When John Berryman’s first full-length collection of poems, The Dispossessed, was published in 1948, Yvor Winters wrote a notice of it for the Hudson Review. Here Winters drew attention to Berryman’s ‘disinclination to understand and discipline his emotions’, and went on to suggest: ‘Most of his poems appear to deal with a single all-inclusive topic: the desperate chaos, social, religious, philosophical and psychological, of modern life, and the corresponding chaos and desperation of John Berryman.’
Winters had already clashed with Berryman in person, having been abused by him at a Princeton literary gathering not long before. There is no reason, however, to believe that his critical response to the work at hand was tempered by animosity. On the contrary, his judgment, if severe, was remarkably levelheaded and telling: ‘If Berryman could learn to think more and feel less, and to mitigate, in some fashion, his infinite compassion for himself and for the universe, he might bring to some kind of real fruition the talent which one can discern in his better lines; but until he does so, he will not be a poet of any real importance.’
As it turned out, Berryman did become, after his own style, a poet of real importance. Whether Yvor Winters would have acknowledged the achievement is another matter. Classical measures and sober utterance were never very much to Berryman’s purpose, and the discipline he brought to bear in the creation of his major work – most eminently, the best of The Dream Songs – has little to do with intellectual rigour or the curbing of the heart. If anything, Berryman increased his outlay of compassion, squandering now, though, less care on the universe than on himself. Self-pity became his constant theme. In place of the rather studied, substanceless, arabesque contortions of the early verse, Berryman offered vital human drama – either his own or that of his serviceable alter ego,‘Henry’. The improvement in readability is enormous, for, through Henry, that inspired comic creation, Berryman may be said to have found his own distinctive voice.
Berryman’s early work is strenuous in manner, full of devices learned from his poetic forebears: Milton’s substitution of adjectives for adverbs, for example, or Hopkins’s expressive breaking and rearrangement of syntax. The result can often be turgid or quaint, especially when raw contemporary themes are introduced. One is more impressed by the note of ambition in these immature pieces, and by Berryman’s eagerness in them to sound exalted in some insufficiently realised way, than by whatever arguments or perceptions they may carry. Even in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, where an assumed voice is employed for the first time on a grand scale, the violent dislocations of the syntax, which are as bold as anything Hopkins attempted, lack the one thing that Hopkins never allowed to be forfeited – a sense of the living idiom. Berryman’s poem is crammed with ugly sounds (‘thy eyes look to me mild’) and scrambled sentences (‘Harmless l to you/am not, not I?’) that would entirely defeat the speaking voice. And what is the value of a dramatic poem that cannot be read aloud?
It would be interesting to know how Berryman hit on his invention of The Dream Songs. However it happened, it was the break he needed. Their formal adaptability, each song consisting of three six-line stanzas, the lines being of ad hoc length and rhymed at whim, suited his expressive purposes admirably. But it was their tone, at once lyrical and slangy, pathetic and bathetic, that represented his stroke of genius. Perhaps it was Pound’s example that gave him the go-ahead. Berryman was for a while in correspondence with Pound, having been commissioned to write an introduction to a selection from the older man’s work. Pound’s epistolary style, cranky, laconic, full of jokes, allusions and hillbilly spellings, is distinctive, and evidently became so habitual that it entered his poetry on occasion. Berryman may have taken his hint from there, adding to it the perception that much of the writing in The Cantos should be read as a kind of autobiography.‘Pound is his own subject qua modern poet,’ Berryman declared (‘The Poetry of Ezra Pound’); ‘it is the experience and fate of this writer “born/In a half savage century, out of date”, a voluntary exile for over thirty years, that concern him.’ The poet himself is seen to take the heroic role.
Just so, it is the experience of being an American poet in the peculiar circumstances of the mid-2Oth century that most concerns Berryman in his verse from The Dream Songs onward. The funny voices, the slang, the mugging in black-face, are Berryman’s versions of the Poundian persona. This technique, rather than anything Winters may have had in mind, provides him with a sustaining discipline and allows him his most eloquent and moving expression. It is only in the very late poems, particularly those in Love – Fame, where Berryman tried to circumvent the discipline and to write direct autobiography, garrulous and mawkish, that the reader becomes irritated with the chosen subject-matter and is left to wonder whether Berryman has lost all interest in poetic form. The ironies and ruefully voiced exchanges of The Dream Songs –
The glories of the world struck me, made me aria, once.
