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I am an automobile

Calista McRae

John Berryman’s Public Vision, by Philip Coleman, University College Dublin Press, 260 pp, €40, ISBN: 978-1904558491

In a literal sense, John Berryman’s public image is comprised mostly of his massive beard. First cultivated when the young American poet was trying to look as refined as possible in England in the 1930s, and alternately shaved off and let flourish in subsequent decades, the beard dominates images of Berryman. Saul Bellow described him as “meteor-bearded like John Brown”. Robert Lowell wrote an elegy that called him “brush-beard” and said “the Victorians waking looked like you”. PJ Kavanagh, remembering Berryman, declared “I feel your dreadful beard, / Even now.” Geoffrey Hill commemorated him as a “face-fungused wizard”; David Wheatley wrote Berryman a “Beard Song”.

John Berryman was born John Smith, in Oklahoma, in 1914; his early life was upended when, after a failed land speculation, his father shot himself. His mother soon remarried; the eleven-year-old took his stepfather’s name. After graduating from Columbia College, Berryman headed to Cambridge: “Yeats, Yeats, I’m coming! It’s me!” a later poem has him exclaiming from the ship, in one of the most ebulliently silly apostrophes in twentieth century poetry. His first meeting with Yeats was almost sabotaged by Dylan Thomas, who “very nearly succeeded in getting me drunk earlier in the day”.

After the years in Cambridge, Berryman’s life became more tumultuous, filled with what he called “whims & emergencies, discoveries, losses”. He shifted around the US teaching; he married, had affairs and was divorced (repeatedly); he worked on scholarly projects, tried to get his poetry published and found that many of his friends failed to understand or like it. Some attention came with the mid-fifties poem “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet”, but it was not until the first instalment of The Dream Songs that Berryman became a celebrity. (The several books that appeared later, near the time of Berryman’s 1972 suicide, were taken mostly as indications of his decline.)

The Dream Songs baffled, charmed, and irritated its first readers. Robert Lowell’s early review ended in a rare admission of semi-appreciative bewilderment: “How often one chafes at the relentless indulgence, and cannot tell the what or why of a passage. And yet one must give in.” Spoken by an imaginary character named Henry, whose turbulent life often follows Berryman’s closely, the sequence describes problems with alcohol, marital fidelity, insomnia, an onslaught of bills, the suicide of a father, an alternating fear of and desire for death. The Dream Songs both made and circumscribed Berryman’s reputation: it won him recognition and a number of major awards, and it was taken by many readers as a straight transcription of his own thoughts and plights.

In a July 1967 issue of LIFE magazine, for example, Berryman is photographed repeatedly, holding forth in a pub in Dublin; the beard is on prominent display. “Whisky and ink, whisky and ink. These are the fluids John Berryman needs,” the accompanying profile begins. Soon it tells us that “His consumption of alcohol is prodigious and so is his writing.” While doing so it falls into a tradition, already congealing by the late sixties, of focusing somewhat gleefully and unreflectively on Berryman’s self-destructive tendencies. (Berryman himself played into his role as poète maudit, later echoing the whisky-and-ink cadence in a cartoonishly drunken couplet: “Madness & booze, madness & booze. / Which’ll can tell who preceded whose?”)

Berryman’s fame arrived a few years after ML Rosenthal coined the term “confessional” in a review of Robert Lowell’s 1959 volume Life Studies. Rosenthal himself later expressed misgivings about the term’s use, admitting that “very possibly the conception of a confessional school has by now done a certain amount of damage”. The term has furthered readings that reduce poems to unfiltered, exhibitionistic utterances: Life Studies as autobiography produced while Lowell was involuntarily confined to one mental hospital, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel as something similar to the patient histories she transcribed when working as a secretary in the psychiatric division of another.

