Elegy for Minor Poets: Writing on the Margins of Midcentury Greatness
In “Elegy for Minor Poets,” from his 1948 book Holes in the Sky, Irish poet Louis MacNeice mourns the many ways fame can elude writers of verse. A champion of the literary underdog, MacNeice salutes those:
Who lived in the wrong time or the wrong place,
Who might have caught fire had only a spark occurred,
Who knew all the words but failed to achieve the Word—
But every so often a name that seemed doomed to permanent erasure finds itself inked onto a fresh book cover. Such is the case with a couple of “minor poets” of two major American poetry movements, the New York School and West Coast Beat writing: David Omer Bearden and Alan Bätjer Russo (pictured above, the former in color).
These friends and artistic collaborators—who died in 2008 and 2003, respectively—each recently had paperback editions issued by Rosace Publications, a fledgling small publisher in northern New Jersey. Russo’s State Line: Collected Poems and Other Writings debuted last year, following Bearden’s poetry collection The Mental Traveler (2018) and his experimental novel The Thing in Packy Innard’s Place (2019). The volumes represent the first full-length works ever published by either writer.
For students of mid-20th-century American poetry, the books offer an expanded view of milieus remembered for figureheads like Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and Ted Berrigan, a leading voice of the New York School. Nick Sturm, a lecturer at Georgia State University and a New York School scholar, has been interested in the Bearden books in particular.
“Bearden is definitely someone who is this ghostly presence in the background of my scholarship,” Sturm told me during a phone call from Atlanta. “So it’s interesting to find more about him.”
Sturm first encountered Bearden’s name when reading Berrigan’s The Sonnets. The 1964 book is widely considered a foundational text of the New York School, a term that has become shorthand for a circle of Manhattan creative types upending artistic conventions beginning in the 1950s.
Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery were two of the set’s best-known poets, while Ted Berrigan and friends joined later, mingling a chatty, personality-driven Expressionism with the experimentalism practiced by composer John Cage and other avant-garde artists of the period.
A profuse soup of proper nouns and in-group references, Berrigan’s The Sonnets epitomizes this style while offering an intricate portrait of the social world from which it emerged. And Bearden is among the prominent characters wending through the collection, named in three different sonnets.
Sturm was intrigued: “Who was this guy?”
Bearden’s name popped up elsewhere in Sturm’s research. Ron Padgett, another acclaimed New York School poet, mentions Bearden in passing several times in Ted, his 1993 memoir about his friendship with Berrigan. More significantly, Bearden’s poems appear in various underground “little magazines” that became crucial arenas for the development of New York School aesthetics. But without any books by Bearden, and precious little information about his life, Sturm turned his attention elsewhere.“Somewhere between Blake, Hank Williams and Homer, David Omer Bearden traveled a poetic line and gave himself over to it.”
Thanks to Rosace—which along with publishing his books has created an elaborate biographical website for Bearden—the elusive poet has come into clearer focus.
It turns out that Bearden emerged as a poet in Tulsa, where he kicked around with Berrigan, Padgett, and Joe Brainard—another beloved New York School artist and writer. As high school students, Padgett and Brainard founded the White Dove Review, where they published poems by Bearden, Berrigan and other now-celebrated writers, including Jack Kerouac and LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka), among others.
When Berrigan, Padgett and Brainard moved to New York in the early 1960s, they became known there by older members of the New York School as the “Tulsa School,” a tongue-in-cheek moniker meant to poke fun at the literary establishment’s need to taxonomize writers.
Bearden followed the trio to Manhattan, where he was at the center of the creative activity that would mark the so-called Tulsa School as a major force in New York. In fact, it was a Bearden poem—along with one by Berrigan—that sparked a major student free-speech protest at Columbia University. And it was that event that inspired Berrigan to found C: A Journal of Poetry, which through 1967 published a who’s who roster of the era’s “major” writers: Jones (Baraka), Ashbery, O’Hara, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, among others.
“C magazine redefines what avant-garde poetry magazines do in the early and mid-1960s in New York City,” Sturm told me. “It was a big moment, and Bearden’s right there with it.”
