When he read one of my poems, or anybody's poem, he might also say, "Actually, this is one of the greatest f***ing things ever written." And that could, actually (or "in truth"), mean any number of things: one, that the work under purview was the best thing you had actually written so far, which was ambiguous, because it could have meant that nothing you had written so far was actually any good; or that two, it was the greateast f***ing thing you've ever written in a glorious career of peerless works. Actually, one waited for Ted to say "actually" because what followed was generally a very thorough cultural critique that had you, miraculously, at its center. Around 1968, we young New York poets all started saying "actually" to spur ourselves into a flight of grounded and inspired fancy, never quite making it, despite the Berriganesque intonation we gave it. I remember finding myself saying it, then being unable to say anything else because the word paralyzed me, committed me to something awesome. When I recovered, too late among fast talkers usually, I had things to say. Many things.
Some writers in Iowa City, Iowa, Dave Morice, Allan Kornblum, Darrel Grey and others, formed the "Actualist Movement," by which they understood the word to refer to actuality, to the present. They intended to launch an art based on the immediate, no more lasting than the actual moment, but still grave somehow. In the "Actualist Manifesto," Darrel Grey quotes Guillevic approvingly: "to do to things/what light does to them." No more, no less. Actually, the Iowans were literalists: they heard Ted to say, a la WC Williams, "no ideas but in" (actual) "things." Actually, Ted was saying nothing of the sort: He was merely letting you know, gently, that you were wrong and that an on-the-spot meditation ("in an emergency," Frank O'Hara) might actually lead you somewhere entirely different. As I got to hear the word better as Ted said it, I realized that a radical philosophy was at work: Nothing, absolutely nothing that was being articulated could withstand a deep probe. The test of being there thinking was to overthrow everything said even one second ago. Actually, the better thought was just around the corner. My own usage, when not left without a follow-up, eventually took different forms: At its best it was radical; at its worst it was trying to revise reality. My mate Laura always says, when I say "actually": so what really happened? She hears "actually" as most certainly a cover-up. I hover between revolution and cover-up, just like the republic, and it all pivots on "actually." It was actually the first instrumental word I ever learned in English, and it still works.
Andrei Codrescu's latest book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City (Algonquin Books).