The Freedom of the Poet

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2181

A collection of prose pieces, mostly criticism, The Freedom of the Poet includes long and short essays, reviews, literary “notes,” and short stories. Contracted eight months before John Berryman’s death, the book was first organized under the tentative title “Selected Essays” and comprised thirty-seven pieces, eight of which had not been previously published. To these Robert Giroux, the poet’s publisher and friend, added the fine story “Wash Far Away” and an article, “The Ritual of W. B. Yeats,” the earliest work in the collection, originally published in 1936 in The Columbia Review. Berryman eventually changed his title to the one of the volume, drew up a formal table of contents dividing the prose into five sections, and on January 7, 1970, two years before he leaped to his death from a bridge over the Mississippi, drafted a statement about his own practice of criticism, a fragment that he intended to expand into a preface. At that time, still full of hope, he wrote Giroux, “Hurrah for me: my prose collection is going to be a beauty.”

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So it has proved to be. Showing few signs of the depression that finally overwhelmed him, the essays, ranging over thirty years of his career, are controlled, meaty; written with wit and sensitivity, sound scholarship, intelligence, and sane good humor. Although many are brief, registering the impressions of the moment, none are trivial. This is not to say that over the years Berryman’s judgments have, in every specific, proved to be reliable. Because many of his reviews of current literature were composed in response to the circumstances of publication, they betray the shortsightedness of the moment. For example, his youthful essay on Yeats’s drama, quite appreciative considering the time when it was written, evidences from a modern point of view insufficient knowledge of the Japanese Nh Theatre, central to an understanding of the Irish poet’s ritual action. Nevertheless, even at twenty-two Berryman shows the dedication, care, and fine discrimination that marks his mature criticism. A serious student of literature, he endeavors to show how the artist, breaking free from the bondage of his own life experiences, is able to express a new, more human sense of reality. Thus the “freedom of the poet” is to extend and enrich the values of life for everyone.

As a critic, Berryman attaches to no particular school, although he says that his practice “was influenced in its inception by T. S. Eliot, R. P. Blackmur, Ezra Pound, and William Empson.” Other critics, past and contemporary, whom he mentions with admiration are Dr. Johnson, Coleridge, Mark Van Doren, D. H. Lawrence, and John Crowe Ransom—diverse thinkers, certainly. Yet a clue to his method, or at least his direction, can be understood from his pointed reference to Kafka’s statement: “The story came out of me like a real birth, covered with slime and blood.” The touchstone of Berryman’s criticism is his empathy with the artist. As a poet sensible to another poet (by which is meant any artist, no matter the medium), he attempts to undergo, through re-creating the experience, the birth-pangs and final deliverance of the art form. At his best, Berryman discovers the freedom of the poet by struggling vicariously, along with the artist, against the forces that always attempt to prevent expression: indolence, crassness, ignorance, self-deception.

One final quotation cited with approval by the author—this from Conrad—offers further insight into his method: “All the great creations of literature have been symbolic, and in that way have gained in complexity, in power, in depth and in beauty.” Berryman values literature not for the sake of its social but its aesthetic consequences. Although he is sympathetic to a social realist like Dreiser, he admires that author’s enterprise, symbolic of American vigor, rather than his deterministic message. Further attempts to define Berryman’s critical strategy are likely to fall short of precision. His roots, to be sure, are in the “New Criticism,” with its emphasis upon close and independent textual analysis of the work; but his approach is too eclectic to classify according to any particular school. Indeed, much of his finest criticism, notably on English writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is founded upon rigorous historical scholarship. On the whole, we are well-advised to accept Berryman’s opinion: “My interest in critical theory has been slight.”

That cannot be said about his practice of criticism. Following Berryman’s directions, Giroux divides the pieces of the collection into sections treating the Elizabethans; other English and European writers; works of American fiction; poets and poetry; and stories. While one might expect the essays on American writers—particularly on American poets—to be the most penetrating, as a matter of fact Berryman’s best work concerns writers of the English Renaissance. The poet seems to have a special affinity with artists of this robust age. On Shakespeare he includes five essays—three articles and two notes; also he has short monographs on “Marlowe’s Damnations” and “Thomas Nashe and The Unfortunate Traveller.” The most interesting papers from this group are on Nashe and “Shakespeare at Thirty.” With characteristic appreciation for his subjects, he catches the writers in mid-career, concerned with questions of their art. Other scholars have speculated on Shakespeare’s “lost years,” as well as on the somewhat less mysterious years of his early apprenticeship as a dramatist. After a careful review of their meager evidence on these matters, Berryman boldly advances his thesis concerning Shakespeare’s artistic development. From a study of the sonnets particularly, he attempts to understand the poet’s intellectual growth at this stage in his career. Berryman’s approach is to learn the secrets of the creative process, the laws under which the young Stratford actor gained his “freedom.” Similarly, in treating Nashe’s less massive but authentic talents, Berryman examines the writer from the point of view of his artistic apprenticeship. For example, he analyzes Nashe’s prose style, not as an exercise in linguistics or Elizabethan rhetoric, but to discover the writer’s growing mastery of his art. Always, Berryman the artist tries to understand the moment of creation, the forces that come together at a specific time to make possible a writer’s freedom of expression. Thus he is interested in those episodes from the writer’s life that lead to the inevitable creation. Also, he is concerned with those historical forces, social or moral, that play their part in the writer’s background. Yet he makes clear his belief that creation is mysterious and wonderful, a moment in art that cannot be understood wholly on the basis of facts alone.

