Wednesday, July 06, 2005
“Life, friends, is boring”: A little on John Berryman
I picked up Adam Kirsch’s The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets after reading Michiko Kakutani’s review of it in the Times, and thus far I’ve been happy I did. I’ve read several chapters, but the one that I’ve found most interesting is the one on John Berryman. (The other poets Kirsch discusses are Lowell, Bishop, Jarrell, Schwarts, and Plath.)
Kirsch’s approach to Berryman begins with literary biography, and ends with a hefty section of close reading, focused mainly on the 77 Dream Songs. The strength of Kirsch’s ‘generalist’ approach is the way it inspires one to go out and read the writer named, if one hasn’t already (this is one of the overlooked functions of good criticism). I’d actually never read Berryman, and now I have—all to the good.
The weakness might be in Kirsch’s need to make a neat picture out of Berryman’s progress, which follows an only slightly tweaked ‘anxiety of influence’ shape. Here the dominant literary model is Yeats, whose impersonal grandiloquence Berryman had to eschew in order to find his own voice. I still haven’t read the early, Yeatsian Berryman, and I don’t contest Kirsch’s general claim that the 77 Dream Songs (1965) represent a breakthrough for Berryman personally, and perhaps for American poetry as a whole. But what complicates the idea of the Dream Songs as Berryman’s discovery of poetic Voice is the radical heterogeneity of the styles and personae to be found in the poems themselves. This doesn’t seem like Berryman’s (or anyone’s) authentic voice, so much as a good mix of voices, tones, and topics. There are poems about Ike, about the taxman, about doing lectures in India, and even one about the MLA (people have apparently been making fun of it for a long, long time). There is plenty of wry wit and satire alongside the more serious, ‘confessional’ verses that gesture at the poet’s father’s suicide.
It’s not that Kirsch is wrong; nearly everything he says in general about The Dream Songs is verifiable. But what he doesn’t say—what doesn’t fit his narrative—is how incredibly messy and uneven the book really is.
I’ll leave off on extended analysis, and instead simply offer Dream Song #14:
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatedly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,
who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.
Get it? The speaking ‘I’ in the poem ("Henry," who populates all these poems—a close proxy for Berryman himself) is himself the ‘wag,’ as in, the moving tail of the dog, and the happy wit who laughs at everything and everyone. The Dog has escaped, transcending us. We are the Left Behind, with the mocking ghost of its moving tail.
I also like “literature bores me, especially great literature.” It’s a nice way of disavowing literary ambition. It certainly helps to inoculate Berryman against the charge of hubris. But dosn’t he also, with such a self-consciously ‘light’ topic, literally end up not achieving it (greatness)? If this is American confessionalism, it aint a whole heckofalot.
[You can hear Paul Muldoon reading this poem of Berryman’s here. Click on Muldoon.]
Yes, Berryman. He’s part of my pantheon (along w/Roethke, Wright...). Glad to see him here. I wonder, how does Kirsch’s book stack up to Simpson’s “Poets in their Youth?” I read the Kakutani review w/interest & thought, “Well, sounds like ‘Simpson meets Vendler’.” Which, while not bad, isn’t exactly urgent.
As for messy heterogeneity, I’d like to go on record as saying that that itself can be a voice (and one, I think, that is consciously chosen--more or less--on Berryman’s part). I don’t think, for example, that anyone would say that Pessoa’s achievement rests on anything less than the brilliance with which he inhabited his own heterogeneity; made it speak. For Berryman, there’s Yeats to overcome, of course, but then to find the voice that is bully enough to stand up to America while retaining its softer registers… well, you’ve got Whitman to overcome (and Crane--the other one, also drunk, also dying young--and his failures in this task to watch out for). As a navigation of these problems, and musical achievement, I think The Dream Songs hold up very well… indeed, they’re genius.
It probably isn’t urgent.
I spend most of my time reading novels from the other side of the pond as well as from other ponds entirely—so I haven’t read anything else dealing with mid-century American poets like Berryman. I haven’t read either the Simpson or the Vendler you mention, for instance.
I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts if/when you get a chance to take a crack at the Kirsch book.
Incidentally, after I posted I discovered that the July 18th Nation has (is going to have?) a pretty directly negative review of Kirsch’s book. It’s currently only available to subscribers here (so I myself haven’t read it).
I’ve always found #14 a wonderful antidote to excess exposure to Great Literature. I can’t think of how many classes I’ve read it to. As formal achievements, I prefer Berryman’s sonnets, though I don’t think many people agree with me.
