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In Loving Memory of the Late Author of the Dream Songs


ISSUE:  Winter 1973

In their late eighties, Severn and Trelawny were laid to rest in the Cimitero Acattolico in Rome beside the young men whose genius had been the chief events of their lives, Keats dead at twenty-five, Shelley at twenty-nine. What a crowd of us there would be, by that criterion, in John Berryman’s graveyard-men and women who survive him knowing that their encounters with him constitute an identity, whatever other identities we achieve before the grave.

A man does not want to jostle or seem proprietary in speaking of such friendship. Dozens of us appear by our right names in his poems, the only disclaimer is the mystifying one for Henry himself “(not the poet, not me),” but nobody sues. Probably the impulse to bear witness should take as its tone the agonized modesty of one of his last poems:

Happy to be here
and to have been here, with such lovely ones
so infinitely better.

I knew him first after, World War II when I was teaching and doing some rather casual graduate work at Princeton. The appointment as R. P. Blackmur’s assistant in the creative writing courses at the university was an annual one, that is, one person couldn’t hold it for more than one year consecutively, and for several years Berryman and I held it alternately. But we were not friends then. He was formidable in his learning and in his pride of learning, I was even less read then than now. We had many friends in common, but we kept at the opposite ends of parties or perhaps only I did. If we liked anything ahout one another it was the jokes we made.

The friendship that came about suddenly and remains a chief event in my life started in Vermont in the summer of 1962 at the Bread Loaf School of English. We lived under the same roof there for six weeks, with most of the other faculty, in a big summer “cottage” in the mountains. The fact that he and I drank gin at noon, which had to be elaborately overlooked and was, when that was possible, may have thrown us together at first. But the lucid fact of Kate Berryman, during that summer as during the whole last decade of his life, translated what was difficult about John into terms that less extraordinary people could understand. From the start, my friendship was always with both Kate and John, and I will never know how much I owe it to her translations of him and me, especially at the start.

Berryman came to know Robert Frost that summer, visiting him (and the close friends of his later years, the Theodore Morrisons) at the Homer Noble Farm, a mile down the road from the Bread Loaf campus. There were not many visits, but he came close to Frost. (Besides the “Three around the Old Gentleman,” there are two other references to these visits in “The Dream Songs” and one in “Delusions, Etc.” If I had to guess what Frost liked best about him, I would say either his edgy wit or his knowledge of American history or his wife. The meetings were notable because Frost did not generally take to younger poets with egos the size of his own, and accomplishments to support them, but he took to Berryman.

At the beginning of the summer John gave a reading at the school. He started off with a recitation from memory of Frost’s “The Oven Bird,” an early poem I had long felt was a key to Frost’s diction, the colloquial language that once astonished readers; in two lines especially:

The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.

This was before John’s first visit to the cabin. In other words, he was not one of Bread Loaf’s summer converts but a man who lived with Frost’s work, as I did. I think this was one of our first expressed affinities.

That evening was the first time I had heard Dream Songs read, though I was to hear them at all hours for the next several weeks. Once he came to my room at 4 a.m. for what was supposed to be a private reading of a song just finished. The acoustics of the big wooden house made it an unpopular public event. When John read aloud, the etymology of the word aloud was brought forcibly home.

We spent many hours of those days and nights together. Kate was pregnant, but to be sociable she sometimes drank some of the gallon jug of Gallo or Italian Swiss Colony sherry with which extraordinarily (a habit from the wartime drouth?) our martinis were always made. The Berrymans had many friends, students and faculty. The Dream Songs were new to all of us then, and John would read the new ones that were birthing week by week as another man might tell anecdotes. The anecdotal quality of them emerged in his readings: it was the character of Henry who dangled from strings and told you his droll, outrageous life.

It was not until the end of that summer of ‘62 that Berrvman made a serious attempt to find the structure of what I think had been, up to then, an improvisational work. He and Kate lingered a few weeks after the summer session, in a cabin further up the valley belonging to a remarkable lady who has befriended many writers, including this one, Mrs. Frank A. Scott. There John set in order for the first time the contents of a small brown suitcase that contained, in profuse disorder, a literary event of 1964. Dream Song 62 records a brief philosophical exchange he had at this time with a rabbit, outside the cabin. He worked there until it was time for him to go to Providence in September, where that year he taught Edwin Honig’s courses at Brown University.

