The Selected Letters of John Berryman, edited by Philip Coleman and Calista McRae, foreword by Martha B Mayou, Harvard University Press, $39.95, 736 pp, ISBN: 978-0674976252
It hardly makes critical sense, but reading through this beautifully produced, neatly edited and capacious volume of the selected letters of John Berryman from his youth to a matter of weeks before his death, I could not help but see him as representative of a generation born on the cusp of the First World War whose lives became overshadowed by personal wars of one kind or another. Alcoholism, profound struggles with mental health and deep-seated uncertainties about their “place” as poets in their cultures, often led to amazing self-performance and drastic self-doubt. The link was made by Berryman himself in his poems – for which this volume will make a fascinating and essential background reading – and by his friends, such as Saul Bellow and Robert Lowell, among many others.
Berryman was clearly a sociable man within the hothouse and claustrophobic world of American letters, notwithstanding his dire search for sustainable solitude. But the names are unavoidably inscribed in the achievement of mid-twentieth century writing, particularly poetry in English, and the shock of such attritional destinies makes for grim reading. In a random sampling one registers Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966), Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), Randall Jarrell (1914-1965), Weldon Kees (1914-1955?), Jean Stafford (1915-1979), Robert Lowell (1917-1977), framed either side of the decade by Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), Anne Sexton (1928-1974) and Sylvia Plath (1932-1963). While the Irish parallels are there too ‑ Patrick MacDonogh (1902-1961), Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967), Louis MacNeice (1907-1963), Brian O’Nolan (1911-1966) and Brendan Behan (1923-1964). The age profiles tell their own starkly tragic story.
What separates Berryman from these, his contemporaries, is the extent to which his autobiographical life became radically transformed into such a living force in his poems, including the bizarre world of Dream Songs, but also the earlier weird and wonderful long poem Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, hailed by Lowell as “the most resourceful historical poem in our language” – by “our” he meant the “American” language. Berryman was right though to ditch the notion of “confessional” poetry, with which he was so much identified, much to his understandable chagrin. What he achieved was something infinitely more complex and also so much simpler – to produce in formal, stylistically adept patterns, poems which voice themselves, sometimes in the tone of a learned academic (which he was) and at other times as a ventriloquist, impersonating other accents and vernacular idioms, on occasion in troubling fashion as the editors point out in their spirited and level-headed introduction:
Though [Berryman’s] letters rarely address racial ventriloquism directly, moments do suggest some assumptions about racist discourse and about race. In a letter from his first term at South Kent [School, Connecticut], for instance, he attempts to reassure his mother that a new friend is “not a Hebrew.” The same fall, he describes a Halloween party where one student dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan and another as a slave, while he himself went as a “Jew[ish] pawnbroker.” By his college years, he adopts blackface in his letters for intended humorous effect. Decades later, in an April 1963 letter to Poetry editor Henry Rago, Berryman’s perspective seems typical of a white post-war liberal in the United States; he quickly deflects from his own writing to more distant figures of stereotypically racist Southerners. The work of contemporary poets such as Cathy Park Hong, Tyehimba Jess, Claudine Rankine, and Lynn Xu, who have responded to Berryman’s uses of minstrelsy, speaks to how much of twentieth-century American poetry is intertwined with what Kevin Young has called “an elaborate ritual … to speak to the soul in crisis”. Berryman’s thinking on other social and political issues also emerges in these pages. In some early letters, as he struggles to articulate his masculinity, references to women can be demeaning, as well as obsessive and ambivalent.
There is much to ponder as one reads through the 700-plus pages, some of which is understandably caught in current waves of important identity and gender politics alongside the maze of historical stereotypes and simple human decency. As well as providing a “Life in Letters”, these letters are obsessed with the literary landscape in which Berryman featured as a “visiting/adjunct professor”. Much of his time in the gig economy of the US academy reveals an atmosphere of uncertainty, stress, vulnerability and “dealing”’ between one college and another to secure untenured but first-class staff. This micro-narrative tells its own story about the knowledge economy in the US of their time as writers such as Berryman and others of his generation turned to the university to secure livelihoods in the face of a culture not that much interested in poetry ‑ a refrain that echoes throughout Berryman’s correspondence.
One of his dearest friends and supporters, Saul Bellow, remarked in a letter to Berryman in spring 1966: “You have extended my lease on life with these poems. Nothing more stable than inspired dizziness. The poet’s answer to the speed of light and the Brownian motion of matter. We have no holy cities, maybe, but we do have Dream Songs.” And Bellow – like Lowell, Ralph Ellison and many other Berryman friends and contemporaries – was clear about his influence. In his lecture “A Jewish Writer in America” (1988) Bellow remarked: “I owe too much to writers like R[obert]. P[enn]. Warren, who was so generous to me when I was starting out, and to John Berryman, John Cheever and other poets, novelists and critics of American descent to complain of neglect, discrimination or abuse. Most Americans judged you according to your merit and to the majority of readers it couldn’t have mattered less where your parents were born.”