– What happen then, Mr Bones?
if be you cares to say.
– Henry. Henry became interested in women’s bodies...
– guard against such slackness. Moreover, Berryman’s sensitivity to the rhythms of colloquial speech give this sequence the grace and subtlety that his prosodically more traditional poems never achieve.
Along with the obliqueness of The Dream Songs, however, comes a proportionate obscurity. While many poems are dramatically lucid, many others are impenetrable. Time and time again the reader feels in need of more hard information, of the private and circumstantial kind, than has been volunteered by the poet. A clear case, then, for objective biographical comment.
The almost simultaneous appearance of John Haffenden’s The Life of John Berryman and Eileen Simpson’s Poets in their Youth seems fortuitous. John Haffenden has already edited manuscripts of Berryman’s for posthumous publication (Henry’s Fate – Other Poems) and he is the author of John Berryman: A Critical Commentary, a guide through some of the murkier regions of the oeuvre that would have been even more valuable had it covered the ground more thoroughly. He has been able to work, not only from the published writings of the poet, but also from the copious notes, drafts, confessional journals and miscellaneous scribblings that make up the John Berryman Papers (now owned by the University of Minnesota), and from the reminiscences of numerous lovers, friends and acquaintances. His book, diligent and sensitive, represents the scholarly labour of many years. Eileen Simpson was Berryman’s first wife, married to him from 1942 to 1956. For her book, she has called upon memory and her own private writings of the time, offering an account both of her marriage and of the extraordinary circle of friends, including Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell and Saul Bellow, that Berryman gathered at this period.
Berryman’s life can be summarised, albeit crudely, as follows: he was born in 1914, the son of John Allyn Smith, who died in 1926, apparently by suicide; his mother then married the family lodger, a man called Berryman; the young boy was sent to a boarding-school, a sport-fixated establishment at which he was never happy, and completed his American education at Columbia College, New York; he took up a scholarship to Cambridge (England) from 1936 to 1938, returning to America and a fretful, nomadic career in the academic world; he wrote poems, which began to be published in book form comparatively late in his life; he married three times; he suffered much ill-health, particularly in the form of petit mal and alcoholism, the second of which he tried to cure during his last years with institutional help; and in 1972 he killed himself by jumping from the Washington Avenue Bridge above the Mississippi River.
So much for the outline, but there remain, of course, factors of the kind that tend not to be accommodated by a simple curriculum vitae. Chief among these are, first, the presence throughout Berryman’s life of his extravagantly demanding mother, Martha, whose ambition, both for herself and for her sons, and insatiable need for reciprocated love caused Berryman constant torment; and secondly, uncertainty as to the true circumstances of his father’s death. John Allyn was discovered dead early one morning, having apparently shot himself in the chest. There were, however, about the body no traces of the powder burns that would normally have been inevitable in such a case. This anomaly was never adequately investigated, so that, although Haffenden is too tactful to impose a judgment, one is obliged to consider, after reading his account, the possibility that the death was not quite what it had been made out to be.
Martha returned to the topic time and time again in letters to her son. Her main purpose seems to have been to persuade him that John Allyn’s death was an accidental one, in which case no one would have appeared guilty, but her accounts of the affair are so muddled that Haffenden is surely right at one point, after quoting two mutually contradictory versions, to say: ‘It is certainly possible that advancing years dulled her memory and that she sincerely believed each of her accounts as she wrote it, and yet the last two accounts were written within days of one another and contain manifest contradictions which must be intentional.’ It was as if she wished to make a final answer impossible.
