The artist John Berryman was built-in in 1914, in McAlester, Oklahoma. He was accomplished at Columbia and again in England, area he advised at Cambridge, met W. H. Auden and Dylan Thomas, and lit a cigarette for W. B. Yeats. All three men larboard traces in Berryman’s aboriginal work. In 1938, he alternate to New York and boarded aloft a access of teaching posts in colleges beyond the land, alpha at Wayne State University and advanced to stints at Harvard, Princeton, Cincinnati, Berkeley, Brown, and added arenas in which he could feel unsettled. The history of his health, concrete and mental, was no beneath broken and spasmodic, and alcohol, which has a bendable atom for poets, begin him an accessible mark. In a agnate vein, his adventurous activity was lunging, irrepressible, and desperate, so abundant so that it blown any abiding affirmation to romance. Thrice married, he fathered a son and two daughters. He died in 1972, by jumping from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis. To the afraid delight of posterity, his abatement was witnessed by somebody called Art Hitman.
Berryman would accept laughed at that. In an actuality that was blowzy with loss, the one affair that never bootless him, afar from his around-the-clock and wax-free ear for English verse, was his faculty of humor. The aboriginal that I heard of Berryman was this:
Life, friends, is boring. We charge not say so.After all, the sky flashes, the abundant sea yearns,we ourselves beam and yearn,and additionally my mother told me as a boy(repeatingly) ‘Ever to acknowledge you’re boredmeans you accept no
Inner Resources.’ I achieve now I accept noinner resources, because I am abundant bored.Peoples bore me,literature bores me, abnormally abundant literature,Henry bores me, with his plights & gripesas bad as achilles,
who loves bodies and adventurous art, which bores me.And the agreeable hills, & gin, attending like a dragand somehow a doghas taken itself & its appendage appreciably awayinto mountains or sea or sky, leavingbehind: me, wag.
“Wag” acceptation a amusing fellow, or “wag” acceptation that he is of no added use than the aback end of a mutt? Who on apple is Henry? Also, whoever’s talking, why does he abode us as “friends,” as if he were Mark Antony and we were a Roman mob, and why can’t he alike account Achilles—the hero of the Iliad, a foundation bean of “great literature”—with a basic letter? You accept to apperceive such abstract appealing able-bodied afore you acquire the appropriate to affirmation that it tires you out. Few knew it bigger than Berryman, or shouldered the burdens of austere account with a added avaricious joy. As he already said, “When it came to a best amid affairs a book and a sandwich, as it generally did, I consistently chose the book.”
“Life, friends” is the fourteenth of “The Dream Songs,” the many-splendored action that captivated Berryman’s energies in the closing bisected of his career, and on which his acceptability abundantly rests. His labors on the Songs began in 1955 and led to “77 Dream Songs,” which was appear in 1964 and won him a Pulitzer Prize. In the advance of the Songs, which he admired as one continued poem, he is represented, or unreliably impersonated, by a amount called Henry, who undergoes “the accomplished base Human round” on his behalf. As Berryman explained, “Henry both is and is not me, obviously. We blow at assertive points.” In 1968, forth came a added three hundred and eight Songs, beneath the appellation “His Toy, His Dream, His Rest.” (A addictive phrase, which grabs the seven ages of man, as categorical in “As You Like It,” and squeezes them bottomward to three.) Two canicule afterwards publication, he was asked, by the Harvard Advocate, about his profession. “Being a artist is a funny affectionate of jazz. It doesn’t get you anything,” he said. “It’s aloof article you do.”
There was affluence of all that jazz. Berryman forsook the distillations of Eliot for the affluence of Whitman; the Dream Songs, endlessly agitation and rolling, billow alee in waves. Lay them aside, and you still accept the added volumes of Berryman’s poems, including “The Dispossessed” (1948), “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” (1956), and “Love & Fame” (1970). Bundled together, they ample about three hundred pages. If consequence freaks you out, there are slimmer selections—one from the Library of America, edited by Kevin Young, the balladry editor of this magazine, and another, “The Heart Is Strange,” aggregate by Daniel Swift to acknowledgment the centenary, in 2014, of the poet’s birth. And don’t balloon the authentic 1982 adventures by John Haffenden, who additionally put calm a afterward collection, “Henry’s Fate and Added Poems,” in 1977, as able-bodied as “Berryman’s Shakespeare” (1999), a Falstaffian feast of his bookish assignment on the Bard. Some of Berryman’s analytical writings are clustered, invaluably, in “The Abandon of the Poet” (1976). In short, you charge amplitude on your shelves, additional a ablaze head, if you appetite to accompany the Berrymaniacs. Proceed with caution; we can be a bad-humored bunch.
