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Berryman, John 1914–1972
Berryman, an American, wrote tense and idiosyncratic poetry, sometimes exuberant, sometimes anguished, often complex and self-preoccupied. His autobiographical novel fragment, Recovery, was published posthumously. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)
John Berryman is one of those poets whom you either love or loathe. Yet even the loathers have grudgingly to admit that the man is extraordinary—too extraordinary, they would add—with a queer, distinct voice of his own. Personally, I find that voice powerful and undeniable, and one which, despite its vacillations and variations, already has to its credit a remarkably solid achievement, culminating in his intricate, anguished, unprecedented poem, 'Homage to Mistress Bradstreet'.
'Homage' is an intimidatingly difficult piece of work, but compared to 77 Dream Songs it is as clear as Mother Goose…. [Unlike] Pound, Berryman is touting no theories, promoting no programme for Kulchur or society. The Dream Songs are, instead, the fragmentary inner biography, the perceptions by which he lives, of a character called Henry….
[The Dream Songs seem] at first confusing, impenetrable, distracting. Yet finally it doesn't matter; as you get into the book you realize that these irritations are like nervous tics, simply part of the man. For Berryman is deliberately a mannerist who, out of his fraught nerviness, has made an original and remarkably flexible style. In his earlier work his wit was often swamped by his intensity. The Dream Songs, being more relaxed and personal, are at times very funny….
A. Alvarez, "John Berryman" (originally published in The Observer, 1964), in his Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955–1967 (copyright © 1968 by A. Alvarez; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), 1969, pp. 88-90.
The poetic interest of the anecdotes [in Love & Fame] as something more than artistic and cultural trivia depends largely on the distinction with which Berryman presents them as artifacts. He makes witty and knowing juxtapositions to set in motion those "resonances" that Dudley Fitts admired in Berryman's Sonnets. But the monologue becomes tedious to a reader not greatly interested in the life of the poet. The ironies which should provide a counterbalance to the constant self-exposure remain largely inaccessible to anyone except the "friends" to whom Love & Fame is addressed, and who can supply it themselves from their private knowledge of the events it records. For those not so favored, three-fourths of the book is likely to seem little more than self-indulgent arrogance, another document in the sad history of the theory that nothing may be denied to talent, an example of the aesthetic, categorical imperative with a vengeance….
As for its "new" style, Love & Fame proceeds almost wholly in discursive quatrains that seem to have been contrived as a further act of homage to Corbière. They seem, also, to disavow any attempt to express the ineffable. Fragmentation, not alienation, comes through most clearly, although poetry of a kind is made of it. Sometimes it looks like public-relations copy: the proper attitude toward Time ("Time magazine yesterday slavered Saul's ass, /they pecked at mine last year"), or toward a contemporary ("My love for that odd man has never altered /thro' some of his facile bodiless later books"). Undoubtedly poets are the most ferocious of egoists; but poetry is more than self-exposure and the exploitation of reputation. If Love & Fame is, at moments, something more, it is often an imposition on the reader's patience.
Samuel French Morse, in Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall, 1971, pp. 291-92.
With its learned bawdry, its glowing malice, its rugged verse and its rag-bag quality (mixing jokes, memories, elegies and meditations) Love and Fame is a Satire in the full classical and neoclassical sense of the term. Berryman has created, in the 'Berryman' of the poem, a comic figure to stand beside the melancholy Henry of the Dream Songs. The poet himself has vanished somewhere between the two masks, and we shall have to wait for his posthumous volumes to discover where he planned to go next.
Grevel Lindop, in Critical Quarterly, Winter, 1972, pp. 380-81.
In John Berryman's poetry there exists a struggle between doubt and belief, fear and love, rebellion and acceptance. His first masterpiece, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, is, according to Berryman, structured on a series of rebellions—Anne Bradstreet's revolt against her new environment and her own barrenness, her revolt against her marriage, and her revolt against a continuing life of illness, loss, and age. Near the center of the poem, in response to Anne's assertion that "God awaits us … who Hell wars," the modern poet expresses his own doubt, his rebellion against traditional beliefs….
This man of griefs and fits becomes in Berryman's major work, The Dream Songs, a master of grace and fear, Henry Pussycat, Mr. Bones….
The Dream Songs beautifully plays between the extremes of love and fear. It especially conveys the terrible sense of loneliness that fills Henry when he cuts himself off from the world, from love; yet it also evokes the warmth, the fun, the aching hurt, the burden of loving. No other poem in the twentieth century possesses the scope, the complexity, the grief and joy of life, in quite the marvelous and meaningful way that Berryman's Dream Songs does….
If Love & Fame and Delusions, Etc. do not add significantly to Berryman's stature as a poet, they do provide some excellent individual lyrics and, more importantly, further perspectives on the themes Berryman developed in his major works. Love & Fame, with its allusion to Keats's sonnet, "When I have fears that I may cease to be," was Berryman's first collection of lyrics in twenty-two years. Its subject was, as Berryman has described it in a recently published interview, entirely new, solely and simply himself. No longer did he employ another personality, an Anne Bradstreet or even a figure such as Henry who often closely resembled Berryman and who he vigorously and continually denied as himself, to transmute and transfigure his own thoughts and feelings. Now he was speaking in his own voice and that voice was flat, prosey, almost a complete turn about from the syntactically complex, intense, even ornate voice in the Bradstreet poem or the boozy, baby-talking, poignant, raw voice of Henry in The Dream Songs. His procedure in Love & Fame is clearly set forth in "Message"….
