Two Americas and a Scotland

Nicholas Everett

  • Collected Poems, 1937-1971 by John Berryman, edited by Charles Thornbury
    Faber, 348 pp, £17.50, February 1990, ISBN 0 571 14317 2
  • The Dream Songs by John Berryman
    Faber, 427 pp, £17.50, February 1990, ISBN 0 571 14318 0
  • Poems 1959-1979 by Frederick Seidel
    Knopf, 112 pp, $19.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 394 58021 4
  • These Days by Frederick Seidel
    Knopf, 50 pp, $18.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 394 58022 2
  • A Scottish Assembly by Robert Crawford
    Chatto, 64 pp, £5.99, April 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3595 6

Whether in person or in print, self-consciousness is unsettling. Self-conscious writers, like self-conscious speakers, can’t help betraying that they’re more concerned with their interest in a subject, and the manner which conveys that interest, than in the subject itself. A poet’s earliest efforts are usually marred by self-consciousness and John Berryman’s are no exception to the rule. For most poets, however, finding a distinct and convincing voice is, at least in part, a process of shedding unwanted affectations and exaggerated self-importance. For Berryman the process was reversed. He learnt to capitalise on his self-consciousness, to seem to intend it. His detractors claim that all his work is mannered and self-indulgent, and they’re right: but the best of it – a couple of ‘The Nervous Songs’, some of the sonnets, most of The Dream Songs – opens up a saving gap between a displayed self-consciousness and the poet who lurks behind it.

Like Lowell, Berryman was raised in the New Critical stable. He devoured R.P. Blackmur’s essays while still an undergraduate at Columbia, where Mark Van Doren was his teacher and mentor; and Robert Penn Warren was the editor (at Southern Review) whom he first sought to impress. But if the New Critical aesthetic disciplined Berryman it also inhibited him. It gave him a good technical training, but its insistence on what he later called ‘Eliot’s amusing theory of the impersonality of the artist’ led him to obscure his one true subject: himself. The best creative products of American New Criticism (to which Regionalism was a more or less necessary complement) are historically, regionally and ideologically rooted poems. In ‘Ode to the Confederate Dead’ and ‘The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket’, respectively, Tate’s perspective derives from Classical and Lowell’s from Catholic tradition. Berryman had no political or religious mask through which he could speak; nor was his imagination rooted in a particular geographical or historical setting. He had already by the age of 23 lived in Oklahoma, Florida and New York, and been educated in Connecticut, New York City and Cambridge, England.

His first full-length collection, The Dispossessed (1948), shows him trying, like the boy in ‘The Ball Poem’, to learn the ‘epistemology of loss’. The word ‘difficulty’ crops up in three successive poems in the book’s second part. In ‘Caravan’ and ‘The Possessed’ it refers to the loss of childhood certainties; and ‘On the London Train’ asks us to

Summon an old lover’s ghost,
He’ll swear no man has lied
Who spoke of the painful and most
Embarrassing ordeal this side
Satisfaction, – while the green
Difficulties later are
More than Zeus could bear.

Apparently the ‘ordeal’ here is unrequited love, and the ‘difficulties’ are sexual jealousy: Berryman’s ‘Note on Poetry’ (appended to his ‘Twenty Poems’ in Five Young American Poets, 1940) paraphrases the poem to ‘illustrate what it is that a poem does in being a poem’. His exemplary New Critical comments on this stanza’s conflicts ‘between syntax and verse-form’ also confirm our original impression: that the poem’s most striking quality is its poet’s effort to be objective and succinct – an effort which sacrifices intellectual and emotional involvement along with clarity.

The ten ‘Nervous Songs’ towards the end of The Dispossessed are much more successful. Each is comprised of three six-line stanzas, an early version of the ‘extended three-part sonnet’, as Berryman called it, used throughout The Dream Songs. In ‘A Professor’s Song’ he draws clearly and effectively on his own experience for the first time; throughout his life, writing and reading apart, teaching – at Wayne State, Harvard, Princeton and, from 1954, Minneapolis – was the activity into which he threw most of his energy.

