How the irreverent poetry of the ’60s helped spawn punk music
Where did punk rock come from?
In addition to its musical precursors, a new book makes the case that it was spawned in part by the creative exchange of musicians with the New York School of poets, whose work was often casual and irreverent.
In “Do You Have A Band? Poetry and Punk Rock in New York City,” Daniel Kane, a professor of American literature and culture at the University of Sussex in Brighton, traces how intimately innovators of punk, such as Richard Hell and Patti Smith, interacted with New York School poets such as Ted Berrigan and Anne Waldman, including in places like CBGB, the Poetry Project at St. Marks Church and via written letters.
“Patti Smith, Richard Hell, these people we know as musicians came to New York to be poets,” said Kane. “And they came with relatively old-fashioned notions about what constitutes poetry. These poets gave them alternative ways of thinking about poetry.”
In many ways, Kane shows, these musicians had a love-hate relationship with the New York School poets because of those differences. While these poets were insistent on not taking poetry too seriously (poet Ed Sanders, for example, published a magazine at the time called “F*** You: a magazine of the arts”), these musicians had come to New York with the closely-held ideas that an artist was meant to convey high emotion and speak from a position of authority — ideas taken from earlier poets like the British romantics, and reiterated by beat poets like Allen Ginsberg.
“[New York School poet] Ted Berrigan would say, ‘poetry can be fun, it can be light-hearted,'” said Kane. “He questioned the authority people were investing in figures like Ginsberg. And meanwhile Lou Reed and Patti Smith were enamored of the arguably hyberbolic lyrics of a poem like [Ginsberg’s] ‘Howl.'”
But while musicians like Smith were in some ways resistant to the poets of the day, Kane shows how they were also influenced by them, including by the air of indifference they projected, and even their silliness.
On Smith’s 1975 album “Horses,” for example, she allowed herself to be funny, something she mostly set aside in her later music. “I think that deep, intelligent, rich humor was inspired partly by the Poetry Project at St. Marks Church,” Kane said. St. Marks is also the place Smith first performed.
Punk musician Richard Hell, meanwhile, was reading Ted Berrigan’s poetry as he made music, and sometimes even on stage. As Kane relates in his book, Hell once began a performance by referencing the Berrigan poem “10 Things I Do Every Day,” an irreverent catalogue of the things a person does every day.
“I drank a Pepsi, and then I took a pill!” Hell told the audience, according to Kane, and then added sarcastically: “Just a moment, restrain yourselves, ladies and gents. This is poetry, don’t get carried away!”
Read Berrigan’s full poem below.
10 THINGS I DO EVERY DAY
by Ted Berrigan
see the cat
love my wife
think of Frank
dig the streets
go home for dinner
read the Post
see my friends
have a Pepsi
From “The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan,” edited by Alice Notley. (c) 2006 by the Regents of the University of California. Published by the University of California Press.
Daniel Kane is a professor of American literature and culture at the University of Sussex in Brighton. His books include “We Saw the Light: Conversations Between the New American Cinema and Poetry” and “All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s.”