Berryman’s own habit of returning to the problem in his journals has a similar, paradoxically evasive style to it. He approached the question from every possible angle, lighting upon new solutions with all the rapture of authentic discovery, and yet he never settled for one interpretation above the others. Haffenden has shrewd things to say about Berryman’s cast of mind, especially as it is revealed in those journal entries that concern this matter and the further questions of his drinking and sexual misbehaviour.‘His writings about himself seem to have been postulated on the belief that some fine day a specific insight might comprehend the entire pattern of his conduct,’ he observes; and, in another context: ‘It was his unhappy knack to encompass his own mentality in formulae; he was able to pick out certain insights, only to eclipse them with theory.’
Reading what Haffenden has chosen to quote from these journals, one is touched above all by Berryman’s zeal for honesty and all-inclusiveness. Every aspect of the man’s spiritual and physical agony – from grief and guilt to dandruff and diarrhoea – is laid bare for consideration. And yet one cannot help suspecting that what was meant to act as an aid to self-knowledge, following the highest ideals Of spiritual inquiry, became in the end a vehicle for delusion and protracted egomania. The answers he needed were, perhaps, not to be found in words, and yet he relied too heavily on this routine of verbal beating about the bush ever to relinquish it.
Something of the same manner of proceeding is to be identified in The Dream Songs. Here, at first, in the marvellous poems that begin the sequence, Berryman was able to joke bleakly about the perils of the enterprise:
I am obliged to perform in complete darkness
operations of great delicacy
– Mr Bones, you terrifies me.
But as time passed and Berryman had more and more automatic recourse to their comforting compactness – those three stanzas in which a few loose ideas could be assembled and given arbitrary meditational form – the art and humour of the earlier pieces gave way to the exigencies of on-the-spot autobiography. It is doubtful whether Berryman ever had clearly in mind a final, satisfying arrangement of The Dream Songs, and certainly, as he returned time and again to the great themes he never resolved – the deaths of his friends; his own multiple inadequacies; the general hor-ribleness of the world – the likelihood of coherence dwindled. Here the analogy with The Cantos seems more than ever pertinent.
It must be said, to Haffenden’s credit, that an entirely convincing picture of Berryman’s mental life emerges from his biography. He has achieved this, moreover, in spite of grave limitations imposed upon his performance. A number of Berryman’s friends and lovers, still living, have had to be referred to by initials and pseudonyms for reasons of tact. And although we learn a great deal about the subject’s fickleness and unreliability as a husband, none of his three wives, least of all the second, comes across as a distinctly animated personality, so that the reader never achieves a full understanding of these marriages.
By contrast, the public, performing Berryman is exceedingly well-documented. School friends, university colleagues and students have all rushed forward with pen-portraits and testimonials. What his students have to say is particularly enlightening, for it is clear that Berryman took his teaching responsibilities very seriously – so seriously, indeed, that one woman recalls: ‘Mr Berryman often called me (on the phone), usually in a deeply agitated state, seeking assurance that he had been “outstanding” or “brilliant” at his morning lecture.’ Whereas he seldom got on even civilly with his academic colleagues, in university departments that he described as ‘leprous with faction’, he strove for an intense rapport with the students in his charge that some of them appear to have found inspirational, others daunting. Many of his relationships with female students carried, naturally, an erotic thrill, but in general he merely wished to teach to the best of his considerable ability. His short story,‘Wash far away’, in which a university lecturer, obsessed by the death of a friend, tries to explain to unamenable students the greatness of ‘Lycidas’, attests to the missionary zeal he himself felt.
‘All the prickliness John displayed with his colleagues vanished when he was with undergraduates,’ Eileen Simpson says. After returning from England, he was obliged to accept lowly academic jobs on insecure terms at one institution after another. These were difficult times, which Berryman failed to make any easier by his refusal to behave sociably with his colleagues, and by his constant procrastination when it came to working on projects – an edition of King Lear, a life of Stephen Crane – that might have provided the basis for financial security. Nonetheless, Simpson looks back on them with clear sight and affection. Her marriage to Berryman was wrecked by his unsteadiness and egotism, drinking and philandering, and yet she is able to celebrate the special mood of ambition and high adventure that drove him and his friends.