I move now to the last visit I had with him. In May of 1971 he was invited, with a numher of other poets, to a kind of’ poetry festival at Goddard College in Northern Vermont. I drove from New London to pick him up in Hartford, and we planned to go on to my house at Bread Loaf. But the aging Mercedes that I affect lost a carburetor on the way, and we stayed at Woodstock that night. His talk was rangy, but returned to religion (“the idiot temptation to try to live the Christian life” is a phrase I remember) and to the disease of alcoholism, from which he felt he had at last been cured. He who would never wear decorations was wearing a rosette: the badge of three months’ abstinence, from Alcoholics Anonymous. Walking late in a cold mist, he stopped once on a sedate nineteenth-century street of that handsome town and spoke, in a voice that made windows go up in the quiet night, the legend he had decided on for his tombstone. It was to say simply: John Berryman, 1914-19-(“There’s no particular hurry about that last date,”) and then, very loud: “Fantastic! Fantastic! Thank Thee, Dear Lord !” We shared a room that night at the Woodstock Inn. I had forgotten the terrible intensity of his cigarette cough.

After lunch the next day, two Goddard students came to drive us the last sixty or seventy-five miles to Plainfield. At one point in the drive, and I can’t remember how he came to the remark, he said, “You and I are the last of the unreconstructed snobs, Meredith.” Partly it was said to shock the pleasantly reconstructed students, a young man and a young woman. (She drove like a liberated woman. They were both bright.) But remembering the remark makes me aware now, of another affinity between Berryman and myself, a yearning for decorum, even for old-fashioned manners. I’m not speaking about our social behavior, which is dubious in both cases, but about a social ideal. At heart, Berryman was a courtly man, though usually (like most of us) he could act out only a parody of that. The forms of behavior that attracted him were as traditional as the forms of prosody.

He took a long, deliberate time to master prosody. The terza rima of “Canto Amor” (1946) is virtuoso, self-conscious still. Some of the Petrarchan “Sonnets,” which date from the same decade, are slightly contrived. Even in “The Dream Songs” there are occasional lines that seem to have rhvmed themselves wilfully into existence:

At Harvard & Yale must Pussy-cat be heard,
in the dead of winter wheli we must be sad
and feel by the weather had.

But what makes the prosody consistently astonishing, from beginning to end (see, in the last book, the form of “Scholars at the Orchid Pavilion” and “He Resigns”), is the sense of individual selection of the form for each poem. Even in the ones where you feel an excess of formality, like the “Canto Amor,” or in a particular sonnet where the tradition seems to go sterile, or in a Dream Song where there is an effect of doggerel, the flaw is appropriate to the feeling of the poem, is not really a flaw but a felt, if not a calculated, effect.

Throughout his work there seems to have been an absolute and passive attention to the poem’s identity, which produced this accuracy of form. It is an accuracy that dims noticeably in certain poems in the last two books-poems which could be described on the one hand as wilful or unmannerIy, on the other hand as deeply troubled. They represent a wrestling with new beginnings, I think, an agony of genius renewing itself. One does not patronize them by saying that the last two books are greatly flawed, the adverb cuts both ways. The prosody is violent, the enterprise is desperate, but the work is not clumsy. The poet is paying his kind of absolute attention to scrannel sounds, to use the word from “Lycidas.”

Social decorum as it existed at Cambridge when he went to England in 1936 must have seemed trustworthy to him (al though his taste never failed him worse than when he wrote about those days in “Love & Fame”). Manners in the larger sense were for him an agreed-on language, an established position from which you could negotiate with accuracy toward or away from human intimacy. Without such fixes (taking the term from navigation) the maneuver is more perilous than with them. He must have picked up the reassuring starchiness of his British spelling and idiom at this time. To the end he would speak of having been in hospital, he spelt honor honour, he would have addressed an insulting letter “Jerry Rubin, Esq.” Society and its language were for him still a tissue of contracts, however much in flux, however headlong in decline. Once when he wanted to swear at a good man who had with considerable justification asked our party to leave his restaurant, Berryman called him an insolent innkeeper, indicating outrage at the specific breach of contract he felt he had suffered.

I think that day in Vermont he had been speaking against the promiscuous honesty that is preferred to conventional manners today, an honesty that is often no more than an evasion of the social predicament. It pretends to candor but doesn’t care enough about the particular human engagement to look you in the eye, doesn’t seem to recognize that all honest engagements are negotiations, ad hominem negotiations that require the expense of attention. And it is this kind of attention that distinguishes Berryman’s poems. They meet the eye, they pay you that courtesy.

And calculated rudeness, an element of the Berryman rhetoric, is possible only for the mannerly. It works in terms of con tracts and just deserts:

Many a one his pen’s been bad unto,
which they deserved.

Expressions of contempt in modern literature often smack of self-contempt, contempt for the human tribe. Berryman’s contempt is for aberrations from the inherited good manners of the tribe. “I saw in my dream the great lost cities, Macchu Picchu, Cambridge Mass., Angkor. . . .” It is a curious fact about modern poetry that many of its large figures have been men of enormous intelligence (we couldn’t have made good use of Tennyson) supported by enormous reading, and that they want to restore rather than overthrow traditions. With our lesser poets, it has mostly been the other way around-average intelligence, average or below-average literacy, and enormous radicalism. ‘l’he radicalism often seems, by comparison with Pound or Auden or Berryman or Lowell, naïve.

