John Berryman

by John Allyn Smith

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Berryman, John (Vol. 6)

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Berryman, John 1914–1972

Berryman was an American poet who wrote long, intricate works in regular stanzas. Daniel Hoffman noted that "the imposition of a formal order upon his wildly conflicting emotions … is among Berryman's most impressive accomplishments." The manipulation of several voices is perhaps the most noteworthy characteristic of his master work, The Dream Songs, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer and other prizes. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 33-36.)

[Berryman] chose to write [his Sonnets] Petrarchan, which was silly, and beats the rhyme problem by insolently untired pairs (all-Seconal). If courtly love was at heart adulterous, all the more reason for writing up an affair in sonnets. It's an odd book—the harassed, Martini-swilling poet is comfily Partisan-Review-Byronic, but the overall picture of love as an infatuation doing real damage is roundly classical. I find the anti-hero stuff merely dull; a cheerful Tristan who's learned to talk about guilt is too anecdotal. What deepens these is an unexpected split—the criminality which intoxicates the artist horrifies the ex-Catholic—"The original fault was whether wickedness/was soluble in art." That really is the issue. One could say the energy in this poem comes from the hero's finding out that literary attitudes toward Romance are narrower than he needs, or in moral terms that adultery involves not less folly but more vice than he thought. The vision is partly comic, as if Villon woke up to find himself Pascal. Sayers reminds us Paolo's sin was not whacking away at it, but dallying with temptation, and that may be the problem here. If ultimately Berryman as sonneteer stays a romantic, and Petrarch Modernized is surely a little cheap, his irony is the lesser kind, an evasion. Erasmus and Cervantes dissolve wickedness in art not by pretending it's really folly, but by raising both to a higher level of regard…. It set me up to see that Berryman uses little logic and less rhetoric to get from first to fourteenth line; the engaging effrontery of the rhymes comes close to an admission that the damn things aren't building right. It's possible the modern substitute for grammar, logic and rhetoric is nothing, i.e., autobiography. You could say what's suspectable in Berryman's Sonnets is they're set up so he gets away with them even when he doesn't—it's in that sense that the lesser irony is a dodge.

It's the love-sonnet conventions that throw him—all that direct address, those you's when what he really wants to do is talk about himself. Even the narrative (Sonnet 79) is flat beside Short Poems. But it was good practice for the 385 Dream Songs, in which he is interested in syntax, from simpleminded lists with a delayed verb (#6), through statement/examples/recap (#187). The shifty tenses, funny rhymes, and all those swaybacked pauses sound like Byron updated; say "Henry" is Don Juan with the sensibility of Dipsychus. With eighteen lines to play with, a lot of them come out sonnets plus undercutting—hideous last lines like "in feelings not ever accorded solely to oneself" (#24), and what sound like private-letter addenda tacked onto the intensest privacies (#188). He can jolly himself out of a mood, or follow a dying fall to the final rattle.

Critics who concentrate on the exchanges miss the boat; he's at his best scoring for a single voice. Having covered the Beauties, now for the Faults. That Berryman is a man of feeling is not very interesting; who isn't? So very much about himself gluts if it doesn't downright demoralize. To say the unsayable is not necessarily to...

(This entire section contains 3095 words.)

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write the unwriteable, and few of these make real the intolerable, everyday pain you find in Creeley. The critics are all saying he's been to hell and back; Berryman says it himself. But he doesn't bring 'em back alive the way Roethke does (#18). Frost always disliked writing that had designs on you. Perhaps the one design that stayed with Berryman through theDream Songs is the wish to entertain; his poems announce themselves as private vaudeville. (pp. 97-8)

All the book needs is less ballyhoo; it is not The Love Machine. (p. 98)

Gerald Burns, in Southwest Review (© 1970 by Southern Methodist University Press), Winter, 1970.

