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Good Poems, Sad Lives

Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir

by Eileen Simpson
Random House, 272 pp., $15.50

John Berryman
John Berryman; drawing by David Levine

Memoirs that commemorate the dead belong to a genre that requires more trust than any other; self-interested justification, the need for revenge, and the risk of exploitation are real. Worse is the possibility of subtle distortion; memoirs are not objective accounts but the case as presented by so-and-so. Eileen Simpson’s Poets in Their Youth—which takes its title from Wordsworth’s lines, “We poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness”—is a record of her life with John Berryman. (Married in 1942, separated in 1953, and divorced in 1956.) We never doubt the truth is being told of those dozen or so years of intimacy, but we never doubt, either, that the truth is partial.

Poets in Their Youth is not meant to be a home companion to the work of the many writers who appear in it: Berryman, Delmore Schwartz, Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford, and R.P. Blackmur in major roles, and Randall Jarrell, Mark Van Doren, Allen Tate, and Robert Giroux in minor ones. Too forgiving by far, sometimes naïve (the last word of the title is meant to be taken seriously), and over-interpretative, it is also discerning, often probing, and remarkably free of rancor considering what it must have been like to be married to John Berryman, or the several versions of him that unfold before us.

The book is loving, at long distance, and from the remove of forty years, and sometimes uncomfortably so, as if everything had been got just a little too neatly in place in a long process of understanding from which hostility has been filtered out. Eileen Simpson, who was Berryman’s first wife (there were three in all), is the author of a novel, The Maze, and of Reversals, an account of her victorious struggle over dyslexia. Now a psychiatric therapist as well as a writer, her interpretations are long on Freud but far from inaccurate-sounding, and, to get the worst over with first, if an occasional note of smugness creeps into the text, it is rarely more than that smidgeon the healthy reserve for the sick and the quick for the dead.

Berryman is given every latitude by Mrs. Simpson, who understood him very well at close range. The question arises of how far that understanding extends to others. A pantheon of the Forties and Fifties is being spread before us and the figures in it are complex and elusive. In Mrs. Simpson’s version of the Berryman story (corroborated by others, and sometimes by the poet’s work as well), the key to the Berryman disaster is an unusually tangled family history. Hardly news, but, in this case, notes macabre and genteel combine to make the story eerie.

Martha Little, a schoolteacher, married Allyn Smith, “a Minnesotan from a Roman Catholic family.” She was eighteen and he twenty-seven. Allyn Smith was John Berryman’s real father. (If Berryman had taken his paternal name, the author of The Dream Songs would be known to us as “John Smith,” reason enough, perhaps, to welcome any change.) A bank examiner, Smith gave up his job after a quarrel with a colleague and moved his family from Oklahoma to Florida in 1925. Smith, who went broke in the Florida realestate boom, was as unsuccessful in love as he was in business. His wife fell “madly and irrevocably” in love with Bob Kerr, about to become a senator when she knew him, and later the governor of Oklahoma. The Kerr affair, if it was one, was not quite as irrevocable as Martha Smith believed. The Smiths lived in the same house as one John Angus Berryman and he became Martha Smith’s lover at the very time Allyn Smith was financially ruined.

Allyn Smith committed suicide by gun, though his wife claimed he had died accidentally while cleaning it. (John Berryman was twelve at the time.) Her explanation was a denigrating one. “You see, Allyn was a weak man. He wouldn’t have had the courage to kill himself.” Martha Smith married John Angus Berryman as soon as the funeral baked meats had been whisked off the table, her two sons were adopted, and took their stepfather’s name, a source of lifelong guilt for Berryman:

What I should have done, what I cannot forgive myself for not having done, was to take the name John Smith. This act of disloyalty I will never, never be able to repair. To “make a name” for myself. … Can you see how ambivalent my feelings are about this ambition?

Mrs. Simpson goes on: “In the years to come, I realized that the circumstances of [Martha’s] first husband’s death were part of an ever-changing myth she periodically reworked, usually in response to her older son’s longing to be convinced that she was not responsible for driving his father to suicide.” When disturbed by an emotional crisis he would want the ground gone over anew and “she would oblige, sometimes in person, sometimes in three- and four-page, single-spaced typewritten letters, with fresh inventions and interpretations.”

Martha Berryman was not the villainness of some oversimplified Freudian primer. She was an “intelligent, energetic” woman who “introduced [John] to Faulkner and Hemingway” and “shared the same library books” with her older son, for whom she felt a ” ‘passionate devotion’ ” (her phrase) from which “both Allyn and Bob [John’s younger brother] were excluded.” She was attractive, coquettish, single-minded, and manipulative.