C’s origin story begins in early 1963. That year, poems by Bearden and Berrigan were set to appear in an issue of Columbia University’s Columbia Review, where Padgett was an editor. But the Columbia Dean’s office, upon reviewing page proofs, demanded that the Bearden and Berrigan poems be removed due to foul language.
Berrigan’s “I Was Born Standing Up” contained the lines, “‘Go Fuck Yourselves, You / Motherfuckers!’” Bearden’s poem—loquaciously titled “The Desk is a Frozen Sea and He Strains to Sing About Time and Age Alas His Heart Will Break in Three and a Line Trickles Out Onto the Page”—features a man begging: “‘Let me shit, / O God, why do you make me whine.’” That man then “makes one tortured turd which tears and hangs / bleeding into the blank snow.”
Enraged at the dean’s conservatism, the Columbia Review editors resigned in protest. They published the issue using a mimeograph machine, retitled it The Censored Review and sold it to students for 25 cents a copy. In a typed remembrance Berrigan recorded in “Some Notes on C”—a digital copy of which Sturm shared—he described “a furor of activity” surrounding the protest, including coverage by television news and “the Post” (presumably the New York Post). The events inspired Berrigan and a friend to found C, which he hoped would embody “the NEWNESS of such a point of view as we (I) had.”
Not only did Bearden’s poem help ignite C and push forward the “mimeograph revolution” in publishing, but Sturm credits Bearden with being a formative influence on Berrigan’s poetics and, by extension, on the entire New York School—which arguably reaches into the present via The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, where Berrigan read and taught. By that measure, at least, Bearden’s writing is worthy of consideration:
“Without David Bearden you don’t get Ted Berrigan, in some sense,” Sturm said.
Padgett, on the other hand, begs to differ. To call Bearden integral to Berrigan’s development would be “misleading and specious,” Padgett wrote in an email. “Dave was an early influence, but Ted was going to be Ted no matter what.”
Asked what he thought of Bearden’s poems and why he chose to include them in the White Dove Review, the Columbia Review and The Censored Review, Padgett declined to comment.
Bearden was notoriously pugnacious, crafting a persona that Padgett described in his email as “an outsider/outlaw poet [that] might have impressed Ted” when they lived in Tulsa. But the charm apparently wore off. In The Sonnets, Bearden strikes a mercurial figure, by turns arousing Berrigan’s fascination and neurotic fixation: “I wonder if David Bearden still / dislikes me,” he muses in sonnet 76. Berrigan also dedicates “Doubts” to Bearden, a bitter lyric that suggests animosity between the two:
Don’t call me ‘Berrigan’
If ever you touch me
Rivers of annoyance undermine the arrangements
Yet Berrigan named his first son, David, after Bearden, which Berrigan’s first wife Sandy confirmed in a phone call from her home in California. Aside from Bearden having once been Berrigan’s “dear friend,” Sandy said she couldn’t remember anything about him. “I didn’t know him well at all,” she said.Dumont thought of Bearden like “the fifth Beatle, the guy who quit the group right before the band got famous.”
Alice Notley—among the nation’s most revered contemporary poets, Berrigan’s second wife and mother to poets Anselm and Edmund Berrigan—did know Bearden. She met him at least once in the early 1970s, when she and Ted Berrigan were living in Chicago.
“He called and asked to stay with us for one night, on some journey,” Notley recalled in an email. She remembered less about Bearden’s poetry than his preoccupation with his girlfriend at the time, the folk singer Judee Sill.
“He called her St. Jude and played us her album and probably was trying to make Ted say she was great … I remember nothing being discussed except for her,” Notley wrote. “[T]hat’s probably what he was like when Ted was close to him—romantic and obsessive.”
While Notley said she had no idea why Berrigan and Bearden’s friendship fizzled, she agreed with Sturm that Bearden was a meaningful presence in her late husband’s life and work—though she was unsure how to characterize their relationship.
“Ted was influenced by something about Bearden, which I’m not sure he ever articulated to me,” Notley wrote. “I think he admired Bearden for his commitment to poetry when he himself was working on his own, and they obviously had certain tastes in common … I don’t believe there was a stylistic influence, though I could be wrong. Some things that you learn when you’re very young, from your reading and from the writing of your friends, stay with you forever; they can be very subtle.”