It is as though Berryman has finally found what he had been searching for. No longer does he feel the need, as he did in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet or Dream Songs, to doubt or rebel against God. Now he is able to accept, in part at least, maybe as much as most men are able, the will of God. His return to a faith in God has been described by him as an act of rescue…. His double nature, his fear of loving and losing and his desire to love and be loved, is fused, made whole again, by his newly recovered sense of faith….
The … larger coherence [of Delusions, Etc.] involves an action suggested in its title. Berryman, his faith in God restored, discovered that he was deluded first in believing that he could never again believe in God and secondly in thinking that his new faith would continue untried or untroubled. The basic action is established in "Opus Dei."… Most of the poems in "Opus Dei" focus on the difficulties of maintaining faith, and if there is doubt and despair in them, there is also joy. Indeed, many of the poems in Delusions, Etc. are warm and joyful. Sometimes we concentrate too much on the quality of grief in Berryman's work and ignore the humor and delight that he expresses….
The design in "Opus Dei" is a movement from confidence through doubt and then a return to belief. This action also forms the design of the whole of Delusions, Etc. and is one reason why the book opens and closes with prayer. Even the middle section, with its strongly despairing poems, reveals a similar movement….
Berryman was never, except perhaps at the end, completely cured. His double nature, fearing and loving, was never wholly healed. Even in the prayers of the final section he still feels "rotten" about himself and is sometimes, thinking of his father, barely able to perform his duty to his heavenly father. He sees himself "stuck mid-scene" between fearing and loving, doubting and believing….
There are indications in the last section that Berryman, a veteran of fear, has come to accept and perhaps desire, in a way he never had desired before, the thing he feared the most. In "'How Do You Do, Dr. Berryman, Sir?'" he writes, "as for Henry Pussycat he'd just as soon be dead" but only "on the Promise of … glory." Death, the end, is not now total extinction for Berryman but rather a goal, a fulfillment….
Delusions, Etc. is, as I have tried to indicate, a collection of poems that concern themselves with the difficulties and the joys of faith, of fearing and accepting what we cannot know, the end. There are poems in the collection that do not rise to the level of Berryman's best, but even those at times have the mark of a poet who cared so intensely about his craft. The poem that stands last in Delusions, Etc., "King David Dances," is not only a beautifully wrought lyric, but I think of it as an emblem of John Berryman's life. "Aware to the dry throat of the wide hell in the world," beset throughout his life by loss and suffering, "mid hypocrites amongst idolaters," "with the ponder both of priesthood & of State/heavy upon him," King David can still cry, "yea/all the black same I dance my blue head off!" That dance, in all the effort required of it, in all the pain that it springs out of, is an act of faith, a sign of joy. As poetry, Delusions, Etc. is one of John Berryman's lesser works, but as a record of the life of the spirit, it adds to our understanding of Berryman and of ourselves. It is, I think, his testament to his faith, his most bright candle, and without it, we would be the lesser.
Larry Vonalt, "Berryman's Most Bright Candle," in Parnassus, Fall/Winter, 1972, pp. 180-87.
Undoubtedly prejudiced by a strong allegiance to careful structures, I still find the free-verse Homage to Mistress Bradstreet to be its author's most moving creation, and it does indeed remain his most organic extended performance, but The Dream Songs (1969) is the work upon which his reputation must rest. These 388 poems, initially offered in two separate chunks as 77 Dream Songs (1964) and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968), plus seventy-seven later verses, constitute Mr. Berryman's opus magnus, at least in his own persuasive imagination, and deserve serious attention as a major attempt to transmute random confessional impulses into a larger poetic mode. Whatever their faults, and M. L. Rosenthal once rightly described their original appearance in terms of a "collection of lyric and dramatic poems all in basically the same form," rather than as a cohesive saga, The Dream Songs provide a fascinating journey of discovery for both its divided "I" character and our national delusion that Western (American) culture has achieved civilization….
Although frequently too sentimental in perception and interpretation for any real profundity, candy-soft at their centers, all of the songs maintain a rapid, jazz-jittery pace that is almost unbearably true to the times, to the terror of standing still long enough for the mind to devour itself. More important, the escape-into-dreams motif never seeks to really elude the essential courage of dealing with existence's harshest realities, past and present….