Along with his father’s suicide, there was a second story John could never get straight. Berryman is speaking:

One day, Daddy, agitated and depressed, took me on his back and swam far out in the Gulf of Clearwater, threatening to drown us both. Or so mother claimed. Another time he took Bob.

But neither John nor Bob could really remember the incident or disentangle—as is often the case with children—the story told from the real happening. Actually, the original story involved Bob only, switched later to John, and stayed permanently John’s story from then on, in spite of the events being dubious and the characters confused. The difference between the hazy legend and the true facts remained forever veiled in ambiguity, and there were now two childhood “stories,” each implicitly torturing and each impossible to pin down. If guilt was one of the draining forces in Berryman’s life, obsessive doubt was another. “By insisting on a divorce when her husband was frantic with worry, had she not pushed him to that last, desperate act?”

All his life, Berryman seesawed between two versions of the truth and two feelings about it: sympathy for his mother—wasn’t she entitled to some happiness, too?—and mourning (and shame) for his real father. “How could he sympathize with a mother who might have driven his father to insanity and suicide by her insensitivity?”

When Berryman returned from England, where he had attended Cambridge on a fellowship, his mother was working in an advertising firm. Wanting to appear young, she pretended her sons were her brothers, without realizing how damaging an effect this would have on John. This patent lie increased his doubts about the Clearwater swimming incident and Allyn’s suicide.

In the bitter quarrels with his mother he had weapons of defense “more damaging to himself than to her: the threat of suicide, and episodes of fainting.” Berryman was diagnosed as an epileptic suffering from attacks of petitmal (an incorrect diagnosis in Mrs. Simpson’s opinion), and though he was never convulsive, his seizures sound more like grand mal in their ultimate effect: “he would remain in a semi-comatose state for hours.” As for suicide, his trick was to walk (particularly when drunk) on terrace walls or high ledges in a balancing act that terrified his mother and, later, his wife. Mrs. Simpson is particularly acute when she changes a first opinion: Berryman wasn’t playing the suicide; suicide was a premonition and a threat to him from the beginning. His life was a long postponement of his taking it, an act rehearsed, abandoned, and revived, as harrowing in its compulsiveness, duration, and final achievement as the suicides of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

Because his mother’s ambitions for him were special, John Berryman attended South Kent School (which he hated), played the role of the machojock, belonged to a fraternity, and excelled at sports. He was a very proper schoolboy wandering around in the American dream. But there was another Berryman slow to emerge and slow to develop. Mother-dominated, Berryman seemed always to need a male figure who would serve both as a friend and as a mentor, someone who could fit into the pattern of an older, wiser guide, an intellectual but also emotional tie that had to have, at its roots, a shared interest in poetry, the one steady reference point in the whirling series of transformations.

He was either lucky in his choices or had a good eye for quality. Bhain Campbell at Wayne was brilliant and handsome—though here there was a romantic overcast to the relationship that distinguished it from those before and after. Campbell’s tragic death from cancer affected Berryman deeply. Campbell followed Mark Van Doren at Columbia, and was succeeded by Delmore Schwartz at Harvard and R.P. Blackmur at Princeton.

Berryman pivoted on the roles of student and teacher, and Mrs. Simpson describes the necessary preconditions for being Berryman’s wife:

The combination of near-ignorance (no wrong-headed notions to be dislodged), eagerness to learn (from what better teacher?), an exalted view of his craft and the promise of devotion.

A good pair of ankles helped.

A déjà vu familiarity attaches to certain portions of Mrs. Simpson’s book because her characters have turned the same material into biographical pieces of their own, thinly disguised fiction, or poetry. Does anyone need to be told that the sixth chapter of the book, “Damariscotta Mills: Jean and Cal,” uses much of the same material Jean Stafford worked into a lethal group portrait in “An Influx of Poets,” a story published in the November 6, 1978 issue of The New Yorker? That the setting of Robert Lowell’s “The Mills of the Kavanaughs” has the same background? Or that John Berryman’s story, “The Lovers,” is a disguised (but emotionally accurate) description of the situation his father, mother, her lover, and her son found themselves in? More factually described in the present book, it is the same story.

Poets in Their Youth begins with a dramatically telling scene, Mrs. Simpson’s first meeting with Delmore Schwartz, the only Cambridge friend Berryman could claim after a year of teaching at Harvard, and it is a good scene because it brings past histories into play, is revealing in the present, and holds the seeds of future catastrophes. The portrait of Schwartz is cleanly sketched:

Seen close to, Delmore had a big head, made bigger by abundant, wavy brown hair. He had high wide Tartar cheekbones and the full, beautifully shaped mouth of a classical Greek statue. His face was divided into two parts, as if by a carelessly drawn line, beginning with a diagonal scar on his brow, running along the crest of his broad nose and ending in a cleft in his chin. … When he smiled, he smiled broadly, exposing a front tooth that looked as if it might have been injured in a child’s game.

