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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in