It is difficult to evaluate The Dream Songs, both on their own merits, which are quite formidable, and in historical relation to the literature of their nurturing environment. Like Pound's Cantos and Williams' Paterson, they clearly fail to achieve epic completeness and significance, and for the same reason: linked so tightly to the poet's biography, they could not cease until his death, that is, they exist without a broader system of belief, a sustaining cultural allegory, and must depend for emotional nourishment upon bits and pieces of uncontrolled experience. Paradise and heroes, the stuff of epics and tragedies, are beyond their protagonists' range, probably outside their interest, aesthetic and personal. As a result, the cumulative effect of their cyclical insights is fragmentary in nature, spasmatic epiphanies weighted down by a despairing alienation from the very culture they are striving to imitate. The personae projected, alter-ego upon alter ego, are vivid characters that never manage to flee their author's unique psyche and assume distinct configurations of their own. But America does breathe through their nervous lips. Their slangy, elliptical, often irreverent lingo captures the heart of our country's arrogant world-view and its agonies of secular conscience. Yes, that is the immediate value of them, their most potent force. They articulate our crumbling mores in a passionately accurate manner that lets the form be its content….
One of his last public testaments, Love & fame, a revealing, embarrassing personal document of little aesthetic interest, devoted its final pages to an uncomfortable plea for mercy from the "Master of beauty" and concluded with a piteous appeal: "I pray I may be ready with my witness."
The growing religious obsession which terminated Love & Fame is carried over into the main body of Delusions, Etc., where it is structured around several religious systems, such as "offices of the days" and the concluding poems of meditation and reflection…. Despite many highly emotional moments that rip the heart, none of the religious poems ever quite [slips] beyond [the] textual manipulations of the poet's private dilemma to grasp some greater purpose. The best poems in the book are undoubtedly the elegies, especially the ones for Beethoven and Dylan Thomas, where Mr. Berryman was able to translate his confessional agonies into the lives and arts of two figures so close to the center of creativity.
Edward Butscher, "John Berryman: In Memorial Perspective," in The Georgia Review, Winter, 1973, pp. 518-25.
John Berryman's poetry ripened from dignified impersonality to comic egoism, and declined from that into sober self-exploitation. It is the work of the middle period that holds and rewards its reader best. But to create that union of mask and exposé, the poet had to come to terms with the dismal facts of his early life….
[The] early poems disclose some qualities that mark all his verse. Bewitched by Auden, Berryman preferred rhymed, stanzaic forms to free verse. To frame or start many of the poems, he used public facts—international crises, social disorders, the miscellaneous news of the day; and there are subtle particularities of time and place in the designs. For all his impersonality, the disembodied poet intervenes constantly between his subject and the reader. Often, a deliberately ruptured syntax quarrels with the unbroken surface of style, suggesting an inarticulate self behind the literary character. To see the more transitory features of the poems Berryman wrote before 1946, one need not look far, because he summarized them, half-deliberately, in a sketch of Auden's early work: "ominous, flat, and social; elliptical and indistinctly allusive; casual in tone and form, frightening in import"….
Suppressing the [intervening] sonnets (which were not published for twenty years), Berryman continued to write impersonal poems, with the influence of Robert Lowell added to that of Auden and Yeats. One group called "Nervous Songs" made use of his panics and introspective gloom. In them the poet tried to re-create the consciousness of several neurotic types. All of them are obscure, morbid self-examinations by anxious persons. Since Berryman could only imagine other people as aspects of himself, the element of dramatic monologue fails. Yet these poems fix some of his old virtues and establish new ones. He keeps the exhilarating dialectic of the sonnets, in which the poet speaks from sharply contrasted points of view, replies to himself or his mistress, and suddenly drops one tone for its opposite….
Within the bizarre design of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet one finds valuable devices. If Berryman chose a difficult stanza, he employed it flexibly, varying rhyme scheme and line length. One sees the possibility of a form complex in itself and so handled as to offer interesting variations. The give and take between author and protagonist, the quick changes of voice and viewpoint—especially in the middle section of the poem—recapture the life-giving dialectic of the sonnets. The blurring of identities, sometimes leaving us unsure of the speaker, reminds us of Berryman's brooding over selfhood. A thoughtful reader cannot escape the impression that the poet is often talking to and indeed consoling himself….
Dream Songs is 7,000 lines long, divided into seven books, of which I-III were published separately as 77 Dream Songs. The number of poems in Book IV, Books V-VII, and the entire collection is also divisible by seven; and these sections are not insignificant. The middle book, IV, is a descent into hell; here the poet speaks as a buried, decaying corpse but surfaces at the end of the book. One thinks of Book VI of the Aeneid, also marking a halfway point….
If one looks for coherence in Dream Songs, the metrical form may satisfy the need best. It is derived from the form Berryman had used in his "Nervous Songs". Each poem has three stanzas of six iambic lines….
As Henry, the poet can drop his civilized speech along with the anxiety that civilization breeds. He develops an expressive style out of the inarticulateness that fascinated him and that belongs to our time; and through it he not only disarms us but shares the wordlessness of readers who distrust elegance and fluency. The inarticulateness of the misnamed monster talks for those who see monsters taking over the world, and who have found no coherent language to express their horror….
In the way of general ideas and moral insights Berryman has little that is fresh to offer. Neither is he a phrase-maker, nor a magician with words. It is emblematic that a childhood disease should have weakened his hearing, because his ear for rhythm is undistinguished. For all his talent and learning, Berryman could not come near the intellectual style of Auden or the middle-aged Lowell. Once he had circulated the most sensational facts of his private life, his richest treasure was the ironic drama of Henry's diary….