While such conflations have become less common for other midcentury American poets, they have persisted for Berryman. “Maudlin” is one word frequently used of him; “egotistical” is another. One writer called The Dream Songs nothing but alcohol-fuelled emoting, saying that the poems “slide sideways into intellectualizing, pride, boredom, talk, obfuscation, self-pity and resentment”. Although such a harsh summing-up is extreme, it has been echoed by a number of established readers. Harold Bloom, for example, has dismissed Berryman as a poet championed by critics who “like their American poets to be suicidal, mentally ill, and a touch unruly”. The cover on a recent edition of Berryman’s Selected Poems (that of Faber’s 2007 volume) is of six emptied shot glasses, stacked, tilting, on a table that shades off into dark blue; the glasses continue the representation seen in LIFE’s photos of the poet gesticulating at a pub.

In contrast to the images that preponderate in Berryman’s myth and photographs, the cover of John Berryman’s Public Vision presents us with a shaved, thin-faced, extremely ordinary-looking man in his mid-forties. Berryman’s gaze is sharp, possibly tired, a little unsettling: it is hard to tell whether he is looking directly into the camera or beyond it.

The less recognisable jacket photo is emblematic of Philip Coleman’s project. Coleman has (in the introduction to another book published in 2014) referred to Mark Doty’s lines about Berryman’s “iconic thick glasses // glinting like the sidewalk / in the cold, iconic thick beard” as presenting not merely a “popular visual image of the poet” but an icon of “the misguided critical assumption that Berryman … failed to engage with the world around him”. Coleman questions the tradition of viewing Berryman as “a poet of solipsistic disengagement and self-absorption”, unable to handle his tempestuous personal life, let alone look up long enough to consider American politics. He demonstrates that Berryman thought both passionately and carefully about the modern world, and about poetry’s public value.

In contrast to potentially suffocating readings of Berryman as concerned only with his own mind and suffering, Coleman argues that Berryman’s poetry is far more than id, psychosis, and despair: the “development of Berryman’s poetry throughout his career can be charted … as a ‘calling into question’ of the nature of human subjectivity” and a “sense of what it meant to be a human being in the twentieth (or ‘American’) century”. John Berryman’s Public Vision brings out Berryman’s intelligence, which has often been ignored in favour of accounts that emphasise a wild, whisky-inspired genius, through a range of works, both the often-quoted and the completely forgotten.

Coleman begins by discussing the weaknesses and reductive tendencies of the confessional label, and lays out how it has, in Berryman’s case, encouraged glib fusions of biography and poetry. As Coleman notes, the photo of the emptied glasses on the Faber Selected suggests that “the often ugly realities of Berryman’s private life … frame [the] selection in a way that insists the poetry should be read only as a footnote, a perverse postscript to the poet’s troubled life and death”.

To begin to change our focus from Berryman’s personal crises to his public vision, Coleman explores “Formal Elegy”, which was written after John F Kennedy’s death and which has received little previous discussion (perhaps, in part, because it does not fit the stereotype described above). The poem begins in heartsick ambivalence: Berryman perceives that the assassination stemmed “from matters of principle – that’s the worst of all ‑ / & fear & crazed mercy”. He sees in the assassin, whom he does not name, a pernicious combination of deranged emotion and rocklike certainty ‑ the certainty that the poet lacks.

Later in the elegy, the poet seems to become a literal vehicle:

I am an automobile. Into me climb
many, and go their ways. Onto him climbed
a-many and went his way.

This elegy is, in part, a meditation on a poet’s role in political events. Although his ideas are read by “many” his readers “go their ways”, changed or more likely not, after encountering the poem; those carried by Kennedy, however, “went his way”. (Berryman’s syntactic parallels also recall Yeats’s statement that “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”)

“But what did Berryman believe his poetry could ‘do’?” Coleman’s first chapter asks. He finds an answer in one of the poet’s unpublished lecture notes, on Coleridge’s idea of a synthesising Imagination. According to Coleridge, poetry reconciles “opposite or discordant qualities”; this concept, Coleman suggests, gave Berryman “a way of explaining the kind of radical inclusiveness that he had been attempting in his own poetry from the beginning of his career”. The notion of far-reaching inclusiveness, of yoked opposites, has often been used to explain much of what makes his style engaging: its inclusion of quasi-Miltonic syntax and a bizarrely fragmented grammar, of Latinate vocabulary and contemporary slang, of iambic pentameter and Ogden Nash. But Coleman’s study extends this idea of radical inclusiveness, showing how Berryman attends not only to his own mind, but to the “scene of disorder” outside it. The mental dramas of The Dream Songs are themselves given new vigour by consideration of how they encompass politics and ethics.