Lowell or Auden could control a tone of insolence like Berryman’s in “The Lay of Ike,” but not many other poets today have the cultural premises to make it hold. ‘l’he poem posits an underlying patriotism, the regularly-invoked patriotism of John Adams, perhaps. (It follows the Song called “Of 1828”, which quotes Adams’ dying words.) It rests on an historical mannerliness that makes its goosing of a president serious. It is funny but it’s no joke. We are made aware of a heritage that President Eisenhower is being insulted for Mt being aware of. It is a vulgar, telling statement of expectation from one of the last of the unreconstructed patriots.

On the Sunday morning at the end of that weekend at Goddard there was an easy discussion among poets and student poets-I think it was billed as a symposium-in the living room of the guesthouse we had stayed in. Berryman was in good form, despite the fact that for four days he had been without the sedative (my quiet pills, he called them) he took during those last months when he was not drinking. He was wonderfully attentive, in the way I had seen him in the classroom at Bread Loaf. The talk was set in motion by Paul Nelson, the poet who teaches at Goddard. His quiet good sense set an unpretentious tone for an event that might well have become competitive. Of the poets who had been there for the weekend I think only Galway Kinnell had left before this final session. I remember that Louise Glück, Michael Dennis Browne, James Tate, Barry Goldensen, Marvin Bell, Geof Hewitt, and Charles Simic were still there.

After Nelson had thanked the poets, he turned the discussion over to Berryman, who surprised me by introducing me. I was not an invited member of the weekend but John’s guest. One of the things he said about me was that I understood Frost better than anyone else and had survived him, the way he (Berryman) understood and had survived Yeats. I said a poem I knew by heart and read one out of my journal. He asked for one I had written about Frost, but it simply would not come to me and I petered out after a few lines. Then John said, “Why doesn’t everyone in the gathering of poets say what he thinks he has done best?” It was a good half hour or so then, unusual human warmth came of that quite characteristic act on the part of a man who is often described as arrogant. The poets were completely open with one another, modest before their caning with a modesty that John had laid on us.

At the end a student, a young woman, read a strong, not altogether controlled surrealist poem, and John responded. He spoke about breakthrough works, and said that the first section of his “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” had been a kind of “first best” for him-too long, but exciting as a first. He called it a “crisis poem.” It was a phrase he had used earlier in the weekend, talking in wide generalizations about the Dream Songs. The first 384 are about the death of his father, he said, and number 385 is about the illegitimate pregnancy of his daughter (an infant in arms at Thanksgiving, 1962, when the poem can be dated). “I am interested only in people in crisis,” he said. “When I finish one, I enter on another.” (I incline to agree with a student of his work, Deborah Melone, who was present at the Sunday morning meeting, that in this reference to the final Dream Song, as often in talking about his poems, he was trying on a new meaning that had suggested itself to him, or in this case been suggested to him, after the fact. When the poem was written, I think, the opening words—”My daughter’s heavier”—referred to the process of growth, suggesting the process of mortality.)

I think now that the most important persuasion we shared-I a virtually unread, instinctive, gregarious man, Berryman one of the most learned, intellectual, and lonely men I’ve known-was a view about people in crisis. It amounts to ‘a qualified optimism~ in his case ultimately a Christian optimism, about crisis as’ a medium of grace, if an agnostic can put it that way. We both believed that there is an appropriate response to anything that befalls a human being, and that the game is to find and present that response.

Robert Frost’s “The Draft Horse,” a poem John asked me to say that morning at Goddard (he knew I had it by heart, as I didn’t have my poem about Frost), is a poem about the mystery of response to crisis, implying I think that the response of love can render evil impotent. Berryman makes a response to it (“Lines to Mr. Frost”) in his final collection, lines from one poet at rest, now, to another, concluding, “I was almost ready to hear you from the grave with these passionate grave last words, and frankly Sir you fill me with joy.”

The night before I picked him up at Hartford, he had endured a crisis in his hotel there and had written, or anyhow started writing, ‘the astonishing religious poem called “The Facts & Issues.” It begins:

I really believe He’s here all over this room
in a motor hotel in Wallace Stevens’ town.

It contains the lines about his friends quoted first in this reminiscence. It ends with the baffling spectacle of a man fending off torrents of a grace that has become unbearable. It is an heroic response to that crisis, as I think his death was too.

As we drove toward Vermont the next afternoon he told me that he had telephoned his wife that night and asked her (at 4 a.m. again) to tell him “of any act of pure and costly giving” in his life. “I can’t stand any more luck, I can’t take any more. Neither heaven nor hell-rest, when it’s over.” I am a bad journalist and an agnostic besides, but I wrote that down that night, in Woodstock, and pray now that it is so for him.

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