The coherence of the last books cannot replace the pleasures of the Dream Songs: their deliberate humour and indirection; viewpoints that never stand still, a tone that hops from aspiration to bathos. In the last poems, the strongest humour seems unintentional; it would be cruel to deal seriously with their serious argument; their inarticulateness is painfully artless. Having discovered that his sensibility could bewitch us, Berryman made the error of growing solemn about it; and the reader's attention must move back from the poet's attitude to his mind. Speaking in the first person, without Henry to screen him, Berryman challenges comparison with the most brilliant poets alive. But his thoughts, as bare thoughts, neither please nor fascinate. The last books have an intense but narrowly documentary appeal. Those who are attached to the poet will read them for the scandalous information they supply about his life, for the pathetic account of his journey homeward to religious faith, for the brave valediction of a man who chose his own way to die.
"The Life of the Modern Poet," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), February 23, 1973, pp. 193-95.
With the human exhausted, Berryman solicited the divine, and in this collection [Delusions, Etc.] he remembers all his early fervent reading—in Hopkins, in Herbert, in Donne—as he writes his "Opus Dei" and the other religious poems in the volume. They are no good. His "newly simple heart" and his visions, whatever temporary calm they gave his soul, gave no new life to his poetry, and the last two poems, particularly, are intolerable to read…. In the religious poems, Berryman left behind Henry's conspiracies and surreptitiousness [of the "Dream Songs" sequence], Henry's secret preenings and secret frights and violent self-loathings, his doleful clown-songs, showing him perpetually at a disadvantage. When he became the redeemed child of God, his shamefaced vocabulary drooped useless, and no poet can be expected to invent, all at once and at the end of his life, a convincing new stance, a new style in architecture along with his change of heart. Berryman's suicide threw all finally into question—Henry's sly resourcefulness as much as Berryman's abject faith. In the end, it seems, neither was enough to get through the day on, and even though a voice divine the storm allayed, a light propitious shone, this castaway could not avoid another rising of the gulf to overwhelm him.
Helen Vendler, in The Yale Review (© 1973 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1973, p. 425.
In Love & Fame we discover [Berryman] tearing up roots, going back to beginnings for a new start. The first part of the book is uneven or bad, but in the way the early work of a very original writer can be bad, through errors of taste or through pig-headedness or egotism. The poems are like those of a young writer trying to find out what his province is, more confident than he has any right to be that everything that happens to him is interesting, is in fact a poem….
The book ends very strong. The Addresses to the Lord recount a religious conversion (an event that carries over into Delusions, Etc. both as plot and as craft). The verse becomes an easy iambic pentameter. The influence of Hopkins' syntax is more pronounced (to my ear: this is bound to be somewhat subjective) than anywhere else in Berryman. The poetry is superb….
Delusions, Etc. of John Berryman, as the title-page of the book reads, was seen through proofs by the poet and published last April. The first nine poems, in much rougher quatrains than the Addresses, have the titles of holy offices. The labor of labored Hopkins sometimes is audible…. But the emancipation from the Dream Songs is complete, signalled perhaps by the inclusion of two old ones (published before Love & Fame "in the [Harvard] Advocate devoted to my Jazz") and by a stray line in another poem: "and as for Henry Pussycat he'd just as soon be dead". There are at least four major poems in the new-old unHenry'd voice that he seems to have been rooting around for in the less successful parts of Love & Fame. A rangy voice it is. Beethoven Triumphant is a big poem, more than 120 lines. Robert Lowell calls it "the most ambitious and perhaps finest of his late poems, a monument to his long love, unhampered expression, and subtle criticism." It has the force and complexity of a late quartet or the Great Fugue.
William Meredith, "Swan Songs," in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), May, 1973, pp. 98-103.
During his life [Berryman] was laureled and beaten. If he was praised by Sir Huberts, like Robert Lowell and Allen Tate, he was damned by other Huberts, like Louise Bogan and Hayden Carruth. Few other modern poets have been so differently viewed by inarguably respectable readers. It seemed part of Berryman's fate, right for him, to be thus assaulted by division. Part of his burden was to bear with—it's true, it's true—a less than first-rate talent. Part of his agony was to live with great poetic sensitivity but without the appropriate talent of a Rilke or a Trakl….
Death haunts The Dream Songs and the later books. They are replete with elegies for, among others, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, Sylvia Plath, and R. P. Blackmur. (Query: Was Berryman the only poet ever to write a requiem for a critic?) Death had to haunt Berryman; besides the intimations of mortality that often hover around poets, his life began, figuratively, with a death. When he was twelve, his father shot himself….
[He] devised a double persona for [Recovery], as he did for The Dream Songs. The protagonist is Alan Severance, an M.D. who is also a Litt.D., who was a professor of immunology and molecular biology and is now a university professor (permitted to teach anything he chooses). The fame and range of Severance give Berryman a chance for distance in the scientist, and for immediacy in literary knowledge and ease. But to ensure a refracted view, Berryman also makes one of the patients a bearded poet, with whom Severance can discuss literary things, including fame and praise. These last were obsessive subjects with him….
