Born in Rhode Island in 1934, Ted Berrigan, as Allen Ginsberg put it, "was a big man everyone says so, big father Figure Lower East Side, Big leader of middle generation postwar late XX Century U.S. poets—combining Beat, midamerican, New York & Classic Schools from Tulsa to St. Marks to Iowa to Essex England to Naropa social Poetics—big encourager of Elders and Consul to younger spirits." The Sonnets is his most celebrated work.
As a figure in the second generation of New York School Poets—along with Anne Waldman, Jim Harrison, Ron Padgett—Berrigan wrote a poetry inhabited by acquaintances, family, poet-friends, as well as by material stolen directly from said friends. His poetic influences show up in the work as casually as they were known to show up at his St. Marks apartment.
For example, one of The Sonnets begins, unapologetically, with a stolen line by Frank O'Hara, "Grace to be born again and live as variously as possible," and Sonnet II uses part of the title of a John Ashbery poem as its sixth line:
Dear Margie, hello It is 5.15 a.m.
dear Berrigan He died
Back to books. I read
It's 8.30 p.m. in New York and I've been running
around all day
old come-all-ye's streel into the streets Yes, it is
How Much Longer Shall I Be Able To Inhabit The
and the day is bright gray turning green
In these poems, appropriation is a form of intimacy, and chance operations reflect the chance nature of Berrigan's life—as well as his interest in John Cage's Silence. The Sonnets is arranged around the repetition of key lines and figures. Sentences are broken and phrases rearranged at random, resulting in sonnets less strict than Berrigan's ancestors'. In an interview with Anne Waldman and Jim Cohn, he remarks:
I read Shakespeare and I liked it, too. I just thought it was a little neat, but I saw you could make it less neat, you could cut off the edges. Bill Burroughs, John Cage, all that stuff was in the air. I don't know what I thought, I just thought I could do it and then it happened.
The poet Alice Notley writes in her introduction to his selected work: "Ted always used to say that The Sonnets has a plot very like Shakespeare's Sonnets involving friendships and triangular love relationships; but where Shakespeare's plot is patterned chronologically Ted's is patterned simultaneously."