Whatever happened between Bearden and the “Tulsa School,” it is clear that Bearden did not take to Manhattan. He reportedly loathed the city—deriding it as a zoo-like prison with “men dressed up in monkey suits, working in cages”—and decamped to California in 1964.
In San Francisco, Bearden fell in with the Beats. His poetry appeared alongside Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bob Kaufman, William Burroughs, and Diane Wakoski in independent San Francisco magazines Bulletin from Nothing and Now Now. And Bearden began publishing there himself under Rosace in 1965.
In addition to chapbooks of his own verse, Rosace printed slim anthologies. Leu Feu Du Ciel (1965), for example, compiled poems by San Francisco scenesters, such as artist Robert Branaman, alongside national poets—including, surprisingly, the controversial literary giant Ezra Pound. (How Bearden gained permission to print poems by Pound—or whether he reprinted poems without his permission—is unclear.)
Drifting from poetry scene to poetry scene across the nation, writers like Bearden attest to the complexity of literary production in the United States in the second half of the 20th century. He does not fit neatly into any poetic “school,” a reductive concept that connotes impenetrable coteries rather than concentric rings comprising many more voices than standard-issue histories let on.
“These outliers, they don’t let you use those names like New York School and Beat and San Francisco Renaissance with the kind of solidity that some people might expect,” said Sturm, whose research has highlighted other lesser-known poets of the New York School, such as Dick Gallup and Jim Brodey. “People like Bearden… show you how those categories remain flexible.”
The contributions of women, queer people and writers of color have been sidelined in many mainstream creative histories as well, a cultural wrong that is slowly being corrected by new scholarship.
But it was a personal interest, not scholarly, that drove Rosace publisher Astra Beck to put Bearden’s work into circulation. Bearden was her mother Johanna’s ex-boyfriend, and, though the two split when she was young, Bearden became a lifelong fatherly figure to her.
“I wanted him to be remembered,” Beck, 42, told me in a phone interview.
Growing up in northern New Jersey, where Bearden lived for a time, Beck didn’t grasp the significance of his life in letters. To her, Bearden was like a cool stepdad, one who turned her on to the power of art. A manager at St. Anthony’s Haven homeless shelter in Scranton, Pa., during his last years, Bearden left Beck heartbroken and with a trove of Rosace’s papers when he died in 2008.
“I had all of his boxes in the closet for years, but I couldn’t go through them,” Beck said. “It would just make me so sad.”
Some cosmic force, however, seemed to nudge Beck toward those boxes. In 2011, Beck received a message from the writer Robert Dumont, who wanted to speak with her about an article he was drafting on Bearden. Dumont also hailed from Tulsa and in the early 1970s had moved to Manhattan, where he became acquainted with Padgett.The language sparkles in places, with poetic phrases arresting the senses during tortuous paragraph-long sentences.
Dumont thought of Bearden like “the fifth Beatle, the guy who quit the group right before the band got famous,” he told me in a phone interview. “I wondered, what was it that made him want to go his own separate way?”
For Beck, assisting Dumont meant finally going through the papers Bearden had left behind—and imagining what she could do with them beyond letting them fester in the closet.
“He kinda put the fire in me,” Beck said of Dumont. “I thought, you know, I do feel like David’s work is important.”
While Beck had no book publishing experience at the time, she drew on her training as a graphic designer to resurrect Rosace. With editorial help from Dumont and Bearden’s friend Dion Wright, an artist, Beck compiled Bearden’s poetry collection The Mental Traveler and published it with print-on-demand services from Amazon and IngramSpark.
Gathering poems penned over the course of Bearden’s life, the book has a more solipsistic and highly lyric aesthetic than the New York School’s playful sociality. But the book deploys a range of registers that defies categorization.
Edmund Berrigan, in his blurb for The Mental Traveler, placed Bearden in an enviable pantheon of lyricists: “Somewhere between Blake, Hank Williams and Homer, David Omer Bearden traveled a poetic line and gave himself over to it,” he wrote.