Recovery explores much but explains little; there is no facile formula explicating why Severance-Berryman became a drunk, although conjecture is easy. It tells its story with the humor of the near-damned, a man seeing his ridiculousness as he debases himself. Its chief bitterness is in its title and in the note for the last page of the book, where he considered he would have been, or was, cured. "He was very, very lucky. Bless everybody. He felt—fine."…
[No] one who has responded to Berryman's poetry would want to miss this (large) fragment. Artists' suicides are sometimes converted into a species of canonization. He/she committed suicide, therefore the work is retroactively sanctified. Berryman deserves better. His poetry would be important, his novel valuable, if he were still alive. But the fact of his suicide does have an effect on judgment. It converts this story of his ascent, up the Twelve Steps, from triumph, even from tragedy (too heavy a word for him), into a cosmic, heartrending pratfall.
Stanley Kauffmann, "Severance from Life," in World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 22, 1973, pp. 46-7.
"Recovery," posthumously published, is John Berryman's unfinished and only novel. It is also, in every willed page, a turn away from the dangers and enrichments of his poetry. It was probably being written at the same time as "Delusions, Etc.," verse published after his suicide last year, and the two books should be read as parallel last acts. The word he chose as title for his final poems drums through the novel as well: "delusion" is no longer a bitter, half-affectionate way of designating his writing, but rather the deadly enemy that keeps him from facing down an alcoholism that will destroy him. In an odd way, "Delusions, Etc." and "Recovery" might make up one book—could even be printed in alternating verse and prose, like a dark parody of Dante's "Vita Nuova," Berryman's struggle leading nowhere, certainly not into a lyric Paradise….
He is clearly in these last books in search of some new and humbling style. "Recovery" doesn't make "Delusions, Etc." a better book, but it helps us see the impulse behind it. The prayers that crowd both of Berryman's last volumes of poetry, designed to chastise the ego, in fact have their own stylistic ease and rhetorical traps….
For Berryman the new and harrowing departure must have been the almost impossible demand that exposure, truth about the self, might even be divorced from "literary merit." That had been, after all, the secret strength of Henry Pussycat in the "Dream Songs," the resourcefulness with which vulnerability leapt to power, flirted with danger, kept its skeleton, Mr. Bones, charmingly by its side. That very resourcefulness is the enemy of "Recovery," just as the copious dark renewals of almost 400 Dream Songs would be a threat to the merciless candor of the Twelve Steps…. "Recovery" remains in fact and necessarily unfinished. The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous stand alone at the end of the book like the army of unalterable law.
David Kalstone, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 27, 1973, pp. 1, 3.
John Berryman's last collection [Delusions, Etc.] was in proof before he died, and it is a reasonable conjecture that it is as he wanted it. We are too close to that horrible event; a shadow falls across the pages as we read, and a curious apprehension impels us to search the poems for clues to the meaning of his death, and of the life that drove him toward it. I am not justifying this reaction, merely stating that it's difficult to avoid….
About the self-destructiveness, self-celebration, and torment of these poems there is something arbitrary and totally uncompromising. The Abyss (rarely, it is the Glory) opens up, and engulfs him. The desire for immolation, the wish to dissolve, to be taken by God—this is a central theme.
The book is uneven. He begins with a religious sequence around the Offices of the Day—a sequence which owes something to Auden's Horae Canonicae in its wish to encompass the trivial as well as the profound, but it is rarely as surefooted as Auden's poem. Some of the poems have a contorted diction, reminiscent of Hopkins…. Others are scrambled and cryptic—"Interstitial Office," particularly; or like "Sext," pretentious and somehow off-key….
Part II of the book is a gallery of heroes: Washington, Beethoven, Emily Dickinson, Georg Trakl, and Dylan Thomas—and this section is very revealing, as the deflection of interest away from the immediate concerns of the self paradoxically allows Berryman's values to emerge unobtrusively. If the bulk of the book—and especially the first and last sections—underlines Berryman's return to religion, this section continues an older preoccupation: the value of art as a source of affirmation. The longish poem, Beethoven Triumphant, is particularly interesting for, apart from the sheer bulk of information it gives us about Beethoven, it is concerned with a theme that is very close to Berryman—the irreconcileability of great art with ordinary life. In this section, at least, Berryman is unashamedly romantic. Great artists, he implies, should be granted a certain license; their scope is not that of the commonality of men. Their isolation and pain are monstrous, of course, but in the cause of great art that is unavoidable.
In these poems there is an attitude which goes beyond mere admiration; the very tone and diction imply a wish to be classed with the heroes…. Berryman suffered the continual agony of not knowing whether he was one of the elect.
Keith Harrison, "Out There and in Here," in The Carleton Miscellany, Spring/Summer, 1973, pp. 111-14.
John Berryman's pardon has come round with greater force, suddenness, and wonder than it does for most poets; the pardon is, of course, the poetry; it enters the vestibule of the sacred house of its expressive energy; the poet stays in the whirlwind while the reader buttons his coat against the turbulence of the threshold. We look on—and study Awe and learn again the precarious character of our life.
