Adios, Amigo: Ted Greenwald (1942-2016)
Ted Greenwald’s poetry works its way from line to line, always opening outward. Set lines per stanza and stanzas per page produce formal regularity that stands open to possibility, defined as whatever happens. Whatever happens is mostly word of mouth, street diction hot off the pavement, ways of talking recognizable by ear in a particular urban environment (NYC) where verbalization goes on non-stop. The tone is upbeat, pun-loving, personable, while also take-no-prisoners, wise ass, and/or so what?
I first met Ted in San Francisco in the late 70s. Every time thereafter when in New York, we’d meet at one of his favorite hangouts, the Grand Central Oyster Bar early on, then the Tribeca bistro Capsoudo Freres, for years at Ennio and Michael’s restaurant on LaGuardia Place, and finally Mumbles on Third Avenue. Ted had his place at the end of the bar and was always available, a sure bet for good conversation. About what? This, that, and the other thing. No privileged subjects, all fair game.
Books, for instance. WWII was his favored domain, the period he was born into, from Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews to military histories of the war on the Eastern Front. He turned me on to a number of great mystery writers like Ross Thomas, Donald Westlake, and Lawrence Bloch. Also The Theory that Would Not Die by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, a history of Bayesian logic, and The Mathematical Theory of Communication by Shannon and Weaver, a seminal work of information theory. Movies too. His favorite directors, John Ford, Francis Ford Coppola, Tony Scott and David O. Russell.
Collabs with Ted, always a pleasure. Occasional ones during visits to New York in the 80s. Then, around 2005, we start working by mail, a series of long works, each with a different formal scheme, which ultimately turns into a book, A Mammal of Style. Eventually Ted gets on email and the tempo speeds up. We study Japanese linked verse and start batting haiku-like stanzas back and forth. Send one, Ted always comes back pretty much right away, like that backgammon game back in the 80s, or late-night poker at the restaurant I witnessed once, super quick.
Talking with Ted at the restaurant about my job naming a product for a tech company, Ted writes on a bar napkin: “Hardon Software.”
Nicknames his high school buddies called him: Thaddeus and Chico.
At the outset of his memoir, Clearview/LIE, we find Ted in grad school preparing for a teaching career. His first book of poetry, Lapstrake, is out, and the next, Licorice Chronicles, is underway. He’s studying Melville and Pound with an eye to “what makes a great work great.” At some point he realizes, “writing and teaching, if you do each right, with any pride in, these are two completely different jobs.” In the midst of his dissertation, he stops, decides to go his own way, “in a follow your own mind way.” The assertion of autonomy is absolutely characteristic. “Me myself, never feel much like living in a subordinate clause.” Reminds me of some favorite lines: “I be my own boss / I be my own police” (“The Book I Toss,” Common Sense) and says a lot about the man, not necessarily easy going, but always all there.
Sports, he liked the Yankees, the NY Giants, the Knicks (up to a point). MLB & NFL playoffs we’d place dollar bets and text each other while watching from opposite coasts.
A night-owl with bad habits, still Ted was a devoted family man. I heard often of Joan and Abby, not to mention Elmore the cat. Their closeness sustained him.
Ted had various different jobs, but there is no doubt what his real job was, poetry, 100 percent. Yet his work was not literary but literally all about being a person, one among many. There is a democratic strain throughout, reflected in the titles he borrowed from Thomas Paine, Common Sense, The Age of Reasons, and Own Church, and in his sense of being, regular, without pretense, naturally social, mentally independent (“fuck-you brain cells”).
I learned something every time I talked with Ted. Speaking of Ted, I hate to use the past tense, whose verbs are only in the present.
Kit Robinson is the author of Marine Layer (BlazeVOX), Determination (Cuneiform), The Messianic Trees: Selected Poems, 1976-2003 (Adventures in Poetry), and 20 other books of poetry. His collaborations with Ted Greenwald include A Mammal of Style (Roof) and Takeaway (c_L Books).
A day or two into my first visit to New York City in October 1994, I mustered the courage to call Ted:
“Is this Ted Greenwald?”
“My name is Miles Champion, and I’m a young poet visiting from England.”
“I love your work.”
“Er . . . I’m a friend of Tom Raworth’s.”
“Oh, you’re a friend of Tom’s! Why didn’t you say so? Come on over!”
And that was the start of our friendship. I asked Ted for work for Tongue to Boot, and he gave me a chunk of In Your Dreams for the first issue and, after that, big dollops— from various sequences— for subsequent issues. I was impressed with how seriously he regarded my little magazine.
Back in NYC again, a few years later, I was walking through Washington Square Park with a vaguely fluorescent smoothie in my hand when I ran into Ted, who had just finished work. “Ditch that and we’ll go get a real drink.” We sat outside Ennio & Michael’s on LaGuardia Place. Paul Violi walked by and Ted invited him to join us, going on to praise Paul’s book-length poem Harmatan, quoting its opening and closing lines from memory and giving them props as excellent ways to start and finish a book.
By 1999 the routine was that I would simply call Ennio & Michael’s when I arrived at JFK. “Is Ted there?” “Just a minute.” “This is Ted.” “Ted, it’s Miles, I just got in.” “Well, what are you doing over there? Get over here!” High times on barstools. I suffered the occasional nosebleed in Ted’s company, and his advice was always the same: “Smoke a cigarette— nicotine’s a poultice.” It always worked.
Ted was a tough guy, or at least that’s how he presented himself to the world, but in truth he had the sweetest of natures and, when it came to art, a very refined eye (he worked for Holly Solomon and Kazuhito Yoshii, and ran his own Ted Greenwald Gallery). He used to say that downtown NYC was interesting in the early seventies because the art brain was in the hands of the dancers and sculptors. He knew that poets who might not be “great” in the largely boring conventional sense could nevertheless be touched by greatness (Jim Brodey, for one). Another idea was that poets would do well to read Ted Williams’s My Turn at Bat: at least the poet is spared the particular tragedy of the athlete, namely, that by the time you know how it’s done, your body has given out. Wordsworth’s mistake—those forty-five years spent polishing The Prelude—was instructive, and moving right along was the operative mode. His unwillingness to be patted on the head by his immediate elders is brilliantly expressed in his poem to Ted Berrigan, “For Ted, on Election Day.” He was fond of the hand gesture—a brisk up-down rub of the palms—that meant, I’m out of here, we’re done. On Vermont: “There are too many fucking trees.” On Buddhism: “Zen’s OK, but you’ve gotta keep it in the city.”
Soon after moving to NYC in 2002, I started helping Ted prepare manuscripts: The Up and Up, Clearview/LIE, Comma Fork/Moving Parts, and, with Kyle Schlesinger, In Your Dreams and 3. I’d been combing bookstores, libraries, and the internet for stray poems of Ted’s since the mid-nineties, and by 2010 was close to having tracked down all of Ted’s uncollected work from the years 1962–82. My plan was to edit down what I’d found and present it to Ted on his seventieth birthday, in 2012 (Ted had some idea of what I was up to). He liked the manuscript, gave it a title— The Age of Reasons— and, happily, the book was published earlier this year.
Ted called things as he saw them and didn’t suffer fools. He was in it for the long haul, had absolutely no illusions about who he was, and built his work to last (let’s see where we all are in 200 years). He’s the only person who has ever called me “babe.” Words can’t say how grateful I am to have been his friend.
Miles Champion is the editor of Ted Greenwald’s The Age of Reasons: Uncollected Poems 1969–1982 (Wesleyan University Press, 2016).