A decade earlier, shortly after Berryman took his own life in January 1972, Bellow wrote in the foreword to Berryman’s unfinished novel, Recovery (1973). about the demons which afflicted the poet’s mature years, fuelled by alcoholism and the effects of numerous “rehab” hospitalisations and recounts a shocking moment in “Minneapolis one afternoon”. Berryman had been appointed associate professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Minnesota, where Bellow had been a faculty member along with the chair of the Humanities programme, Ralph Ross:
Ralph Ross and I had to force the window of a house near Seven Corners to find out what had happened to John. No one had seen him in several days. We arrived … rang the bell, kicked at the door, tried to peer through the panes, and then crawled in over a windowsill. We found ourselves standing on a bare gritty floor between steel book stacks. The green steel shelves from Montgomery Ward, meant for garages or workshops, for canned peaches in farmers’ cellars, were filled with the elegant editions of Nashe and Marlowe and Beaumont and Fletcher that John was forever importing from Blackwell’s. These were read, annotated, for John worked hard. We found him in the bedroom. Face-down, rigid, he lay diagonally across the double bed. From this position he did not stir. But he spoke distinctly.
“These efforts are wasted. We are unregenerate.”
Reflecting on this preface in a letter to Ross later that year Bellow snags on how it might have “made things too easy” and that he has now the ‘“privilege’ [SB quotation marks] of observing the attitudes of people towards the poet and his career”. Bellow hits his stride:
There’s something culturally gratifying, apparently, about such heroic self-destruction. It’s Good-old-Berryman-he-knew-how-to-wrap-it-up. It’s a combination of America, Murderer of Poets, and of This Is the Real Spiritual Condition of Our Times … It rather scares me to see how very satisfactory John’s life and death can be from a certain point of view.
The Selected Letters of John Berryman holds nothing back and, like the letters of Philip Larkin, the publication renders a complete picture of the man and the poet in his own words, distasteful as some of these unquestionably are to our way of thinking today. Anxieties about celebrity, shape-changing from the almost parody of an east coast academic, schooled in Columbia and Cambridge (England) in the Thirties, Berryman becomes a Beat poet before our very eyes.
As Eileen Simpson, Berryman’s first wife, recalls in her wonderful memoir of the 1940s, Poets in Their Youth (1982), the beard and moustache came and went as JB sought to find a different vision of himself from the various parts he had inherited from his father ‑ who had committed suicide – and a (perhaps over-)powerful mother, whose very presence throughout his adult life caused Berryman deeply troubling emotional difficulties. Again, it is Bellow, responding to Simpson’s gift of her memoir, who writes in April 1982 about the “pleasure” in reading her book, “but it was also painful and heavy”:
Those were not at all the good old days out of which our reputations grew, they were bad times. What was worst about them for me I was reluctant to face, understandably. Then, and later, I declined to examine the phenomena. What were John and Delmore [Schwartz] and Cal [Lowell] about, really? I admired their poems, I relished their company; but I was so deeply immersed in my own puzzles, programs, problems that I drove past in my dream-car …. Something like that. Not without feeling, no; I certainly felt for them, but I was a thousand times less attentive than I was capable of being. It came home to me sharply as I read your memoir. I suppose that if John and Delmore hadn’t been such entertainers, comic charmers, stylists, if they hadn’t hundreds of intriguing tricks in presenting themselves … But it really does no good, this remorse for being so like [SB emphasis] them. Was I to be some singular moral genius, or super-psychologist? Moral geniuses were not in great supply. Your book, then, took me by surprise. I hadn’t known. I couldn’t have known, what you knew. Besides I hadn’t the patience, in my thirties, forties and fifties, to investigate. I can start now. I have started. A project to close out with.
What the Berryman Letters bring starkly to a reader today is a complicated matter ‑ about just how dangerous it can be for an artist when he or she, putting their life on the line, is in the hands of a culture which feeds the masquerade while in truth indifference rules. As one of the Dream Songs (120) muses in the poem’s unrepeatable, high-wire and perverse mix of humour, rage and insight: “But foes I sniff! / My nose in all directions! I be so brave / I creep into an Artic cave.”
If a paperback is in the offing at some later stage, perhaps the book could contain dividers between decades just to help readers pause and gather themselves in the intense and hectic pulse towards the shocking denouement. A strictly minor issue though, for this Letters is, quite simply, a magisterial work of scholarship and all praise to the editors for making Berryman so much more knowable and “situated” than he was before. Readers of his poetry have all they need to know now about this conflicted and damaged soul for whom poetry was the only lifeline.
Gerald Dawe’s most recent poetry collection, The Last Peacock, was published in 2019. A City Imagined: Belfast Soulscapes, the third and final installment in his Northern Chronicles is due July 2021