‘A poet is a man speaking to men’:
But I am then a poet, am I not? –
Ha ha. The radiator, please. Well, what?

Alive now – no – Blake would have written prose,
But movement following movement crisply flows

So much the better, better the much so.
As burbleth Mozart. Twelve. The class can go.
Until I met you, then; in Upper Hell
Convulsed, foaming immortal blood: farewell.

After the starched, faceless, uniform formality of poems like ‘On the London Train’, these sharp idiomatic shifts, at once hysterical and droll, come as quite a surprise. All the more so because they succeed, where the previous idiomatic uniformity doesn’t, in creating‘ a convincing voice. The poet is emphatically not a poet by the Wordsworthian definition the professor quotes. He doesn’t drop all literary pretence to speak plainly to men, but pushes the poor speaker through his postures, and brings his literariness out into the open.

Variation of idiom, this time almost line by line, results in a similar mix of melodrama and bathos in the apology Berryman wrote in 1966 for publishing his 1947 sequence of love sonnets. Composed secretly and impulsively, the latter had given vent to his feelings of excitement, guilt, anxiety and dejection about his first extra-marital affair. So should it be published or burnt?

          The original fault
will not be undone by fire.

The original fault was whether wickedness
was soluble in art. History says it is,
Jacques Marilain says it is,
barely. So free them to the winds that play,
let boys – girls with these old songs have holiday
if they feel like it.

The sequence originally appeared, then, in 1967 under a title – Berryman’s Sonnets – suggested by Robert Giroux, Berryman’s publisher and old friend from Columbia days. The Blonde Lady of the sonnets was given the pseudonym ‘Lise’. As editor of the Collected Poems, 1937-1971, Charles Thornbury has decided to follow the final 1947 version, thus restoring Lise’s real name and the sequence’s original title, ‘Sonnets to Chris’. (He has, though, retained the sonnets written in 1966 to round the sequence off, adding two – 115 and 116, the only previously unpublished poems in either of the Berryman books under review – which Berryman submitted just too late for inclusion.)

The restitution of ‘Chris’ is a definite improvement in the text, if not in the title. It corrects the rhymes in sonnet 4, and elucidates all the Elizabethan-style puns on her name: ‘crise’ (18), ‘chrisom’ (72), and, most notably, ‘synchrisis’ (27), where Chris is the centre-piece of a multiple pun describing the effect of their affair on Berryman’s life (crisis), his attitude to dividing his loyalties between wife and lover (sin, syncretism), and even the art of the sonnets themselves (synchysis: a jumbled arrangement of words in a sentence obscuring the meaning). Puns play a large role in the whole sequence’s code-like, compressed language. ‘Scald’, from sonnet 40, is one Berryman must have particularly relished, bringing together as it does poetry and injury; a later dream song elegy to Theodore Roethke calls exact description hitting ‘the head on the nail’.

If the sonnets are the most effusive and unpremeditated of Berryman’s works – his journal describes them coming ‘helplessly’ – they are also, paradoxically, the most self-consciously literary and mannered. Strained syntactical inversions, and extended conceits, comparisons with famous lovers and sonneteers, and discussions of how they should be written abound. In The Life of John Berryman (1982), John Haffenden has shown that they ‘reveal just how little Berryman could respond – from want of contact and knowledge, not desire – to Chris herself. More and more he drew on his own imaginative invention and on literary analogues.’ Haffenden’s conclusion, however, that they are ‘at worst ... enormously self-engrossed’, should be qualified. When Berryman is describing a real meeting, as at the end of sonnet 42, the results tend to be embarrassing and unconvincing, his self-absorbed manner affected rather than affecting. On the other hand, the sonnets that concentrate from the start on their own processes or on his (sometimes outrageous) imaginings are more evocative of his emotion and more painfully honest in acknowledging the largely imaginary nature of the relationship. For instance, in sonnet 62 Berryman sees himself as Chris’s sacrificial lamb:

what makes you then this ominous wide blade
I’d run from O unless I bleat to die?
Nothing: you are not: woman blonde, called Chris.
It is I lope to be your sheep, to wade
Thick in my cordial blood, to howl and sigh
As I decide ... if I could credit this.

