I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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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…

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