copy of Red Wagon with “For Terry, whose poetry I like very much, best, Ted Berrigan.” That was a compliment I was happy to get.
About four years ago I bought a CD recorder so I could start
digitizing some of my old LPs, which I never got rid of, as well as hundreds of cassette
tapes, mostly from the ’70s and ’80s, stuffed into empty tissue boxes. Last week I digitized the 1982 reading. I’ll include Ted’s segment (in two parts that
overlap: Download Ted Berrigan 1, with intro by Bob Callahan; Download Ted Berrigan 2). Ted once said, in an interview: “My poetry is mostly talk, and
sometimes it’s heightened speech. It’s
not the words of rhetoric so much as the tone of rhetoric; it’s an Irish kind
of speech—sometimes I’m making speeches, other times I’m talking—like I’m talking a walk to the store to buy the
paper and back.” You'll see what he means when you listen to his reading.
On July 4th, 1983, just eight months after the Irish-American event, Ted died, at age 48. What a tremendous loss this was. There was a memorial reading at St. Mark’s four days later in which a number of his friends (including Kenneth Koch, who concludes his remarks with a reading of the last two pages of Ted's "Tambourine Life": Download Kenneth Koch remarks) paid tribute to him. I digitized that tape yesterday, and was halfway through the process before it dawned on me that yesterday was the 26th anniversary of Ted Berrigan's death.
-- Terence Winch
(ed. note: This post originally appeared on July 5, 2009.)