The place was New York, the time February, 1942, the Second World War was in progress. As soon as the trio were seated in a restaurant, Delmore, who had been easy and charming, became suddenly sullen and tense and began looking around nervously. Finally he asked Eileen to change seats with him: wary and distrustful, he had to have his back to the wall.

During the dinner, poetry, as always, was discussed, and Mrs. Simpson makes a cogent observation:

If Eliot was [Delmore’s] hero, in much the way Yeats was John’s, there was the great difference that Delmore was not reverential the way John was.

The inability to see things except as absolute and sacred disallowed for a certain amount of perspective in Berryman—not humor; he could be very witty indeed—but balance, literal and figurative. When he loved, he loved completely, when he worshiped, his was the only God. This need to be a communicant always at some adored shrine sprang from innocence as well as virtue, in their profoundest senses, and also from a need, most visible in Catholics, to be at the service of some great thing. It was admirable but also juvenile as a day-to-day, workable view of life. There was something perverse about it as well, as if someone who knew the way of the world were to set standards by which it would always fail. Berryman applied these standards even more strictly to himself, so that there was little room for grace, maneuvering, and flexibility.

The high value set on gossip by the Tates, Jean Stafford, and Delmore Schwartz made him uncomfortable, and the lie (shades of his mother’s equivocation) was, for him, an ethical horror. There was some reason to remain morally alert; Schwartz, at the same dinner, gave Mrs. Simpson the impression that the editors of Partisan Review (Philip Rahv, Dwight Macdonald, and William Phillips) were “a cross between rabbinical scholars and bookies.”

A great deal of Berryman’s diffidence was nervous fear:

I realized that the nervousness had a complex source. It was as dangerous to have one’s work recognized as it was to have it ignored.

Here, Mrs. Simpson seems to me to be on the edge of a truth while somehow missing it. It wasn’t a question of the work being recognized—something Berryman always wanted—but of the self. Recognition of the work makes its creator no longer anonymous. And Berryman was caught between a desire for fame, which brings with it exemptions, and a wish for anonymity, which doesn’t require them. Recognition—as Schwartz was the first to find out—increases not only the demands of the audience but the demands on the self.

Delmore Schwartz’s career set the tone for the poets of the Forties. When his inaccurate translation of Rimbaud’s Une Saison en enfer was lambasted by the critics,

The criticisms…made him feel as humiliated as a schoolboy. Worse than ridicule, however, was the terrible anxiety that the attacks were a sign that he was falling out of favor: Was this the first step on the downward slide?

The italics are Mrs. Simpson’s but they could well be mine. An implicit notion crops up in her last two lines: the poet as careerist being almost as important as the poet as writer. “The first step in the downward slide” would be, to a poet, a lessening in the value of his work in his own eyes. The phrase “a sign that he was falling out of favor” could have been written by an Elizabethan poet in regard to his patron, a Renaissance court composer in reference to his king, or by any writer born after 1850 who found himself at the mercy of a reigning literary power-clique.

Schwartz’s fears were well founded. He had been the Wunderkind ever since the publication of In Dreams Begin Responsibilities when he was twenty-five. The prince hoisted to the top of the hill to survey his domain was not allowed to stay there for long. Like Greek kings, poets raised too high are in for a fall, especially if the hoisting up takes place when they are young. And Schwartz’s case was further complicated. To be a bookmaker and a thoroughbred at the same time is an impossible task but one Schwartz attempted. He learned what it is to fall out of favor with the ruling party, of which he had once been a charter member. But his self-doubt and increasingly threatening behavior worked hand in hand to make matters worse: it was difficult for him to work and hard for others to sympathize, for long, with his plight.

Schwartz’s swift descent set no patterns except that of muddled eccentricity (masking a disease) and increasing estrangement. Berryman had to wait for years for the recognition Schwartz had acquired early, and Lowell, also hailed early in his career, was hobbled by being a manic-depressive (like Roethke and Jarrell), never knowing when the next attack would strike. What is almost impossible to take in is the extraordinary work produced by Berryman and Lowell in the face of so much personal misfortune. They managed, no matter, to change the face of American poetry as radically as had Williams and Stevens, and though Mrs. Simpson is very good on personal matters, there is, aside from a few anecdotal connections between the life and the work, little sense of the enterprise to which these men were dedicated.