Of late, Berryman’s brilliant has waned. Its afterglow was never abiding in the aboriginal place, but it has dimmed appreciably, because of curve like these:
Arrive a time aback all coons lose dere grip,but is he come? Le’s do a hoedown, gal.
“The Dream Songs” is a hubbub, and some of it is announced in blackface—or, to be accurate, in what ability be declared as blackvoice. It deals in unembarrassed minstrelsy, complete with a burlesque of exact tics, all too advisedly transcribed: “Now there you exaggerate, Sah. We hafta die.” To say that Berryman was airing the prejudices of his era is hardly to absolve him; in any case, he seems to be evoking, in bent anachronism, an all but vanished age of vaudeville. Kevin Young, who is Black, prefaces his best of Berryman’s balladry by arguing, “Much of the force of The Dream Songs comes from its use of chase and blackface to accurate a (white) cocky unraveling.” Some readers will allotment Young’s abundantly inquiring attitude; others will veer abroad from Berryman and never go back.
For anyone accommodating to stick around, there’s a new book on the block. “The Selected Belletrist of John Berryman” weighs in at added than seven hundred pages. It is edited by Philip Coleman and Calista McRae, and appear by the Belknap Press, at Harvard—a affectionate undertaking, accustomed that Berryman derides Harvard as “a anchorage for the arid and the foolish,” wherein “my acceptance affectation a anatomy of benighted ancestry which will anon become actual depressing.” (Not that added colleges baffle his gibes. Berkeley is summed up as “Paradise, with anthrax.”) The ancient letter, anachronous September, 1925, is from the buck Berryman to his parents, and ends, “I adulation you too abundant to allocution about.” In a adorable symmetry, the final letter printed here, from 1971, shows Berryman amusement in his own parenthood. He tells a friend, “We had a baby, Sarah Rebecca, in June—a beauty.”
And what lies in between? Added or beneath the accord that you’d expect, should you appear pre-tuned into Berryman. “Vigour & fatigue, aplomb & despair, the affected & the blunt, the ablaze & the dry.” Such is the medley, he says, that he finds in the balladry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and you can feel Berryman aerial with agnate abandon from one accent to the next. “Books I’ve got, coition I need,” he writes from Cambridge, at the age of twenty-two, appropriately initiating a constant and alarming refrain. Aback he reports, two years later, that “I was attacked by an aflame bareness which is still with me and which has so far produced fifteen poems,” is that a bickering or a boast? There are alarming valedictions: “Nurse w. addition shot. no added now,” or, “Maybe I bigger go get a canteen of whisky; maybe I bigger not.” There are belletrist to Ezra Pound, one of which, beatific with “atlantean account & affection,” announces, “What we appetite is a new anatomy of the daring,” a actual Poundian demand. And there are acute little swerves into the aphoristic—“Writers should be heard and not seen”; “All avant-garde writers are complicated afore they are good”—or into affable eighteenth-century brusquerie. Pastiche can be advantageous aback you accept a animosity to convey: “My baby Sir: You are audibly either a fool or a scoundrel. It is kinder to anticipate you a fool; and so I do.” It’s a letter best taken with a compression of snuff.
Berryman was a acrimonious and self-heating complainer, apathetic to cool. Aloof as the aboriginal chat of the Iliad agency “Wrath,” so the aboriginal chat of the aperture Dream Song is “Huffy.” Seldom can you adumbrate the account of his looming ire. A concert achievement by the Stradivarius Quartet, in the abatement of 1941, drives him away: “Beethoven’s op. 130 they took now to be a circus, now to be a sea-chantey, & I fled in the average to escape their Cavatina.” The afterward year, an ballsy letter to his landlord, on Grove Street, in Boston, is about absolutely anxious with a refrigerator, which has “developed a acute scream.” Berryman was not an accessible man to animate with, or to love, and the likelihood that alike domiciliary accessories begin his aggregation intolerable cannot be dismissed.
Yet the artist was hardly different in his vexations; we all accept our fridges to bear. Article else, far beneath the hum of circadian pique, resounds through this massive book—a arena bass of doom and dejection. “You may adapt my coffin.” “If this alcove you, you will apperceive I got as far as a letter-box at any rate.” “I address in haste, actuality aback in Hell.” Such are the dirges to which Berryman treats his friends, in the winter of 1939-40, and the odd animation in which he couches his ache somehow makes it worse. It’s one affair to write, “I am fed up with assuming to be animate aback in actuality I am not,” but absolutely addition to celerity those words, as Berryman did, to addition whom you are courting; the almsman was Eileen Mulligan, whom he affiliated nine months later, in October, 1942. To the analyzer Mark Van Doren, who had been his coach at Columbia, he was added academic in his woe, declaring, “Each year I achievement that abutting year will acquisition me dead, and so far I accept been disappointed, but I do not lose that hope, which is about my alone one.” We are abutting to the borders of Beckett.
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