From the beginning through the end, Berryman's poems shape their narrow, shattering oscillation from disaster to elegy and back again; there is no middle ground in his basic work, although there is a marvelously deceptive range of tone. Call Berryman's two strategies songs of Crisis and formal hymns of Lament. That's the dizzy ground we agree to inhabit from The Dispossessed (1948) to Delusions, etc. (1971). This is a poetry with which we cannot stay too long, a song of deep obsequy, a tune of scornful and witty sorrow. The infrequent middle of this oeuvre is likely to be trivial, sometimes barren, but neither poet nor reader can recognize himself there, and this poet's great skills soon push us once more to the edge and his true subjects: "Our wounds to time, from all the other times,/ sea-times slow, the times of galaxies/fleeing, the dwarfs' dead times" (Dream Song 51). John Berryman had an itch for transcendence, a talent for mimicking resolutions he never found; he would have liked to have written the second part of Don Quixote, but he stayed in the first, shouting at windmills that cut a swath deep enough. His major work, The Dream Songs, gives us the Berryman we need most, but we should understand how he got there, how the "funferall" of his work extended through its gaudily-withering splendor to its lyrical, nearly tender close….
The later poems of The Dispossessed and beyond move out to find new voices, settings, drama. "Canto Amor," "The Nervous Songs," "Venice 182-," "Boston Common," etc. search for speakers even as they establish the poet as a rhetorician of impressive capacity and decisive power. But a major ambition is at work and the first large Test of Invention is not found. Berryman is seeking his subject, which, shockingly for this classic-minded poet, he will find later in a fractured version of himself. But first, working on Yeatsian principles perhaps, he seeks his theme in his opposite. Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956) was his first full assault on greatness.
Homage is masterful in stanza, resourceful in meter and rhyme, and brilliant in diction. But something's wrong. The acrobatic baroque of a poem in which the writer takes the voice of a mediocre poetess, who happened to be America's first, becomes wearisome, even or especially in its Hopkinesque tuning. The transformation of one poet into the other is not made; Anne does not become John's anima. One suspects that Berryman always knew he was a better poet even if he couldn't give birth….
Berryman is the true inheritor of Whitman and not the more obvious bards. The 385 Dream Songs, composed from 1955 to 1969, makes us think of Walt's risky masterpiece, best when it is not too consciously prophetic. In such a manner the echoing tension of The Dispossessed and the unconvincing stretch of the Bradstreet poem break through to a prolific mastery, a new sound: Songs of Himself….
Henry … is the vehicular form for the long poem that is The Dream Songs; but the length of the work and the poet's insistence on its continuity and singleness cannot disguise the fact that it is not a work with a potential epic center like The Waste Land, The Bridge, Paterson, or The Cantos….
The two parts of the poem as published, 77 Dream Songs (1964 Books I-III) and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968 Books IV-VII), are more different than they first seemed. Roughly, if the first three books can be thought of as poems of Crisis, the note of Lamentation tolls more strongly in books four through seven until the elegiac mode seems the ground bass of what started as a comic discovery. Henry remains a figure of fun and endless possibility, but the many elegies that mark his way like gravestones change comedy to dismay and dismay to a threat of total silence….
Why did John Berryman stop writing The Dream Songs? I don't think the formal requirement was used up or the habit of fourteen years rounded off to some complete shape. There are signs of Henry—weariness in His Toy, His Dream, His Rest and an impulse to break from the six-line stanza that had served the poet so long and well. Love & Fame (1970) and the posthumous Delusions, etc. (1971) do not abandon the Henry tone or even Henry (there are two unquestionable Dream Songs in Delusions, etc.) but the minstrel show is over. We may sometimes wish for its return in the last books when John Berryman, not his persona, may lean too instrusively upon us…. [The] abandonment of Henry made both John Berryman's poetry and his life vulnerable to finalities. Yet Love & Fame and Delusions, etc. contain many beautiful and brilliant lyrics, two sets of serious and important religious poems; and, above all, they show the continuing sense of this poet alive and working. His early plan of marvelous ear and simple work stays vital till the end. The modes of Crisis and Lament in this career now make way for a third tonality, always possibly present, sometimes resisted or stifled, but at last emergent: Prayer….
The "Eleven Addresses to the Lord" of Love & Fame and the "Opus Dei" of Delusions, etc. have faced the inevitable charges of bad faith and insincerity, and the apparent undress of the first two autobiographical parts of Love & Fame have been accused of bad taste. But the confessional and the prayerful are connected in Berryman's late work, and they are neither precisely one nor the other…. [Through] the hell and the wished-for purgatory, the caught-out, naked, Henryless Berryman would naturally, formalist and lover of pieties that he was, turn to Prayer—although the Crisis continues, the Lament is never done.
Deity in some form was never absent from John Berryman's poetry. The Dream Songs, like so much else in the poet, presents the syncretic search for God at its most attractive…. The two religious sequences of the last books are not to be taken as a failure of nerve or a wilful maneuver of a glory not gained; they are nervous, brilliant, original solemnities of which this poet was capable all alone…. There is nothing of the derivative pieties of Roethke's Far Field in these poems; the jostling weight and daring of Berryman's disordered tone controls the feeling exactly….
