Ted Berrigan by Alex Katz 1967
Ted Berrigan by Alex Katz 1967


Using poetry to reach troubled kids, Chris Martin found a portal into one of his more difficult cases by focusing on Ted Berrigan, Gary Snyder, William Blake, heaven and hell

For the last fifteen years, I have been working with students with special needs. The majority of my time is spent inventing sui generis poetic forms to help students on the autism spectrum express who they are and what they love. But lately I’ve been working with students who struggle with a range of diagnoses, often several at once. It’s an overused cliché, but I find myself learning as much from these students as I’m teaching, not only about poetry, but also about the world as I have known it and as it might be.

A couple years back, I was in residence for a month at a special education school and had the luck of working with a teenage student I’ll call “Kirk” in the interest of protecting his privacy. Kirk and I had four sessions together, one a week for a month. Before we began working together, I was informed that he carried an EBD (Emotional Behavioral Disorder) diagnosis, largely stemming from a harrowing traumatic experience, the details of which could not be shared with me.

One teacher put it this way: “Kirk has seen some shit that a kid his age, or any other human being for that matter, should never see.”

I was warned that Kirk habitually tested newcomers by inviting them to set schools on fire. It was a compulsion, a set of grotesque images on which Kirk dwelled. If you weren’t immediately repelled, he might have an authentic conversation with you at some point.

Ted Berrigan by Alex Katz 1967
Ted Berrigan by Alex Katz 1967

The first three sessions played out the exact same way. One of Kirk’s aides, a talented artist with an impressive poker face, accompanied the two of us as we walked around the building for 45 minutes. Each time Kirk reeled off a series of increasingly horrifying visualizations, and I attempted, vainly, to redirect him. Each time I left feeling slightly poisoned, if newly resolved to make contact. The compulsion, though baroquely ornate in its detail, possessed a transparency that almost invited one to break through it.

At the beginning of our last session together, I found I couldn’t take it anymore. Or else I couldn’t any longer see the point in “redirection.” So when Kirk predictably launched into his personal Hieronymous Bosch, I snapped.

“Kirk,” I said, turning in exasperation to face him. “When I listen to you, it’s like the whole world is on fire. It’s like we’re living in Hell.” He stopped. Even before he spoke, I could sense that he was present; that he, Kirk, was really there for the first time in our entire month together. His eyes widened and he asked, “How do we know we’re not?”

It was a completely genuine question. And I couldn’t help smiling. Not only was I selfishly relieved to have broken through, but I also thought it was a breathtaking question.

“We don’t!” I answered, excitedly. We spent the next 20 minutes walking and talking about Hell, the nature of Hell, the possibility of Hell not just on Earth, but of Earth. Before long we were laughing unselfconsciously about all the ridiculous shit we are doing in Hell: trying new flavors of yogurt, arguing over music genres, recommitting ourselves to better habits and Earthly success. We’re in Hell!

Shitty Heaven by Simon Evans 2010
Shitty Heaven by Simon Evans 2010

By the time we’d returned to the classroom, we only had enough time to write a quick poem. I immediately suggested a “Things to Do” poem in the spirit of Ted Berrigan, who, as it turns out, cribbed the form from Gary Snyder. We made it through four things before the bell rang.

Hoping we’d get another chance to work together in the fall, I said I hoped we could finish it then. I can’t remember whether I asked for his blessing to write my own version, but I remember instantly resolving to do so. The idea was so phenomenal, the implications so far-reaching. Unfortunately, I never got a chance to work with Kirk again, as he transferred schools before the year was over.

A couple months ago, I was telling this story to another poet and we got into a friendly if heated discussion about whether what we experience here on Earth is Hell or Heaven, with apologies to William Blake. If this is Hell, he argued, it’s remarkably gentle. I could, of course, see his point. Love exists, and sunlight. I have a two-year-old child who says applepuss when referencing cephalopods. The horrors of our age seem, if not apt, at least explainable.

And if this is Heaven, I countered, it’s as shitty as they come. My dear friend Simon Evans has explored this concept in magnificent depth (and surface). There is a near-constant stream of infidelity, illness, and murderous iniquity. People prey on each other like lab-designed viruses. If this is Heaven, it’s so fucking terrible that Kirk was made to feel he was living in its very opposite. In the end, we couldn’t decide which was more likely. I suppose I take an odd comfort in both.

Expensive Stains by Simon Evans 2011
Expensive Stains by Simon Evans 2011

You can check out my poem, and a short podcast of me reading and talking about it, at the Poetry Foundation. Kirk, wherever you are, thank you. I hope Hell, in revealing itself, has offered you at least a small piece of solace.