Perhaps unsurprising for a volume titled after a Blake poem, the Romantic’s visionary apocalypticism tinges many of Bearden’s lyrics. In a poem about Tulsa, called “Psalm,” for example, he writes:
Refinery volcanoes banked their fires
Smoking the louring basement-ceiling sky;
But ancient starlight seeped into my eyes
As the red mud upon my forehead broke,
& I was hushed, to hear my bleating sheep. Selah.
Other poems recall the demented lyricism of John Berryman’s Dream Songs. In “Whom?” Bearden writes:
What spirit is little David before a protest is needed?
when he bit into the shortbread only to
desperate sobs of “it’s bwoke, it’s bwoke”,
& his despair impossible for old Nellie to assuage,
There are tender moments, too, particularly in ecstatic love poems that narrowly avoid sentimentality via the inventiveness of their imagery. In “The Visit,” a poem about Bearden’s romance with Judee Sill, Bearden writes:
When I wrap you up in my arms & legs,
rocks melt & do the hula tenderly on little ginger feet;
the landlady upstairs has her first ecstasy,
to feel their tiny mary janes tapping on her cheeks …
for the instant the strange planets are close-up
& citizens there whistle island songs in unison,
& eat small candy meteorites to show us
how to have fun
With The Mental Traveler under her belt, Beck next tackled Bearden’s The Thing in Packy Innard’s Place, an autofictional tale based on Bearden’s final years in Scranton. The novella mixes acrobatic prose with grotesque absurdity in a strange concoction that reads like a mash-up of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. The language sparkles in places, with poetic phrases arresting the senses during tortuous paragraph-long sentences: the “Copenhagen-blue sky is going a deep bruise, like a turn of the century postcard of unutterable nostalgia” or “a jeweline luminosity of drenched trees,” for example.
As she worked on Bearden’s books, Beck uncovered Russo’s diaristic novella State Line among Bearden’s papers. Again with the help of Dumont and Wright, she published the novella in a volume by the same title that also gathers Russo’s poetry, remembrances recorded by his California artist friends and photographs.
In one striking image included in State Line, Russo stands smiling outside Ferlinghetti’s famous City Lights bookstore in San Francisco alongside Ferlinghetti himself, Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman and other Beat luminaries. In an editor’s preface, Wright calls Russo “the most brilliant and talented poet of all.”
Like Bearden, Russo hailed from the Midwest—Wichita, Kansas. And like Bearden’s “Tulsa School,” Russo’s Kansas crew got its own label: the “Wichita Vortex,” which also included Branaman, the artist Bruce Conner and poets Michael McClure, Charles Plymell and Dave Haselwood. By some accounts, Ginsberg’s fascination with the group led him to pen the long anti-war poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” which appeared in his National Book Award-winning collection The Fall of America. Published in 1973, the book recorded a road trip Ginsberg took across the country, which included a storied visit to Wichita.
Sturm imagines State Line would appeal to Beat scholars looking for a more nuanced understanding of the San Francisco literary community. The book, along with Bearden’s, also helps make the case for more attention to the role of the Midwest on 20th-century American poetry, which is largely understood along an East Coast-West Coast binary. And they offer a poignant reminder that the literary landscape is much more populous than your average Norton anthology lets on.
“No poet is too ‘marginal’ to ask about,” Sturm said.
For Edmund Berrigan, the appearance of the Bearden volumes has provided insight into an old mystery.
“His name has always resonated from my early reading of The Sonnets, and I do think there’s a lot of value in knowing more about his story,” he wrote in an email.
Rosace is working on producing additional volumes by Bearden and writers associated with him and Russo, said Beck. With no budget to speak of, she and volunteer editors like Dumont and Wright are fueled by what seems a genuinely altruistic desire to gain a readership for writers they feel have been unfairly overlooked.
Whether those writers contribute to any academic sense of poetry “movements” is really beside the point, according to Beck. Her drive is of a piece with the DIY ethos she developed as a teenager in the New Jersey-New York punk scene, where she worked for indie music labels designing album artwork and attended underground shows. It’s a concept she first learned from Bearden: Art for art’s sake.
“I would like to see Rosace have more eyeballs, to have more exposure for people to learn about this specific group of writers,” Beck said. “I’m just taking it one book at a time.”