John Berryman's Love & Fame is so clear and distinct that Locke could have written it if he'd slept with everything that moved. The work is readable, but what awes me is the record. A confessional poet tells you over and over that he drinks enough to be hospitalized, and known by the staff ("'Mr. Berryman, was everything all right?'… We have been friends for years"), has wife trouble, love pangs, nice live friends, regretted dead Masters, worries about fame, suicide, madness, the war. Every book is front-page news …, always because having plumbed depths the poet comes up affirming. Readers under thirty will wonder what the fuss is about, whether this is interesting enough to tell. The confessional poet's trouble is double—he defines his audience as people who wear bowler hats (my new test for an old-fashioned poet is would he look good in one), and the difficulty of saying is easily confused with the difficulty of making. The poems in Love & Fame are less gaudy than The Dream Songs and are good for what they are, which is good plain verse about what the successful poet cares about. He doesn't care about impressing his audience, either, which is more than you can say for most writers under thirty. My favorite Berryman book remains Short Poems. (p. 207)

Gerald Burns, in Southwest Review (© 1971 by Southern Methodist University Press), Spring, 1971.

As one drifts [in Recovery] on a stream of consciousness that varies in tone only from serious to very serious, one yearns for the double viewpoint of Dream Songs, the emotional repartee of Henry and Bones. Instead of oscillating irony we get monochromatic uncertainty…. Again and again one hopes that the flat language and homiletic egoism of Dr. Severance may reveal not the character of the author but that of a fictitious protagonist whom Berryman pitied and gently smiled at. Nothing in the style of the book supports this hope; and if one compares the text of pages 72-73 with the draft printed in an appendix (but not so identified by the publisher), one must conclude that Berryman was doing precisely what one feared, transcribing his journal—with some names and details altered—into the novel. Severance changes his mind and doubles back on his tracks often enough, but Berryman does not enrich that process by undercutting it.

If he had enlarged the role of Jasper Stone [who represents to this reviewer the younger Berryman], Berryman could have produced a recurrent drama of encounters between the old self and the new….

From Berryman's notes and the foreshadowings in the fragment printed, we know that the novel was to end with Severance recovered [from alcoholism] and fixed in religious faith. The treatment he finally accepted depended on faith and involved placing one's will and one's life in "the care of God as we understand Him". So the failure to complete the novel may mean that although Berryman was only too willing to follow divine guidance, it supported him no better than the earlier programmes for keeping him from chaos.

"The Sodden Soul" in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 30, 1973, p. 1465.

Love & Fame is an attempt, spurred on by middle-aged anxiety for the wasted past, to re-evaluate, explain, justify a life for which the poet feels agonising guilt….

Berryman's fundamental problem, after the publication of what was acknowledged as his major work [Dream Songs], was to find a new mode beyond the highly structured, interlocking stanzaic fragments of the Henry saga. Indeed, the continuous search for a viable style is a characteristic peculiar to Berryman's entire poetic development. (p. 118)

In Love & Fame, the poet has blurred the distinctions we normally expect form, persona, and tone to make between what the writer feels and what he chooses to express. Here it is the release of tension in the writer's mind that matters. Contrary to custom, His Majesty the Ego cries out: 'Something is happening to me' and the reader is more or less forgotten.

Berryman's work after The Dream Songs essentially records his efforts to identify, accommodate, conquer and expiate the devastating powers which haunted him. Love & Fame can be seen as a skirting manoeuvre, an attempt to neutralise his obsessions by glorifying them, as if the mere naming of these forces were the same as controlling them. In Delusions, Etc., he tries to outflank his demons by appealing to a greater power for forgiveness and salvation. Recovery, finally, is a desperate confession. The psyche aims at liberation through purgation, in a last-ditch defence through which the writer convinces himself of his persona's progress and renewal, closing with a delirious assertion of freedom, again as if saying made it so. (p. 119)

