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Berryman’s Last Hurrah

ISSUE:  Autumn 1976
The Freedom of the Poet. By John Berryman. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $12.50

On the surface at least, John Berryman’s suicide in 1972 seemed to come at a time when life had begun to reward him most amply. After years of competent vassalage to the rather faceless academic verse of the forties and fifties, Berryman broke free, discovering what many critics regarded as a profoundly original spirit. With 77 Dream Songs (1964) and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968), each a torrent of self-revelation in carefully patterned stanzas, Berryman was instantly proclaimed a giant of contemporary poetry, a glorious addition to Robert Lowell’s new “confessional” school of verse. His personal life, long shaken by marital turmoil, had been calmed considerably by a successful third marriage. An alcoholic of many years’ standing, Berryman claimed to have at least arrested the addiction.

But naturally the happy appearance was yoked to unhappy realities. The most damaging of these was certainly Berryman’s incurable grief and horror over his father’s suicide, which occurred when the poet was eleven, Despite the solidity of his marriage, he continued to experience a fever of extra-marital lusts; this chronic affliction was accompanied by lacerating guilt, Moreover, success had not freed him from monotonous teaching duties, to which he felt chained by financial needs. As to his literary recognition, he saw little possibility of advancing beyond the plateau he attained with the Dream Songs— and indeed there is nothing in his last works (Love & Fame, Delusions, Etc.) to suggest he was wrong.

Through his spokesman Henry, the central character of the Dream Songs, Berryman articulated his view of literary criticism unequivocally: “—I can’t read any more of this Rich Critical Prose, /he growled, broke wind, and scratched himself and left/that fragrant area. /When the mind dies it exudes rich critical prose.” But Berryman exuded enough of this despised substance throughout his own career to fill a sizeable volume, and that, plus a handful of short stories, is what makes up The Freedom of the Poet. Assembled posthumously from a schema he left behind, the book includes sections on Elizabethan writers, other Europeans from Cervantes to Anne Frank, American fiction, poetry from England and America, stories, and general essays.

Even Berryman’s detractors will have to concede that The Freedom of the Poet demonstrates an exceptional range and depth in the poet’s cultural interests. Anyone who is familiar with his work may also note the many points at which this volume intersects Berryman’s poetic oeuvre. Needless to say, the congruencies are most obvious in Berryman s fiction. Carnality, one of the poet’s chief subjects, is examined from every angle in his verse—the initially aroused appetite, the dalliance, the satisfaction, the guilty aftermath. The early story “The Lovers” (1945), an evocative, lushly textured tale of adolescent romance, is a less inclusive treatment of the same theme. The narrator recounts an erotic episode from his idle, pampered youth and contrasts it to the mature outlook of a charismatic family friend, who recommends “Work!—a wife, and work!”

Berryman’s empathy with outsiders is a much-observed feature of his writing (Henry is infatuated with black culture, while the Catholic hero of Berryman’s unfinished novel Recovery thinks of converting to Judaism). “The Imaginary Jew,” a sketchy, anecdotal account of Berryman’s collision with anti-Semitism in New York City, carries us beyond mere tolerance into an actual solidarity of Jew and Gentile.

The airless academic life of “Wash Far Away” is also terrain Berryman has been through before. The protagonist is an English professor who, in the course of a lesson on “Lycidas,” purges his feelings of uselessness and futility and his paralyzing misery over the death of a gifted friend. The stifling university atmosphere, the anguish over human mortality, Berryman’s fears of artistic failure—all this is inter-woven with fine strands of Miltonic scholarship in what may be the best classroom story ever written by an American.

The critical essays in this collection, which occupy the bulk of the volume, also lead us in and out of Berryman’s other work, though much more obliquely than the stories. The poet’s lifelong fascination with Freud (he was in analysis himself for quite some time) resulted in a good deal of surrealistic verse (e.g., “ The Traveller”). Unhappily, the many psychoanalytic interpretations in this collection are surrealistic too; that is, they are best described as textual distortions which obey the logic of dreams rather than rational discourse. An unintentionally funny critique of The Diary of Anne Frank turns that classically simple work into a Freudian cryptogram in which the most straightforward episodes must be treated as dark messages from the unconscious. Freud is invoked again in “Conrad’s Journey,” a reading of Heart of Darkness which ignores the conscious level of Conrad’s dense and difficult text in order to fish for sexual imagery, all of it supererogatory. The student of Berryman’s work will recall that Freudian excesses were a shortcoming in the poet’s Stephen Crane (1951), a sporadically impressive biography.