In 1948 Berryman wrote the first two stanzas of his ‘official’ rendition of the deadlock between duty and desire, the one for public consumption. When Homage to Mistress Bradstreet was completed, five years later, Allen Tate, Lowell and others gave its studied historicism and technical effects unqualified approval. Berryman’s reputation was made, but his best work was still to come. The poem involves a modern, gnostic poet, for whom nothing is more important than writing high verse, going back three centuries to observe, and talk with, the colonial poet Anne Bradstreet, for whom, by contrast, the claims of marriage, motherhood and above all Christianity are much more important than those of poetry. Of the poem’s 57 stanzas (based on the stanza Yeats adopted from Abraham Cowley for ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’), the modern poet speaks the first and last four, while Bradstreet has the run of the middle section, ultimately resisting his attempts to knock her off her ‘hopeful and shamefast, chaste’ and pious course.

The poem is as visibly costive and deliberate in its composition as the sonnets are spontaneous and involuntary. Its elliptic syntax and abrupt, verbless sentences often completely check the momentum. Yet this may well be its point. The decisive moment in the poem comes in stanza 30 when Bradstreet has now sooner invited consummation – ‘Kiss me’ – than dispatched it into the past – ‘That once.’ In the instant between these sentences Berryman is for the only time in the poem on the threshold of resolving its thematic conflicts; and for the only time in his published poetry on the threshold of real drama. (He wrote several plays and fragments of plays in verse which never appeared.) He recoils, however, from both possibilities, preferring to keep the links between his characters purely intellectual, not physical, and their respective aesthetic and moral worlds firmly apart. A specific dramatic context would have compromised the prurient yet cerebral fantasy from which the poem originates, and would probably have stopped it dead in its tracks.

The Dream Songs, much more entertaining than Bradstreet and, indeed, the most entertaining American long poem written this century, has often been compared to nondramatic theatrical forms such as puppet-shows, ventriloquism and (‘psychic’) ‘vaudeville’. It adds some new idioms to Berryman’s repertoire, blackface minstrelsy and ‘kid talk’ among them. But its most original, and arguably its founding, device is the shifting pronoun. Henry, the poem’s speaker and main subject, talks, – or rather growls, grumbles, whimpers and whines – to and usually about himself. His occupation of all three persons singular sets him off from poet and reader alike, staples him to the poem, yet also displays a thorough and regressive self-absorption. Indeed, all the rhetoric that surrounds his presentation has this dual effect. ‘Huffy Henry’, ‘seedy Henry’, ‘bitter Henry’, ‘goatish Henry’: his epithets give him a formal and removed presence, yet unlike Homeric epithets, they are various and distinctly unheroic. The character whose blackface and deferential interjections occasionally interrupt Henry’s monologue is like a cross between a servant and the reality principle. Calling Henry ‘Mr Bones’ or ‘Sah’, he ups Henry’s status and dignity even as he punctures his fleshy fantasies with bone-truths. The words tacked onto the end of statements are another frequent reminder of Henry’s stage presence: his remarks are transformed by ‘pal’ into mock camaraderie, by ‘O’ into mock refrains, by ‘kid’ into mock pedagogy, and, in the songs of the late Sixties, ‘man’ does its work too and lays Henry back.

Despite Berryman’s retroactive attempts to organise The Dream Songs – using structural models as diverse as The Divine Comedy, Archbishop Philip Carrington’s version of the liturgical structure of the Bible, the Iliad and Don Quixote – the poem has no effective narrative or discursive progression. Henry’s circumstances are substantially Berryman’s, but he is depicted in isolation (with ‘friends at the end of’ his pains) rather than as part of a plot. Nevertheless, even the poem’s individual sections don’t really need thematic unity. ‘They help each other out,’ as Berryman hoped they would; the repeated 18-line form soon becomes such an inevitable fixture that it can accommodate the most disparate material. Here is section 175:

Old King Cole was a merry old soul and a merry old soul was Henry
He called for his butts – he called for his bowl
– he called for his fiddlers three
in vain. Blank prose took hold of Henry’s soul
considering all the deaths and considering.
There is a little life upstairs

playing her nursery rhymes to be considered
also. And there is a tall life out in the car
to be thought on, established from afar.
Henry has much to do.

take a deep breath then, sigh, relax, continue.
This world is a solemn place, with room for tennis.