Dialectic is a … modus operandi in Berryman's work. The poet establishes a tension in the poem between the narrator and a contrasting but related persona which allows him to set up a kind of conversation within himself, in which an unbridled, maniacal self is moderated and usually controlled by a projected, idealised 'other', who acts, like the girls of the Love & Fame poems, as a sounding-board, but also as an objectifying standard on which the reader can depend as representing the reality principle to some degree. Mr. Bones, for example, acts as Henry's super-ego in The Dream Songs. (pp. 119-20)

We see another version of this relationship in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, and yet another in the Sonnets. One of the reasons Love & Fame seems unachieved is that this source of energy and conflict is missing from the reminiscences which make up the first part of the book. Each poem is a new, uncorrected edition of the self, incomplete and failed because unchallenged and unamplified by another point of view.

Berryman's horizons widen as the book progresses. In Part III we are thrown into the present, and the poet seems to be edging toward a more generalised outlook…. The fear of judgment leads to the dominant theme of Part IV, the search for a relationship with God. In the 'Eleven Addresses to the Lord', Berryman regains a measure of distance and control by the introduction of a master-image, an 'objective' source of wisdom and strength. This new alterego dominates Delusions as well. 'The prayers are a Catholic unbeliever's,' according to Robert Lowell, 'seesawing from sin to piety, from blasphemous affirmation to devoted anguish.' Berryman himself called the Hours which begin the book 'a layman's winter mock-up', and prefaced the collection with a number of quotations about pilgrimage and derangement, among them, 'L'art est réligieux'; meaning, I suppose, just what Lowell implies: that the exploration of the self is religion here, that the figure of God serves as a tool for getting at what needs to be said. Confession is the mode of all Berryman's last work, and this unknowable, omniscient Confessor provides the self-styled sinner with the ultimate forum, far beyond the histrionic self-advertisement of Love & Fame. Berryman's God is a creature of need and blind hope, a desperate figment asserting the possibility of salvation and safety. (p. 120)

Berryman … is searching for a working version of God that will clarify and thus dissolve his inability to accept himself and his world (the world), and the notion of God's beneficent action in it. Berryman's God is not only 'potent' and 'permissive', but 'hard' and 'tyrannous', and in his capacity as the forger of 'our silliness', Himself an emblem of the unfathomable paradox of the dualistic human constitution.

Related to this perception of man is Berryman's fundamental suspicion that a pact with God is somehow impossible, at least for Berryman, though on the surface he appears to accept the conditions for redemption. (pp. 120-21)

Most of Delusions is written with … intensity, and with the … sense of the tenuous nature of intercourse between the human and the divine. But once in a while Berryman silences his self-doubts long enough to produce a work of high objectivity, and such is 'Ecce Homo', a poem in which the double nature of Christ becomes both accessible and acceptable. (pp. 121-22)

The main thrust of these poems, however, is in another direction. The portraits in 'King David Dances' or the great 'Beethoven Triumphant', or the poems on Washington, Dylan Thomas, Trakl, and Emily Dickinson, come closer to typifying the approaches toward character which inform this volume. They are all, in one way or another, versions of Berryman, fictive ways of nearing personal danger zones, of sharing private delusions.

A character in literature is a repository in which the writer invests something of himself, at the same time drawing on the strength and the protective cover of identification provided by a professedly autonomous personality. And the reader uses the character for similar purposes, so that in the Beethoven of Berryman's poem, for instance, or the Henry of The Dream Songs, writer and reader mingle in some small way. Without this neutral ground, the mutual release of tensions which Freud describes [in "The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming"] cannot take place, and the reader is left feeling somehow cheated. Such is the case with most of Love & Fame, and with Recovery. For despite the adoption of the scientist 'Alan Severance' as his protagonist, Berryman makes it very clear that this is little more than autobiographical confession. (p. 122)