The subsequent chapters of John Berryman’s Public Vision each take up roughly a decade in the poet’s work, from the late 1930s to the early 1970s. Coleman proceeds from Berryman’s first book, The Dispossessed, quoting generously and expressively. In contrast to a tradition of focusing exclusively on The Dream Songs (a number of readers have stated that this is the only Berryman worth reading), Coleman takes Berryman’s entire body of work seriously. It is a delight to read his analysis of the early poetry, and of the several depreciated books from the 1970s.

As the examination of Berryman’s lecture notes on Coleridge suggests, Coleman presents new finds from the wealth of archival material held at the University of Minnesota, drawing on letters, manuscripts, unpublished essays and heavily marked-up books. They reveal Berryman’s breadth of interests and his decades of evolving thought. Throughout his superbly thorough study, Coleman directs our attention to the richness of Berryman’s allusions, and thereby to how Berryman’s wide reading makes its way into his poems. For example, when Coleman examines the late volume Love & Fame, which a number of critics have attacked for its bragging (about sexual conquests, or rubbing shoulders with Yeats), he notes that the title recalls Keats’s “When I have fears that I may cease to be” which ends

                                            then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

Coleman charts the four-part book’s shift, in which Love and Fame ‑ or “lust and notoriety”, in the words of a particularly hostile critic ‑ do vanish into thin air, as the speaker turns to political, religious, and ethical questioning.

In each chapter, Coleman lays out several poems that confront events beyond the personal. By the third section of Love & Fame, for example, the speaker can turn to argue on behalf of “The Minnesota 8”, an anti-Vietnam War group jailed for trying to destroy draft records. Berryman first published this poem in his local paper, in response to a letter that called for their execution; although he once declared that Kierkegaard “wanted a society, to refuse to read ’papers, / and that was not, friends, his worst idea”, he did read the paper, assiduously. In one of the more memorable early poems ‑ “World-Telegram”, which Coleman also discusses ‑ Berryman evokes the unhierarchical jumble of newspaper headlines, from the sensational (“Man with a tail heads eastward for the Fair”) to the blandly distant (“Berlin and Rome are having difficulty”) to the twee (“All this on the front page. Inside, penguins”).

This book is bracingly wide-ranging, as regards both Berryman’s range of works and those works’ numerous sources. However, it might have arrived at further insights by occasionally taking a baggier method, one that pursued elements that don’t fit in these tightly argued chapters. (Because Coleman is writing against several decades of received ideas, digressions from his primary argument are rare, and sometimes their absence is missed.) One aspect that he raises but only briefly discusses is that Berryman’s effort to address the world at large was often a struggle. The first line of The Dream Songs ‑ “Huffy Henry hid       the day” ‑ foregrounds retreat and avoidance; and as Berryman says near the end of “World-Telegram”

If it were possible to take these things
Quite seriously, I believe they might
Curry disorder in the strongest brain …

Berryman’s accomplishment might be brought out still more fully by taking into account both his outward and inward turns. A book like Love & Fame, for example, is in part a study of narcissism; one could press more closely at how the desire to take part in the world interacts with the impulse to talk about oneself. While Love & Fame’s progression from complacency to contemplation is undeniable, it is not straightforward; from line to line, this speaker’s attitudes toward his earlier exploits jostle against each other, sounding alternately petulant, conscientious, self-congratulatingly modest, or corrosively self-mocking. There remains a need to discuss, in detail, his poetry’s tonal fluctuations, and its tension between ambivalence and the impulse to speak plainly. (The poem for “The Minnesota 8” is an example of Berryman at his most strident and direct ‑ but as Coleman notes, the poem was removed from the second printing of Love & Fame.)