At times, searching for the mysterious forces involved in the poet’s creation, Berryman hypothesizes on the basis of insufficient knowledge. For example, he suggests that in The Tempest the key to Prospero’s anxiety may be discovered in the playwright’s private griefs. Because we simply lack solid information about Shakespeare’s relationship with his daughters, any fancies about his supposed problems with them would seem to be baseless. It is hazardous to guess how the poet must have felt—such tenuous speculation of the “must have” variety has already been exposed as futile by L. C. Knights in “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” Fortunately, Berryman does not often slip into fallacy. For the most part, he avoids impressionistic criticism, which usually is more interesting as autobiography than commentary.

Nevertheless, one of the most important essays concerns Berryman’s impressions of his own poetry. In “One Answer to a Question: Changes,” the poet treats with frankness the question whether he sees his work “as having essentially changed in character or style” since he began. Berryman responds by reviewing briefly his career, noting changes in his style, measuring his own strengths and limitations as a poet, and finally by assisting the common reader to approach his work. The essay, well worth the price of the entire volume, is essential for lovers of Berryman’s poetry.

Many other essays are similarly helpful—a word which is not at all intended to denigrate the writer’s achievement. For Berryman, like any good teacher, tries earnestly to help readers appreciate a literary work by providing a straightforward exposition of the subject. His critical voice is that of a guide, rather than of a pedant or seer. A tone of reasonableness, civility, and underlying seriousness runs through the essays. Tolerant of many forms of literary expression, Berryman is comfortable as an advocate of the artist; very rarely does he slash at reputations. On such occasions when he disparages a writer, he is careful to attack a principle, not simply the writer’s personality.

An example is his remarkable essay on “The Case of Ring Lardner,” one part of a longer essay titled “Enslavement: Three American Cases.” The other two writers criticized for some limitation of their freedom as artists are Theodore Dreiser and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Berryman believes that Dreiser never attained the fullest expression of his art, because of his subjectivity and his reliance upon a deterministic pattern that would not permit the dramatic interplay of life forces. And he faults Fitzgerald, whom he admires in different ways, because of his reliance upon formula. But in treating Ring Lardner, a writer of genuine talent, his strictures are morally indignant. “It is impossible to read the account of Lardner’s life,” he writes, “without admiration for his courage and dignity, and sympathy for his misery. The question is whether in it—never mind his work yet—one can perceive the sense of purposefulness that is obvious and strong in the lives of, say, Dreiser and Fitzgerald (drunkards, too, and popular and acquaintances of Lardner), or the drive toward expression visible in them.”

For Berryman, the fatal weakness in a writer must be his lack of purposefulness—seriousness—and his failure to express with candor the artistic voice within him. Such a weakness would deprive him of freedom, indeed would enslave him in a personal hell. “His art,” Berryman writes sadly of Lardner, “did nothing for Lardner.” On the other hand, Hemingway, another writer limited because of his simplistic vision of the world, at least had the courage of his own despair. Berryman admires the writer for expressing the absolute pain of nothingness. In Hemingway’s art, a sense of austere purposefulness elevated the best of his writings to a position of tragic dignity.

Berryman also praises, though for different reasons, other writers who express their art with purposeful honesty: Joseph Conrad, Anne Frank, Isaac Babel, “Monk” Lewis, Cervantes, Henry James, Stephen Crane, Saul Bellow. The wide range of subjects tells us something about Berryman’s catholic tastes. Yet his essays are never superficial, in spite of their inclusiveness. Berryman writes not simply to polish the luster of famous writers, so to shine in their reflection; his intention is to discover their expression of some vital human truth. Sometimes the truth is quite simple. In his essay “The Development of Anne Frank,” he avoids, for the most part, the expected sentimental clichés in dealing with the young girl’s wartime suffering or early death. Instead, he observes that Anne’s diary is unusual because of its sanity—and rare it is to find “a sane person in the twentieth century.” To Berryman Anne’s little book is an expression of “the most remarkable account of normal human adolescent maturation” he had ever read, a true record of “the conversion of a child into a person.” For that reason, more than the tragic conditions attaching to it, the book has universal significance. Berryman wryly notes that in literature the subject of normal experience is quite exceptional.

Like his critical pieces, the poet’s short stories exhibit a quality of common sense based upon experience. In “Despondency and Madness: On Lowell’s ’Skunk Hour,’” he treats the long poem from the vantage of his own knowledge, as one who has also experienced depression. “One thing critics not themselves writers of poetry occasionally forget,” he writes, “is that poetry is composed by actual human beings, and tracts of it are very closely about them.” He continues: “When Shakespeare wrote, ’Two loves I have,’ reader, he was not kidding.” Berryman too is not kidding when he describes the defeat of a certain professor in “Wash Far Away.” Perhaps the finest treatment of an academic theme since Trilling’s “Of This Time, Of That Place,” the story is arguably the most brilliant of a number of first-rate short fictions that appear to touch the author’s own life experiences. These include “Thursday Out,” “The Lovers,” “All Their Colours Exiled,” and “The Imaginary Jew.” Taken together with the criticism, the stories are bound to enhance the reputation of a poet already established as one of the greatest of his generation, and for many readers one of the greatest to write in the English language. Berryman’s posthumous The Freedom of the Poet is an unexpected gift, a legacy that is all the more cherished because the poet’s mighty voice is forever stilled.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 33

Atlantic. CCXXXVIII, July, 1976, p. 95.

Book World. June 6, 1976, p. H4.

New Republic. CLXXIV, June 5, 1976, p. 23.

New York Times Book Review. April 25, 1976, p. 3.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LII, Autumn, 1976, p. 707.

Wall Street Journal. CLXXXVIII, July 7, 1976, p. 14.

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