The inelegant plan of the 440 runner [in "Compline," the seventh Canonical Hour in Delusions, etc.] whose formula to win the race was to run fast and then faster is very close to the making and the stretch and the final honor of Berryman's career. We are left, yes, with the frantic knock of Crisis and the piercing keen of Lament, and even the push to Prayer; but our final feeling is one of a major fertility in a ceaseless creative possibility, a green cloth that was worth the run after all.
Daniel Hughes, "John Berryman & The Poet's Pardon," in The American Poetry Review, July/August, 1973, pp. 19-22.
The confessions of John Berryman's last two books of poems, Love & Fame (1970) and the posthumous Delusions, Etc. (1972), are continued in the novel Recovery which he left unfinished when he killed himself in January, 1972. It is about as much a novel as those other last books are poems. They had lines and rhymes, and flashes of Berryman's verbal genius. Recovery has a sort of story in the progress of its confessions: confession is the chief method of treatment in the clinic for alcoholics that is its setting, confession repeated and repeated until, supposedly, some kind of purgation takes place….
Berryman's career is one of the main exhibits in that strange literary display of our period, the "confessional" or "extremist" movement, with its requirement that the poet must have suffered strikingly painful and gruesome experiences, and must put these into verse in all their actual detail….
A half-finished first draft, [Recovery] is probably not accessible to many. We can imagine that Berryman might very well have made it a distinguished novel given the chance. He loved Under the Volcano. He had published at least one very good story, "The Imaginary Jew," reprinted in this volume; he could handle narrative and certainly had been able to present, in Stephen Crane …, an extended prose record of a life….
Alcohol, sex, and the weed that kills. The helping hand holds dew and manna that is bane. We are used to saying that only those who know what evil is can know the good. We might say that only those who know despair can know the bad reality of what only the despairing are allowed to call "fun." Berryman knew the depths and knew how it would end. Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so. But he rendered also as who else ever has the wrong and outrageous heights—the "highs" as they say now with the proper note of cheapness—mere fun and wrong, wrong. Perhaps Burns did, or Cummings who told no guilt—not Hart Crane or Dylan Thomas or any of the other roaring boys. Human kind cannot bear very much unreality.
John Thompson, "Last Testament," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), August 9, 1973, pp. 3-5.
Berryman composed the Songs in the conviction that poems are not about, but come from and move towards; that is, in the Romantic tradition, they are process. The choice of the dynamism of the dream, its ever-becoming state, is most fitting on that count. More critical, too, when one ponders the fact that Henry's multifoliate dialects collage in the context of dreams, the one area of phenomenal experience which is nearly word-void. One cannot—strictly speaking—write in a dream. Shelley, Novalis, Keats—those who tried were always pulled back from the dream-like romantic surmise by the realization that they wrote in a fallen world of words. But Berryman, unlike his romantic predecessors, was not exploring the limits of language in a dream state (e.g., Joyce), nor, like them, was he exploring the borderline between dreams and the waking world (e.g. Keats). Rather, holding that "a dream is a panorama / of the whole mental life," Berryman blurred the distinction altogether to form the best of all possible metaphoric frameworks through which to reveal the fragmentary nature of the individual confessional consciousness in its state of becoming. Henry's "dialects" serve to manifest the various dispositions which can simultaneously shatter and unify the modern Man of Experience.
The allusion there is hardly casual, for Berryman's not-so-subtle playing of the dialects in The Dream Songs has an effect not wholly unlike that which Blake achieved in the shorter lyrics. Our primary concern is forced to lie in the play of Henry's dazzled voices over often opaque situations, and within encompassing ambiguities carried by a thicket of indefinite adjectives, and in waves of pronouns without referents.
Although the techniques of ambiguity owe much to Frost, of whom he was extremely fond, Berryman avoided the Frostian fable. He had to. The fable, though perhaps fraught with ambiguity and irony, is unified, coherent. Henry, in process, is not….
But there is more than the fallacy of imitative form to the process of the Songs. It is not merely that the world and our individual consciousnesses are incomplete, multifaceted, and opaque, so no sentence can be complete, no utterance in a single voice, no incident wholly lucid, no syntax in the punctilios of deep structure. It is something of an entirely different order.
I wouldn't put it past Berryman's belatedly acknowledged erudite bet if he were conceptually reverting to a stage in the history of western languages in which there was no distinction between consciousness and conscience. Syneidesis and conscientia served both meanings, and both words, morphemically disintegrated, mean "to know something with." Under Berryman's evident categorical imperative to know Henry with Henry, consciousness becomes its own witness, and conscience in that it is also judge. Indeed do Henry's voices report, analyze, conjecture, meditate, doubt, and judge. "Should," "ought," and "might" are bricks of his dreams….
