In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot asserts thatthe more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.
Poetry, to Eliot, is “not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” Regardless of what Eliot’s critical stock is worth these days, there is an essential truth in what he says. Of course, poetry has brought to its readers the sweetest joys and the bitterest sorrows that human flesh is heir to, from “sweet silent thought” to “barbaric yawp.” To the extent, however, that poets present their passions to the reader undigested, untransmuted, they damage the quality of their work as poetry. The more loudly personality speaks in a poem, the more art is forced to falter, to stutter. The poem—and the poet, and the reader—suffers.
To the extent to which “the man who suffers” and “the mind which creates” are not kept separate, to that extent will that poet’s art be imperfect. A case in point is Berryman. There is much in his work that is brilliant; since his death, his stature has grown. There is no denying that he suffered much in his life, and risked much, dared much, in his poetry. What he was never really able to do was to find the voice and mode that would allow him, not to banish personality from his poems but to keep personality from getting in the way, from obstructing the proper work of the poem.
Berryman’s Sonnets, though unpublished until 1967, was written mostly some twenty years earlier. These poems are the poet’s first sustained use of what may be called his “mature style,” much of his previous work being rather derivative. The 115 sonnets form a sequence that recounts the guilty particulars of an adulterous love affair between a hard-drinking academic named Berryman and a harder-drinking woman named Lise, with the respectively wronged wife and husband in supporting roles. The affair, as the sonnets record it, is a curious mixture of sex, Scotch, and Bach (Lise’s favorite, her lover preferring Mozart), punctuated by allusions right out of a graduate seminar, from the Old Testament to E. E. Cummings.
In form, the sonnets are Petrarchan, with here and there an additional fifteenth line. In his adherence, more or less, to the stanzaic and metric demands of the sonnet, Berryman pays a sort of homage to earlier practitioners of the form. At the same time, he is attempting to forge a mode of expression that is anything but Petrarchan, in spite of the fact that, as Hayden Carruth pointed out in a review in Poetry (May, 1968), the poems “touch every outworn convention of the sonnet sequence—love, lust, jealousy, separation, time, death, the immortality of art, etc.” Carruth points out in the same review that “the stylistic root of The Dream Songs” is present in the sonnets, with those attributes that came to be trademarks of Berryman’s style—“archaic spelling, fantastically complex diction, tortuous syntax, formalism, a witty and ironic attitude toward prosody generally.” A concentrated if somewhat mild example of how Berryman combines any number of these traits within a few lines is the octet of “Sonnet 49”:
One note, a daisy, and a photograph, To slake this siege of weeks without you, all. Your dawn-eyed envoy, welcome as Seconal, To call you faithful . . . now this cenotaph, A shabby mummy flower. Note I keep safe, Nothing, on a ration slip a social scrawl— Not that it didn’t forth some pages call Of my analysis, one grim paragraph.
There are enjoyable juxtapositions here. Outdated words such as “slake” and “cenotaph,” the oversweetness of “dawn-eyed envoy,” ranged about the all-too-contemporary simile, “welcome as Seconal,” are no accident. There is an irreverent literary mind at work here, orchestrating intentionally a little out of tune. It is harder to appreciate or justify a phrase such as “not that it didn’t forth some pages call/ Of my analysis.” Such syntax is a high price to pay for a rhyme, and much more extreme examples could be cited.
On the whole, the sequence is successful, but the seeds of Berryman’s eventual undoing are here. The confessional nature of the poems (Berryman did experience just such an affair in 1947, and required a good deal of psychoanalysis afterward) makes it plain enough why their publication was delayed so long, but it also leads the reader to wonder whether they should have been published at all. In his attempts to work within a fairly strict form, he shows a tendency to force rhyme and overburden meter. His literary name-dropping (“O if my syncrisis/ Teases you, briefer than Propertius’ in/ This paraphrase by Pound—to whom I owe three letters”), private allusions, and inside jokes present a dangerous intrusion of the idiosyncratic, the personal. With more shaping, more revision, more distance generally, the sequence could have been much more artistically successful than it is. Perhaps part of Berryman’s intention was to get the thing on paper “as it was,” to share his raw feelings with the reader. The best of the sonnets, by their wit and craft, speak against such a supposition. They contain, as a group, too much undigested Berryman to be placed, as some have placed them, beside the sonnets of William Shakespeare. Lise is...
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