Everybody’s mouth
Is somewhere else, I know, somebody’s anus.
I speak a mystery, only to you.
Here’s all my blood in pawn.

Rhetorical affectation and statement of literal truth – from the thwarted nursery rhyme through the ‘simple’ view of the family to the final desperate pledge – are here, as so often in the poem, inseparable. The last stanza’s second line is especially memorable in the way its general, conceptual assertion yields to an oddly compelling and amusing spatial image.

Berryman wrote his first dream song in August 1955 when he was 40, and his last in January 1972, two days before his suicide. Neither appears in the 385-strong official canon. He omitted hundreds when publishing the first instalment, 77 Dream Songs, in 1964; and then tried to stem their flow in order to arrange the final volume, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968). Thereafter he continued to compose them quite regularly ‘just out of habit’, but, determined not to become a minor follower of his own originality, refused to publish them (though many have since been collected by John Haffenden in Henry’s Fate and Other Poems, 1977). The poems he did publish, in Love – Fame (1971) and Delusions, Etc (1972), the latter appearing posthumously, are personal lyrics, mainly in quatrains, and prayers. Part Two of Love – Fame makes liberal use of the letters Berryman wrote his mother from Cambridge from 1936 to 1938. Ironically, the letters themselves (edited by Richard Kelly in We dream of honour, 1988) often have the bathetic tone, the self-mocking grandiosity, on which The Dream Songs thrives but which the simple lyrics in Love – Fame rarely achieve. Berryman’s ‘Afterword’ to the first British edition of the latter only serves to emphasise the books’ failings. He stresses that the poet is removed from his apparent bragging, and that each section undercuts the one before, with the last, ‘Eleven Addresses to the Lord’, revealing the wholly ironic import of the book’s title.

Such bitter, self-directed ironies, conjured by a single section (if not line) of the best dream songs, are the most impressive feature of his work. Only Whitman and Pound (in his early work), among American poets, have the same capacity to make us feel complicit with the poets behind their posturing. Berryman alludes to ‘Song of Myself’ in the dream song quoted above – ‘I speak a mystery, only to you’ – and he is in a sense an anguished 20th-century obverse of Whitman, as the very next line implies: offhand, despairing, ‘Here’s all my blood in pawn’ isn’t quite the freely given self we associate with Whitman. Self-consciousness is in neither of their work investigated or analysed. Whitman seems to be at once its delighted creator and its proper end. Conversely, Berryman’s affectations give the impression that he’s turned an incurable affliction – ‘irreversible loss’ is his diagnosis of Henry in the prefatory ‘Note’ to The Dream Songs – into a comic creation. There are few better compensations for what Haffenden calls the ‘vicissitudes of the sense of identity’ than saying them so well.

Subjectivity is more of a chosen theme in Frederick Seidel’s poetry, its treatment more varied, though certain images are clearly favourites. A raised hand, for instance, appears in almost exactly the same terms in different poems about departure and death. ‘To My Friend Anne Hutchinson’ compares a dying friend – ‘Between the unreal and the next world, stretched taut’ – to a ‘fiancée’ who

Stares past the left hand she holds up
At a distance from her face,

while ‘The Soul Mate’ is imagined ‘waving goodbye’, his fist

opening and closing up to the air
To breathe. The child
Stares past his hand. The blank stares at the child.

In both cases, the eye can see beyond the waving hand but only to transform the latter’s gesture into one of surrender. Convinced that this world is ‘unreal’ and outstared by the ‘blank’, vision has no power with which to replace the affirmation it undermines. The mirror images in ‘Not to be born is obviously best of all’ and ‘The Girl in the Mirror’ prompt a more explicit paradox: the impossibility both of being and, in another way, of not being oneself. ‘Already there,’ the former concludes, yet ‘Still waiting! It is too late to be yourself.’ The girl in the latter, again in similar terms, confronts

The Same
Morning ink blot in the mirror
Making a face up,

Making up a face. You need
All your strength
Never to be yourself.