It's unfair to judge Recovery as a work of art, since it was left unfinished. There are passages of great power, but most of it is raw and unedited. Nevertheless, as a commentary on Berryman's late work, and as a way into his mind, this rough draft is rewarding, for it explains the conditions under which much of the poetry of the last two books was composed. We recognise in the account situations, personalities, and attitudes which are to be found in Love & Fame and Delusions…. [At] this stage, the anguish matters more than the poetry. The poems and the novel, like the notebook in the novel (which is perhaps a surrogate for the poems) serve primarily as therapeutic tools. Nowhere can we see more clearly the psychic value of creativity:

any writer's, or even scientist's permanent message perhaps is really just this: come and share my delusion, and we will be happy or miserable together.                    (pp. 122-23)

Berryman's last work demands that his readers involve themselves in the life of the writer to an unparalleled degree. It is a human characteristic to assume that what concerns us passionately must necessarily be of moment to others. Perhaps on the deepest level our interests really do coincide; but the adumbration of our most intimate secrets is a complicated process of innuendo and pretence, and without the appearance of objectivity that such mediating postures provide, the writer is almost entirely at the mercy of his feelings. Style and the order it implies cede to the vagaries of emotion, and authorial control seems significantly diminished. At such times the reader can rightly wonder who is really speaking the poem. So it is with much of Berryman's last work, a great deal of whose impact and effectiveness lies beyond the normal bounds of the poetic art. (p. 124)

Jonathan Galassi, "John Berryman: Sorrows and Passions of His Majesty the Ego," in Poetry Nation, No. 2, 1974, pp. 117-24.

The mature writing of John Berryman is characterised by [the] principle which recognises the instability of any boundary between poetry and common language. His verse is a rambling and various plenitude of idioms, dialects, slangs: language archaic, strange and new. If in the Bradstreet there is a modulation between nostalgic eloquence and terse hysteria, in the Dream Songs these differences explode as far and wide and as variously as Henry's vast encounters.

Love and Fame maintains these skills in a more muted register, and assimilates Berryman' loneliness at Cambridge into an encounter of difference within the one language. About the structure of the book (which is in four sections, the second of which recollects Cambridge) Berryman wrote: 'it is—however uneven—a whole, each of the four movements criticising backward the preceding'. The complexity of this sequence consists in the fact that, following the growth of this poet's mind through the anecdotes of his days, we watch (from uncertain distance and on a graph of uncertain continuity) at once the mind drawing out, and the mind drawing toward this order. Although such poetry supersedes any notion of self-expression and could never be simply egotistical, the most common criticism made against Berryman remains that he could consider the other only as an element of himself. But, given this structure of Love and Fame and the catalytic Henry of the Dream Songs, it is truer to his mode of generality to say that Berryman could not consider himself but as an element of all things else. His writing is powerful insofar as it is a fragmentation, an exposure.

If one were to draw a graph on which a Catholic American poet (wondering how 'the world can bear & be') might confront directly his present with his past, a likely intersection as to space might be Ireland, and, as to time, the Elizabethan age. In a sense this is what, for strategic purposes, Berryman has done. It is in terms of the Elizabethan that he finds precedents for his own poetic mode, and that period provided too something of the iconography of his world. (p. 148)

Across centuries in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet—isolated in Puritan New England—John Berryman wrote: 'Both of our worlds unhanded us. Lie stark,/thy eyes look to me mild'. Throughout the major poetry the Elizabethan precedent remains as intimate as that: first as a convention which would allow the poetry a certain reticence, and later as a mode for precisely breaking through that reticence. The archaic format of Berryman's Sonnets, with their theme of adulterous love, clearly serves as a strategic self-defence against over-exposure; and is matched by Berryman's hesitancy about publishing the sequence at all. Conversely, when writing the Dream Songs, Berryman advertised the precedent of the Elizabethan mode of satire, and especially the rambling-free structures of Thomas Nashe where you could 'tell it all' with biting praise and blame.

The Dream Songs are Berryman's great satire, breaking down the uniformity of our language, awakening ancient longings, releasing fear and laughter…. (p. 149)

Kevin Barry, "Berryman's Other Cambridge," in Cambridge Review, May 31, 1974, pp. 146-49.


Berryman, John (Vol. 4)