I don’t know what your last comment means, exactly: “But dosn’t he also, with such a self-consciously ‘light’ topic, literally end up not achieving it (greatness)? If this is American confessionalism, it aint a whole heckofalot.” I think “greatness” is what is under attack—which is in the direct modernist line from Mallarme’s Brise Marin, with the first line ("La chair est triste, hélas! et j’ai lu tous les livres") converging nicely with Berryman’s poem. The point was to shuck off greatness—a term of comparison—for intensity—the poem as direct address. To put it among expressions that you don’t compare—say, the letter from your fiance breaking up with you, or a suicide note, or the like. You don’t say, wow, this was a great break up letter. You say, wow, that hurts. Now you might say, well, the art here has to give us more than that. But it seems to me that Berryman is seeking to give us that surplus without taking us into the fatal realm of comparisons, where the poem is studied, and its impact is drained. Of course, nothing is going to prevent the poem from eventually being studied—that is the absurd status of the poem, the contradiction in it.
Eventually, of course, poets did make their poems out of letters—Lowell, for instance, did.
This book sounds like a re-hash to me…
Of course, the idea that Berryman found his own “voice” with the Dream Songs, leaving behind the Yeats/Auden influences, is so commonplace that I knew about it in 1976, when I was still in high-school. (Homage to Mistress Bradstreet being a transitional work.). The discovery of this “voice” does not preclude a certain heterogeneity and unevenness. Berryman’s own style is immediately recognizable here, or in any other of theses poems. Whether this is “great” poetry or not it is a distinctive and memorable accomplishment. Surely the “messiness” and “uneveness” is inherent to the confessional mode, as it is in Lowell. That is, the urge to let some of the messiness of real life into the mix rather than producing perfect gem-like lyrics. These poets were responding to the challenge of Ginsberg’s Howl, which shook them out of their academic complacency.
I’m not certain of this (babysitting and can’t get downstairs...), but I’m pretty sure Berryman began planning The Dream Songs before Ginsburg wrote Howl, didn’t he?
... the answer is: “Yes--Berryman began The Dream Songs in 1955; Ginsburg wrote Howl in 1956.” So, not really appropriate to say that Ginsburg “woke [Berryman] out of [his] academic complacency.”
Yes, I think he was already writing some of the ‘songs’ as early as 1952.
Kirsch doesn’t mention anything about how or whether the Beatniks affected Berryman’s writing—and I haven’t read Berryman’s letters & don’t claim to know what he was reading.
I try and remain agnostic about claims to distinctive voice in poetry; it’s easy to say, but hard to substantiate. Jonathan Mayhew, what stands out to you in #14 as signature Berryman? I’m curious.
I think the controlled messiness is more interesting than the “confessional” aspects. “Henry” bores himself; he bores me a little too at times.
Oops, Joel, cross-posting. And actually, 1955 is right.
My mistake. My faulty memory put the composition of this work in the early 60s. It’s hard to identify what’s distinctively Berryman about this poem precisely because it is so well known. I might do better with a poem I don’t know as well. Right off the top of my head I would say it’s a question of tone: the facetious tone and the way the poem kind of dies away at the end rather than building to a resonant conclusion. The mock-heroic comparison with Achilles.
No biggie… except: I still hold a sort of quiet grudge against people who, mostly when I was a much younger writer, made such a big fuss over Ginsburg and Kerouac, when guys like Berryman and Bellow (whose Augie is both more exuberant and four years older than On the Road) were considered “old stiffs"--but had actually done smarter, more interesting things sooner. So… any chance I get to swat back, I do (now, if someone here could just praise Nirvana/Cobain so I can sick Husker Du and the Placemats on ‘em).
I understand where you’re coming from, since I’m one of those who prefer Ginsberg (not Ginsburg!) to Berryman, and Kerouac to Bellow, but I hold these comparisons to be invidious. It’s a little late to be fighting these paleface/redskin battles of the 1950s. I know longer hold a grudge against those who exalted Delmore Schwartz while thinking of Kerouac as a “no-nothing Bohemian.” Because, after all, Delmore might still be an interesting writer to come back to some day.
Speaking of comebacks, is it me, or does Berryman seem to be popping up more and more lately? After a period of (it seems to me) near-oblivion. Jonathan, there’s something to be said for a rehash that’s timely ...
Whatever the reason, I happened to pick up Berryman’s Shakepeare off a sale table last weekend. Not urgent either, but a surprisingly good read, particularly the stuff on Lear.
wat does he mean by inner resources??? anyone please reply soon i’m dieing to figure it out!!!