Each of Coleman’s forceful chapters, however, directs us to numerous areas in which Berryman’s work cannot be regarded as confessional solipsism. He draws attention, for example, to the range of Berryman’s formal innovation. Even a disregarded work like the Kennedy elegy, with its ten sections that move spikily between free verse and metre, reveals Berryman’s unforgettable syntax and rhythms: “Scuppered the yachts, the choppers, big cars, jets. / Nobody goes anywhere.” After Kennedy’s death, the yachts and jets are swept away even before they are listed; the hefty pentameter, in which stressed syllables pile up the way that the expensive, vulgar vehicles do, suddenly gives way to a short, bare, paralysed statement.

Berryman’s language, especially his syntactical inversions, is like no other in the twentieth century; we see his grammar straining as early as “The Dispossessed”, and by the time of “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” it is extremely wrenched:

…………Out of maize & air
your body’s made, and moves. I summon, see,
from the centuries it.

Here, as Berryman addresses the seventeenth century poet Anne Bradstreet, his crumpled syntax pushes “centuries” of distance between “I” and the “it” of “your body”; but the sentence does end with Bradstreet evoked. Here the expressiveness of Berryman’s syntax is almost didactic ‑ see also how he animates the first sentence at the last possible minute, with “and moves” ‑ but by the time of The Dream Songs, its strangeness is more varied and slippery. Two stanzas from “Dream Song 49” show Berryman’s innovations in concentrate; its grammatically crazy sentences fall into an abcabc rhyme scheme, and quite a bit of good pentameter:

Old Pussy-cat if he won’t eat, he don’t
feel good into his tum’, old Pussy-cat.
He wants to have eaten.
Tremor, heaves, he sweaterings. He can’t.
A dizzy swims of where is Henry at;
… somewhere streng verboten.

His language is pervaded by his symptoms. “Tremor”, without article or verb, suggests that the speaker suffers from one unending bout of trembling, and “sweaterings” has undergone a more severe change. Sweat seems to have turned into a made-up verb, sweater, which we might define as “to sweat constantly with no end in sight”. This new word becomes a participle, sweatering, making it even more endless ‑ and then, in a nonsensical attempt to adhere to grammatical rules, it takes on the -s of a normal third-person verb.

How come he sleeps & sleeps and sleeps, waking like death:
locate the restorations of which we hear
as of profound sleep.
From daylight he got maintrackt, from friends’ breath,
wishes, his hopings. Dreams make crawl with fear
Henry but not get up.

Henry’s plight seems interminable: the intense disjunction of that last sentence leaves him trapped in the middle of the sentence, with no escape.

In the exuberantly self-pitying language above, we find another counter to the idea of the maudlin, self-absorbed poet: Berryman’s humour. Although Coleman does not discuss this more playful side in detail, it is a crucial aspect of Berryman’s perspective, and of his constant, fluctuating ambivalence. The relish of mishap we hear in Berryman’s prose – for example in the account of meeting Yeats when nearly perilously drunk ‑ is equally prevalent, though more elusive, in the poetry. (Berryman prefaced a 1966 reading of The Dream Songs by declaring, “Prepare to weep, ladies and gentlemen. Saul Bellow and I almost kill ourselves laughing about the Dream Songs and various chapters in his novels, but other people feel bad. Are you all ready to feel bad?”) Much of what makes Berryman appealing derives from how he pushes the serious against the seemingly non-serious, and the personal against the public.