The mixture of admiration and dissatisfaction one feels toward the Crane study reminds us of another critical commonplace about Berryman’s work; its unevenness. The present volume is no exception. Not only are the essays of varying quality, but individual pieces often rock wildly back and forth from insight to absurdity. Berryman’s panoramic reflections on Thomas Nashe, including the full sweep of Elizabethan prose narrative, are perceptive and convincing; however, they are also ignorant (Swift’s A Tale of a Tub is described as unread) and wrong-headed (topical feuds are ruled out as a proper subject for literature, thus annihilating the heart of 18th century letters). The poet’s ruminations on Cervantes and Thomas Hardy are equally spotty. He is at his worst in the incoherent “Despondency and Madness: On Lowell’s ‘Skunk Hour’ “; he stumbles blindly through the Lowell poem, bumping into symbols and themes as he goes, explicating nothing.

Turning to the other side of the ledger, Berryman’s gifts as a critic are best displayed in his commentaries on Shakespeare, Isaac Babel, and a number of American writers. Much of his strength lies in a combination of scholarly thoroughness, sensible, cant-free critical judgments, and an unusual catholicity of taste and mind. “Shakespeare at Thirty,” Berryman’s most ambitious essay, uses historical data, abetted by textual evidence and provocative flights of speculation, to bring the bard to life.

The informed enthusiasm of “Shakespeare at Thirty” pervades all of Berryman’s strongest efforts in this collection. “The Mind of Isaac Babel” is an inspired reading of the short story “In Odessa”; arguing for unexplored depths in this ostensibly simple folk tale, Berryman makes his points with fervor and conviction. Similarly, every claim advanced for Matthew Lewis in “The Monk and Its Author” is so authoritative and so judiciously qualified as to be irresistible.

Although Berryman’s observations about his own poetry are unilluminating, and even misleading, he has some discerning thoughts on his contemporaries. From the vantage point of the seventies, one can appreciate Berryman’s astute complaints during the forties about the “Auden Climate,” whose deadening effects he perceives in John Ciardi, Howard Nemerov, and others. In a more positive vein, we are astounded by his prescience in celebrating Henry Reed’s newly published “Naming of Parts,” destined to become one of the few postwar English poems that is widely read.

“Open emotion” is one of the unfashionable qualities Berryman seeks to justify in Reed’s work; no doubt he was anticipating his own assumption of a more emotive, revelatory subject matter. In any case, the tone of these essays, like most of the work in The Freedom of the Poet, is highly personalized—the loves and hates are set forth emphatically.

Thus, Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” emerges as a “short, almost desperate and beautiful story,” while Ring Lardner’s stories “convey a perpetual effect of going behind an appearance—perpetual, and cheap, because the appearance is not one that could have taken in an experienced man for five minutes: the revelation is to boobs.” In fact, one senses that The Freedom of the Poet is constantly striving toward the status of art, embodying not only a distinctive voice (one is tempted to say a speaker or persona) but also flourishing the kind of prose that recalls Berryman’s verse. As he cultivated a repertoire of poetic styles (flat and conversational, surreal, allusive and symbolic), here he shifts restlessly from the colloquial to the meditative to the lyrical.

The results in Berryman’s prose are as mixed as they are in his sonnets or Dream Songs. Such stylistic tics as inverted syntax and extreme ellipticity are annoyingly evident. In his search for shimmering phrases, the poet’s ear sometimes betrays him into such leaden infelicities as “fadeless radiance” and “monk-murdered.” These are less common, however, than graceful stylistic touches like his final comment on a collection of Henry James’s stories edited by F. O. Matthiessen: “I am sorry the whole book is not better, for its author occupies an influential position in our critical life, working honourably to stem the illiterate tide which, as James foresaw and feared, is now mainly having its way.”

Surveying his own critical accomplishment just before his death, Berryman exulted, “Hurrah for me: my prose collection is going to be a beauty.” If The Freedom of the Poet has more blemishes than Berryman realized, it nevertheless comes to us at a time when works of literary criticism, whether handsome or homely, are one of the more endangered species in the publishing world. The author has earned his hurrah.


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