Wednesday, December 17, 2014

John Berryman at 100

The University of Minnesota hosted a three-day event celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the poet John Berryman’s birth. Hurray!

I signed up for the first afternoon’s talks, but when I actually saw the schedule, my enthusiasm withered. Rather than asking themselves how Berryman’s work relates to life, the presenters were asking themselves how it relates to T. S. Eliot’s work and the plays of Shakespeare. Those who attended on the weekend were blessed with analyses of how Berryman’s poetry related to the poetry of Hart Crane and Ezra Pound. The lecture on Berryman’s unorthodox use of pronouns might have been the best of the lot. (I was out of town, alas!)

It's too bad, I think, that no one considered delivering a paper on the subject of Berryman’s connections to the evangelist St. Paul. Berryman taught at the U of M for many years, but as I recall (I should look it up) he was in the Humanities Department, not the English Department, and the course he taught was on the letters of Paul.

I didn’t take that class, but I heard Berryman speak in the men’s lounge on the second floor of Coffman Union a few times. By that time he’d won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, and I was surprised that only eight or ten people showed up for these free afternoon lectures.

Berryman slurred his words quite a bit at those events. I was naïve; I thought he had a speech impediment.

Two of the things he said in the course of those talks have stayed with me. 1) You should never ask a rhetorical question in a poem; 2) Wallace Stevens liked the color blue.

I also remember two remarks Berryman made during a drunken interview in Ireland with the BBC. At one point he confessed: “I didn’t want to be like Yeats. I wanted to be Yeats.”  And when questioned by the interviewer about his recent awards and celebrity, he responded: “I have twelve readers.” And he began to name them.

My favorite Dream Song in those days—perhaps every adolescent’s favorite—begins

Life is boring. We must not say so…

 My life wasn’t boring, but it was amusing to hear an adult admit as much. Another of my favorites began

Horrible Henry Huffed      the day
Unappeasable Henry sulked.

I wasn’t aware, or more likely had forgotten until I picked up the book again this morning, that these are the lines with which The Dream Songs open.

Much of the pleasure in reading Berryman’s poems comes from the effort required to make the rhythms fit the lines. More than most other poets, he sounds like someone declaiming to an audience, or at the very least, trying to work up muttered interior monologues into something orderly and substantial. There’s something almost Byronic about it all. Word inversions and the substitution of non-words for common ones help mask the banality of much of the subject matter. There are half-rhymes and fractured syntax, missing words and dropped word endings, but such effects and affectations soon grow tiresome, at least to me.

It may be that if you immersed yourself in The Dream Songs, reading them all at one sitting, out loud—you could do it in a few hours, I’ll bet—you’d burst through their melodramatic theatricality and self-loathing to latch more firmly onto Berryman’s unceasing interior struggle to make the music (and the humor) in the words somehow ennoble a life that’s out of control.

But right now, I can think of better ways to spend my time. For example, I’d prefer to reread Berryman’s subsequent book, Love & Fame. It’s true that many of these poems might just as well have been strung out into paragraphs. Well, there’s nothing wrong with a little prose now and then. Is there?

Back in college, what stuck with me especially was the section titled “Eleven Addresses to the Lord.” Something about a blue chair stuck in my mind.

So I went down to the basement and located the Berryman books. A slight scent of mold arose when I opened Love & Fame and began to read. The first address is so good I’m tempted to repeat it in full. It goes like this:

Master of beauty, craftsman of the snowflake, 
inimitable contriver,
endower of Earth so gorgeous & different from the boring Moon, 
thank  you for such as it is my gift.

I have made up a morning prayer to you 
containing with precision everything that most matters. 
“According to Thy will” the thing begins.
It took me off & on two days. It does not aim at eloquence.

You have come to my rescue again & again 
in my impassable, sometimes despairing years.
You have allowed my brilliant friends to destroy 
and I am still here, severely damaged, but functioning.

Unknowable, as I am unknown to my guinea pigs: 
how can I ‘love’ you?
I only as far as gratitude & awe 
confidently & absolutely go.

I have no idea whether we live again.
It doesn’t seem likely
from either the scientific or the philosophical point of view 
but certainly all things are possible to you,

and I believe as fixedly in the Resurrection-appearances to Peter & to Paul
as I believe I sit in this blue chair.
Only that may have been a special case 
to establish their initiatory faith.

Whatever your end may be, accept my amazement.
May I stand until death forever at attention 
for any your least instruction or enlightenment.
I even feel sure you will assist me again, Master of insight & beauty.

In these lines we hear vestiges of Berryman’s characteristic attempts to be honest (who else would refer to God as an “inimitable contriver” or to “the boring Moon”), and to be humorous (“as unknowable as I am to my guinea pigs”).

We also hear his penchant for archaic word order (“I only as far as gratitude & awe confidently & absolutely go”). Yet the sentiments seem less desparate and distracted, more humble and sincere, than the ones we too often find in The Dream Songs; as if an exhausted spirit, once hungry for love and fame, had finally said to itself, “What’s really going on here, beyond the confinements of my literary antecedents and ambitions?”

Am I suggesting that the only good poet is a Christian poet? Of course not. What I am trying to suggest is that poetry is a defense and a celebration of experience. Once you’ve analyzed the literary origins and influences, the psychological causes and the linguistic techniques, you’ve still got to establish whether the writer in question has anything of enduring importance to say to us.    

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