John Berryman’s Public Vision ends with a look at Berryman’s influence in the world today. Slow to find fame, and relatively quick to undergo a sag in his reputation in the eighties and nineties, Berryman seems to have attracted more interest in the past few years. He has been the subject of a few recent studies, such as Brendan Cooper’s Dark Airs: John Berryman and the Spiritual Politics of Cold War American Poetry and Samuel Fisher Dodson’s Living at the Intersection of Need and Art (a study of The Dream Songs), as well as a collection of essays that stemmed from a 1993 conference, edited by Coleman and Philip McGowan.

As to Berryman’s influence on poetry, Coleman finds it in many places of the English-speaking world ‑ in particular the fascinating legacy in Ireland. This past year also saw the publication of Berryman’s Fate, which Coleman edited, and which compiles a number of short, Berryman-instigated poems by writers across the US, Ireland, England and Canada. About half take inspiration from the three-sestet Dream Song form, such as David Wheatley’s “Beard Song”: “Chinny-chin-chin, I spared you those years, / wrapping you tight in the seaweed tangle / of my first beard.” Many others pay homage to Berryman through quotation, pastiche, or remembered anecdote.

Given Love & Fame’s records of conquests, and the Dream Songs that imagine “a lark with Sappho, / a tumble in the bushes with Miss Moore”, it is interesting that a number of the poets who have drawn on Berryman’s style are women. Just as Berryman takes up other people’s and even other objects’ voices ‑ a seventeenth-century Puritan woman, a “demented priest”, a literal lost sheep, an automobile, a helicopter ‑ Lucie Brock-Broido swirls through personae. (In her first book, A Hunger, speakers include a little girl trapped in a well, an insane twin, and the young Edward VI.) Brock-Broido also shares Berryman’s tendency toward jarring ampersands and expressively bent syntax. Much as he blends the Romantic and the slangy, she mixes a pre-Raphaelite vocabulary into the contemporary:

And where are you now, my posthumous.
Have you been bad, unplugging
The blue appliance cord that keeps you juiced into this
World, particular with myrrh and bile?

Berryman is also re-embodied in Anne Carson’s “Twelve-Minute Prometheus”, published in the London Review of Books in 2008. The poem seems half collage; its echoes of Berryman range from the imperceptible to the pronounced. For example, it quotes repeatedly from “Dream Song 28”, which is spoken by the literal lost sheep mentioned above. Berryman’s sheep fears that “There may be horribles” and wishes for “the strange one with so few legs” to return: “I’m too alone. I see no end. … The sun is not hot. / It’s not a good position I am in.”

At the beginning of Carson’s poem, Prometheus speaks nearly those exact lines: “I’m too alone, the sun is hot, it’s not a good position to be in.” But where Berryman’s sheep ends with the aphoristically gloomy “If I had to do the whole thing over again / I wouldn’t,” Prometheus revises this sentence:

HERMES: But if you could start over ‑
PROM: I’d do it all again.

Whether one can hear an affirmative, defiant Berryman behind Prometheus’s adjustment seems open to interpretation. Coleman’s study, however, ends with a poem that shows us similar determination, spoken by “a poet-king … who persists with his performance in spite of all the world can throw at him.” It is from Berryman’s posthumous Delusions, Etc., and entitled “King David Dances”:

Aware to the dry throat of the wide hell in the world,
O trampling empires, and mine one of them,
and mine one gross desire against His sight,
slaughter devising there,
some good behind, ambiguous ahead,
with the ponder both of priesthood & of State
heavy upon me, yea,
all the black same I dance my blue head off!

Coleman’s focus on Berryman’s public vision—“the ponder both of priesthood & of State”—also speaks to Berryman’s almost indiscriminately voracious intellect and his curiosity about “Earth so gorgeous & different from the boring Moon,” as Love & Fame put it. (That truculent jab at the “boring Moon” is a good instance of how Berryman escapes the saccharine through a sudden change of tones, or sheer non sequitur.) One is reminded that Berryman is also the poet who began a 1962 reading by announcing, “Uh, it’s pleasant to be here, and it’s pleasant to be ‑ too, never mind just here.”


Calista McRae is a PhD student at Harvard University; she writes on recent and contemporary American poetry.



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