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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ann Arbor Elegy, for Franny Winston Died September 27, 1969

(“El” Second and Third Avenue Lines, Bowery
and Division Street, New York, 1936
, by Berenice
Abbott, 1898-1991, American photographer)

In 1964, the American poet Ted Berrigan (1934-1983) published The Sonnets, his collection of sonnets re-invented into a modern expression of the personal. Berrigan acknowledged the influence of diverse poets like Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot and Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. He also felt free to play with syntax and diction, to reflect the simultaneous structure of events in time.

The verse below, a sonnet with variations in length, rhythm, and rhyme, is a good example of how Berrigan uses free association to tell the story as seen from the middle of it all.

It is an informal elegy, a lamentation for a vibrant life now lost. In a sonnet workshop, Berrigan explained that he was “trying to make a very mild poem. . . . that would be an elegy, and the elegiac touch, is perhaps only in the tone, in the mildness, and in the kind of vowels that are used — and then in the fact that it ends in something that you could use in a newspaper.

“I didn't read in the newspaper that Franny Winston had died, but rather I had read that [the boxer] Rocky Marciano had died, in a plane crash in a field in Iowa.

“So, reading of his death made me write a poem about her death, which was on my mind. The sonnet seemed to me a proper vehicle for this, that is, to write an elegy, and at the same time, to write a poem in which I was making the events happen in the present, even though obviously I wasn’t writing the sonnet while they were going on. And finally, there was the transference of having read something in the newspaper about someone’s death who was not the person I was writing about. Again, the sonnet form seemed to allow me to do all those things.”


Last night’s congenial velvet sky
Conspired that Merrill, Jayne, Deke, you & I
Get it together at Mr. Flood’s Party, where we got high
On gin, shots of scotch, tequila salt and beer
Talk a little, laugh a lot & turn a friendly eye
On anything that’s going down beneath Ann Arbor’s sky.
Now the night’s been let to slip its way
Back toward a mild morning’s gray
A cool and gentle rain is falling, cleaning along my way
To where Rice Krispies, English muffins & coffee, black
Will make last night today. We count on that, each new day
Being a new day as we read what the Ann Arbor News has to say.

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