With the appearance of a number of recent biographies and more informal memoirs, such as Eileen Simpson’s Poets in Their Youth, it is now possible to say that the American literary scene after World War II is becoming a part of the past, a historic period. While a good many more years must pass before the writing produced by the poets who came of age in the late 1940’s and the early 1950’s can be properly assessed, it is now possible for the surviving witnesses to evoke the feeling of that age. Eileen Simpson, because she was married to John Berryman at a time when he lived in Princeton, New Jersey, and knew a remarkable number of the poets of his generation, was in a position to see much and experience much. Her gracious and gracefully written memoir is one that will grow in value as scholars and critics begin the task of interpreting the works of Berryman and his illustrious contemporaries.
Works such as this memoir are especially valuable for an understanding of Berryman, Robert Lowell, and the other poets of their circle, because much of their poetry is written in what has been called the “confessional” mode, a style of poetry which draws heavily on personal experience. While knowing the biographical setting of a particular poem is not the same as understanding it, often such knowledge clarifies obscure references and adds to one’s sense of what the poem actually says. In relating specific events from the lives of Berryman and Lowell, Simpson will frequently quote from their poems that were inspired by those events.
At the same time, one should not turn to Simpson’s book in search of intimate personal details. Simpson is both a modest and a reticent narrator; her story stops at the bedroom door. The focus of her account is on the interpersonal side of the story. She gives her readers a sense of the personalities and relationships of the people in her early adult life—what they talked about, whom they knew, how they dealt with life’s problems—rather than facts about the more intimate personal and physical aspects of their lives. Although Simpson is now a psychotherapist, she refrains from attempting to analyze the emotional makeup of Berryman and the others.
This restraint gives Simpson’s memoir a surprising quality of emotional detachment. During the years Simpson was married to him, Berryman was often depressed and suicidal; he carried on a number of affairs with other women and began the pattern...
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