The self’s bewildering divisions, then, are declared and examined by Seidel rather than compulsively performed.

Poems 1959-1979, a generous selection from his first two books, Final Solutions (1963) and Sunrise (1980), has been published to coincide with the appearance of his third collection, These Days. Together, they give a greater idea of his development than the Chatto and Windus volume, Men and Woman (1984), in which new were interspersed with selected poems. Fantasy and reality, history (both ancient and modern) and biography, nice visual observation and neat epigrammatic utterance, are all deftly interwoven in the best of his earlier work. The most obvious example of this is ‘To My Friend Anne Hutchinson’ where descriptions of the friend and allusions to her namesake, the heresiarch, are mutually enriching. Other – less emotive – poems thrive on their refusal to privilege either personal or political and historical concerns. Many of the Poems 1959-1979, moreover, are triumphs of formal discipline: ‘The Heart Attack’, in which the ‘long-dead mistress’ of a Roman legionnaire speaks to him in a dream which ends in a real heart attack, gains by its exact fidelity to a complicated metrical scheme.

A new urgency and fragmentariness are evident in the freer verse of the later poems in These Days. Violations of conventional syntax and taunting self-references (‘Everything I’ve written here is lies,’ claims ‘On Wings of Song’) give them an air of exhausted intensity. The calm, metaphorical shifts in the early poems are here replaced by feverish free-association – ‘The naive fields of sunflowers don’t know they suffer. / Suffer the little sunflowers to come unto me’ – either in tiny staccatoed sentences or in heaped parallel clauses. ‘The Last Poem in the Book’ recharges itself on its hurried path by repeating phrases and close variants of them: ‘I don’t believe in anything, I do / Believe in you’ reappears as

I don’t believe in anything I do
Believe in, but I do believe in you.

A sceptic’s genuine emotion warped into an unwilling believer’s lack of emotion? The poem doesn’t pause to explain but takes off again towards its orgasmic and nihilistic end:

I’m coming now to the conclusion that
Without a God. I’m coming now to the conclusion.

Many readers, I’m sure, will prefer the more controlled, withheld voice sustained here in ‘Scotland’, ‘A Dimpled Cloud’ and a few other poems, but most will agree that the ruffled, perplexed responses in ‘AIDS DAYS’ and ‘Stanzas’ (on the Holocaust) are well justified. And it’s odd, considering Seidel’s range and skill, that none of his poems has found a place in the most available anthologies of recent American poetry.

‘Jealousy for the national honour’ was among Berryman’s ‘motives for making poetry’ but occupied a much less prominent position than it evidently does on Robert Crawford’s list. Crawford’s promising first collection would go down better at Hampden Park than at Wembley, to say the least, though some critics there might quibble with its epigraph from Margaret Atwood: ‘Some people think that the word Nationalism means “let’s all put on jackboots and kill everybody else” but our cultural nationalism has a very modest mandate – namely, that we exist. It seems to threaten some people.’

A Scottish Assembly contains a welter of reminders that Scotland and the Scots exist. The cities and towns, the landscape, the climate, the lives of the famous – and not so famous – inventors, and select details from the history, are the subjects of a vast majority of its poems. It’s not, however, anything like a guidebook in verse; indeed, the falsifications of the tourist industry are among the targets of the more satirical poems. The poet’s unillusioned attachment to his country gets its clearest expression, perhaps, in ‘Truth’:

Home truths don’t sell. We need a big T
Marketed like a leading brand
With a catchy name – ‘William Wallace’ or ‘Key –
Easy to understand.

Commuters from the Cotswolds, Surrey and Hove
Voted for it in a booth.
Only extremists now could love
Scotland more than The Truth.

The force of Crawford’s poetry, it seems to me, depends on the use he makes of his extraordinary fund of metaphors. The various definitions of ‘Home’ work well and lead somewhere, while the links between Scotland and microtechnology, in ‘Scotland’ (2), only lead back to the original metaphor: ‘chip of a nation’. But pruning, unlike imagination, can be learned and Crawford looks set to become a very accomplished poet.