When Henry does come out and talk, the collapsing of ethics and psychology demands that the conversation be with (and not "to") himself. Our experience becomes that of the witness to the lyric drama of consciousness-conscience which unfolds, a witness whose awareness of his own inner "languages," along with his potential ability to stand as accused, is accentuated by the process of imaginative sympathy. Therein, I believe, lies Berryman's most fundamental achievement in The Dream Songs. The conscious reader is brought to a psychic assoiling.
But there was an inverse tragic irony in the breakdown of the poet's invulnerability as he desperately shattered the protective barricades of the dream, an irony underscored by the presence of Mr. Bones, that ever-invulnerable portion of Henry's consciousness. What must amaze now is that he survived as a vulnerable witness for so long, not because of the judicial Mr. Bones in him, but because the world forced the self back upon itself so it sang in its own sycamore, and was glad, for a time, all at the top.
Clifford Adelman, "A Too Brief Homage to John Berryman," in Chicago Review, Vol. 24, No. 4, 1973, pp. 124-29.
In keeping with Eastern mysteries is Berryman's oblique (dis)claimer at the outset [of "Recovery"]: "The materials of the book … especially where hallucinatory, are historical; all facts are real; ladies and gentlemen, it's true." Clearly, then, the book is neither autobiographical nor non-autobiographical—or both—or either.
Berryman's (dis)claimer is like an opaque glass lid, immediately lifted at the opening. Underneath sits a dark, bubbling bath of love and nihilism, hope and despair, where people keep bobbing up to disappear, ideas keep bumping against their antibodies to hang neutral in paradox, and the universal stands not homologous to but hopelessly homogenized in the personal. It's Berryman's life all right; he immerses the reader in its chaos, without benefit of irony or in any way casting his confusion against the contrast of an ordered state….
What Berryman is busy asserting in the novel, he is often busy denying in the poems, and this is most apparent in his relationship with God. In the poems the "Jesus Saves" sign recedes into the distance. Berryman is in prolonged, intimate conversations with God, and they are full of desolation, frustration, and despair. Running beneath the poems is a death-bearing undertow; God is real but hard to reach, intermediaries don't help, and Berryman acknowledges that the undertow might win.
The open presence in the poems of the spiritual illumines its absence in the novel, or rather its suppression, because it keeps seeping through. Severance had noted that during his last hospitalization the only progress he'd made was spiritual. By the same distorted logic that made him throw out the intellectual, he threw out the spiritual as well. The way to integrate spiritual with the emotional and intellectual was to segregate it and Severance stood finally stymied: the lobby to the labyrinth had a revolving door, and the revolving door was the minotaur. "Recovery" is like an effort toward a literary First Step—an arrival at ultimate style by the denial of style—and it suffers from the same problems. Berryman was caught in the revolving door with Severance, through all the difficulties of the novel and the reader is caught there too, held in by the force of the spin.
Joanne Temple, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1973 by The Village Voice, Inc.), November 8, 1973, pp. 34, 36.
Berryman's poetry is full of gallows-humour jokes which in their frantic crowd-pleasing pathos seem less genuinely funny than analogous efforts in the poems of his friends, Lowell and Jarrell. Yet in Recovery the jokes are not only good—about Churchill, W. C. Fields, The Lost Weekend—but addressed to the other alcoholics and responded to by them, rather than by a reader primed for enthusiastic admiration….
His last book is exactly as finished as it needs to be, and moments in it are deserving of Eliot's remark about certain passages in Stendhal: 'a terrible humiliation to read, in the understanding of human feelings and human illusions of feeling that they force upon the reader.' Stunning as they sometimes are, neither the dream songs nor their lyric successors were that.
William Pritchard, "Metaphysical Hangover," in New Statesman, November 30, 1973, p. 826.
Only the greatest of poets are masters of prose, so the cliché runs, and Berryman will now find his niche among the crowd. Recovery is, indeed, a very fine novel….
Berryman's prose is clear, with the kind of resonance that only comes from emotional precision, and he has avoided the usual idiosyncrasies of a poet's prose. He has also avoided self-consciousness and self-pity. The novel could all too easily have turned out as 'Confessions of a Drunk', but Berryman has kept a distance between his protagonist and himself. If I were to be lyrical, I would say that it had an objectivity couched in pain. But that is going too far; it would never survive a therapy session, let alone a review.
Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1973 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), December 1, 1973, p. 705.
Recovery fails not only as private therapy but also, I believe, as public fiction, though it deserves none the less serious consideration on that account. The book is twice unfinished, lacking both its final sections and those revisions necessary to a tightening of its structure and an exact articulation of its meaning; and thus it appears to be mainly the story of a struggle against alcoholism. It is dangerous—impossible?—to speculate on the character of something that does not exist, but there are numerous hints that if Recovery had been finished, if, more properly, it had been realized, born alive, then its alcoholism would be visible within a larger perspective as the metaphor for the more generalized malaise that afflicts modern American life. Berryman's autobiographical narrative adumbrates a larger, objective parable of our times; and if we believe this parable is something he just might have pulled off, had he lived, our sense of loss becomes the greater. Berryman denied his last song of himself the chance to become a song of us all.
Mark Taylor, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), December 28, 1973, pp. 349-51.
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