John and Henry

Christopher Reid

  • The Life of John Berryman by John Haffenden
    Routledge, 451 pp, £15.00, September 1982, ISBN 0 7100 9216 4
  • Poets in their Youth: A Memoir by Eileen Simpson
    Faber, 272 pp, £10.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 571 11925 5

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.

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