For your Memorial Day reading pleasure, check out this great, informative post by the poet Nick Sturm (who is also, fortunately, one of my grad students).
Sturm writes about “Memorial Day,” the long, collaborative poem written by Ted Berrigan and Anne Waldman. Almost exactly a year ago, a newly unearthed, rare video recording of the two poets reading this poem at the Poetry Project in 1971 became available for the first time (something I posted about here). Sturm discusses this performance of the poem, and the story behind the poem itself, quoting liberally from a great account of the poem by Anne Waldman that I hadn’t seen before:
“Ted & I were scheduled to read several months in advance at The Poetry Project on Memorial Day. Not sure we originally requested this date, but the day fell out that way and we were psyched, having an ‘occasion’ to focus on that would also jar some collaborative writing. We were both living that spring in Long Island. I was in Bridgehampton, renting a house with Michael Brownstein Kenneth Koch later bought. Ted and Alice Notley were in Southampton in Larry Rivers’s place there. Ted was always somewhat ‘charged’ by the subject matter(s) of death, loss, friendship and the energy & challenge of bumping up against another poet in ‘making’ work. Some friends of ours had died by then and we saw the potential piece as an homage, a commemoration, a meditation, and we definitely composed it with the oral reading of it very much in mind. It was kind of a psalm, hymn, litany all blended together that allowed for story (epic that you tell the heroes’ tales) — some decidedly musical form.”
Sturm also discusses how much this poem means to him (“the audio and video recordings are breathtaking, each in their own way. I feel like I’ll never get over this poem”), its role as inspiration for a poem called Labor Day that he wrote collaboratively with Carrie Lorig (“which is about work in the way that Memorial Day is about death, that was recently published as a double collaborative chapbook, along with Tyler and Layne’s Collected Feelings, by Forklift, Ohio”), and the connections between collaboration, love, friendship, and poetry.
In the passage Sturm quotes, Anne Waldman also notes that “Frank O’Hara’s death is a huge part of the poem, too, and I’m sure the idea to write a Memorial Day poem had a lot to do with Frank’s ‘Memorial Day 1950.'”
In other words, there’s a lineage here of sorts — poems about or inspired by Memorial Day (and Labor Day), that starts with O’Hara’s amazing Memorial Day poem — an early piece in which the young poet commemorates the close of a half-century marked by cataclysmic war, death, and violence and the exhilaration of the avant-garde in almost equal measure — moves on to the Berrigan/Waldman “Memorial Day,” down to the Sturm/Lorig “Labor Day,” and beyond.
Through all that surgery I thought
I had a lot to say, and named several last things
Gertrude Stein hadn’t had time for; but then
the war was over, those things had survived
and even when you’re scared art is no dictionary.
— Frank O’Hara, “Memorial Day, 1950”