In a rather sentimental poem entitled ‘For John Berryman’, Robert Lowell declared:
Yet we had the same life,
one our generation offered
(Les Maudits – the compliment each American generation pays itself in passing),
and Simpson, too, seems to acknowledge a common spirit. Certainly Berryman, Lowell, Schwartz, Jarrell and Theodore Roethke, all near-contemporaries, appear to have shared not only a burning will to succeed but a powerful self-destructive bent as well. Alcoholic ruin, madness and suicide recur as the leitmotifs of her book. It is curious that these friends – only a loosely associated group-were able to see merit in each other at a time when few (if any) of them had produced work of quality. Their febrile high hopes for themselves and their lavish praise of each other would look distinctly absurd now, if it were not for the fact that they did achieve wonders in the end. Perhaps the communally-nurtured myth of their own brilliance was the very thing that allowed it to come into being.
The prose of Eileen Simpson’s memoir betrays, at times, the strain of perpetuating the myth. Delmore Schwartz, for instance, is described often enough as a brilliant talker, and yet none of his conversation reported here is particularly impressive, while much of it is downright callow. It has to be taken for granted that this person or that is gifted, charismatic, a genius. Lowell, we are assured, had ‘the good looks of a movie actor’. Why then do the photographs fail to substantiate this? Kenneth Burke is described as ‘a short, intense man with hair that stood straight from his high forehead as if electrified by the activity of his brain’ – which may be true, although it seems unlikely. Elsewhere, one reads of Allen Tate that ‘he wore a moustache which he used as a weapon in literary criticism.’
In spite of some telling descriptions, humorous anecdotes and accounts of the long rhapsodical literary conversations that were the staple of these young friendships, Simpson is at her best when she concentrates on Berryman himself. Here she tends to confirm and supplement the insights offered by Haffenden in his book, emphasising in particular Berry-man’s passivity and helplessness in the face of problems he deemed intractable. Simpson met Berryman while he was still engaged to marry an English girl. It soon became clear that this transatlantic relationship was unlikely to hold, and yet Berryman could not bring himself to end it.‘What he yearned for,’ Simpson says,‘was a letter from her which would release him honorably.’ At last it came. The same passivity is shown to operate elsewhere, as in Berryman’s playing of Don Juan.‘Surely,’ he is reported to have said,‘you must see that there is little pleasure to be had from all this. It’s a disease, an illness.’ And then there is the matter of suicide and Berryman’s fear that he may have inherited from his father the impulse to destroy himself.‘Suicide threatened him,’ Simpson concludes.‘He felt it as a kind of undertow, sucking at him, sometimes feebly, sometimes with terrifying strength, always, always there... ’
In both these admirable books, Simpson’s and Haffenden’s, Berryman comes across as a passionate but irresolute man whose ambitions vastly exceeded his capacity to fulfil them. One might go so far as to suggest that, desperately longing, just as each of his friends did, to be a great poet, but finding himself. lacking, first, the required discipline, and secondly, anything substantial to write about, he took the astonishingly brave step of making his life of failure the very subject of his best work. This was his one great act of resolution. Referring, in 1970, to his sprawling magnum opus, he admitted to having worked with a shortage of memories, but enough strong feelings to get him by.
Brilliantly, he saw how he might derive a virtue from the inevitable shapelessness of the sequence. Like the protagonist of a nightmare, who finds himself all of a sudden on a lit stage, but without a properly rehearsed or thought-out role, he made each song as it occurred to him a desperate improvisation, sometimes achieving the highest lyrical flights, sometimes falling flat on his face. The format of The Dream Songs allowed him to do both.
Arrive a time when all coons lose dere grip,
but is he come? Le’s do a hoedown, gal,
one blue, one shuffle,
if them is all you seem to réquire. Strip,
ol banger, skip us we, sugar; so hang
on one chaste evenin.
This stanza, about dancing for one’s life, comes from the second song, dedicated ‘to the memory of Daddy Rice who sang and jumped “Jim Crow” in Louisville in 1828’ – a fine tribute from one trouper to another.