Poetry could, understandably, seem life-threatening to anyone living with somebody obsessed by it, particularly if that person were suicidal to any degree. The ratio of obsession to suicide is high. In this case, the assumption would have been incorrect. It was Berryman’s obsessive nature and not what he was obssessed by where the danger lay. Alcohol, compulsive womanizing, and balancing himself on heights—what Mrs. Simpson refers to as “a high-wire act”—turned out to be more dangerous. Poetry could seem like a destructive force if one took the lives of Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Randall Jarrell as categorical examples. Mrs. Simpson doesn’t think so. We find, in a passage near the end of her book, what I suspect (aside from setting the record down on paper) is her real point in writing it:

Many—I, too, at moments—blamed the suicide on John’s having been a poet. The litany of suicides among poets is long. After a while I began to feel that I’d missed the obvious. It was the poetry that had kept him alive. His father had committed suicide at forty. With as much reason, and with a similar psychic makeup, John had been tempted more than once to follow his father’s example. That he lived seventeen years longer than John Allyn Smith, that he died a “veteran of life,” was thanks to his gift. It had not been the hand coaxing him down from the railing that had brought him back each time, … but the certainty that there were all those poems still to be written.

It is a point hard to remember because the constant worry about “reputation,” the endless concern of where one stood on the scale of “greatness,” the scrimmage for renown finally begins to sound as competitive as jockeys talking about horses or movie studios ranking actors. In fact, the star mentality crops up all over the place; the authors talk about each other as if they were baseball players or movie stars forever courting “fame.” This quest for rank is devastating, not only because it reverses the values to which each of these men were truly dedicated but because it repeats the wish the parents had for the child. Poetry, after all, was not the primary concern of either Rose Schwartz, Delmore’s mother, or Martha Smith Berryman. Moreover, there’s something pathetic about so frantic a struggle in so small a pond. Its false values infect even the author of this book, who can say, immediately after the phrase “first-rate poet,”

I was so sure he would one day be famous.

Devoted to the hard work of poetry, obsessive in their dedication, in their personal lives and ambitions Schwartz and Berryman could no more escape the values of their culture than a shopgirl, no matter how much they paid lip service to debunking those values or how much their work was an implicit or explicit attack on the culture’s assumptions. The smaller the world the fiercer the competition—for money, praise, fame, repute.

The suffering this caused was obvious—not only was there never enough to go round, but, being extraordinarily intelligent, they kept seeing,avoiding, and falling into the trap. To read of Berryman’s dogged efforts to get a job, of his trudging around Connecticut as an encyclopedia salesman, is painful. But the lack of reality in his view of the nature of his dedication and its possible rewards is painful, too. A refusal to be adult on the world’s terms may be a necessary link to childhood and the secret spring for whatever work lay underhand, but its cost in sanity and health was terrifying. Mrs. Simpson is protective of he cast, but sometimes one feels one has opened a book of monsters, pigeon-holing the competition for their convenience, grading this one and that with little understanding or charity. The thin-skinned, after a few drinks, take out after the thin-skinned. The poets in Mrs. Simpson’s book are witty, brilliant, talents or even geniuses, but they are also sick, frightened, unkind, and, sometimes, ugly.

Blackmur was as complicated as Schwartz or Berryman. Born on the wrong side of the tracks, perpetually ashamed of his mother’s having run a boarding house for students in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he was a child (a fate he shared with Jean Stafford, whose Colorado childhood was similarly blighted), his father unmentionable (described here as an “unemployed layabout”), Blackmur played some combination of le bourgeois gentilhomme and the English squire at Princeton, savoring his way through the streets, treating the Berrymans to a display of which butcher and which greengrocer was the one to go to, even though Berryman was heavily in debt and had only a four-month appointment, Blackmur’s snobbery wasn’t mean-spirited—he wanted others to share his vision of the good life, one he’d struggled hard to attain. He had got to Harvard and then to Princeton the hard way: through brilliance, work, and wit.

An unhappy man, with the stiff exterior of a bank executive, he had something of the quality of a Puritan who gets wildly drunk on Saturday night but is found firmly in place in church on Sunday morning. He took a childlike delight in life, loved to dance, and when drunk could easily make one forget that he set the intellectual climate of a generation. His intelligence (like Berryman’s) was extraordinary, his self-taught erudition virtually unbelievable, his ability to see the connection between anything and everything wonderfully enriching and imaginative. His marriage was a dreadful black comedy, a manageable bargain, painfully endured, until his wife, a painter, finally walked out on him after twenty years of incompatibility. (There is, among the major characters of Poets in Their Youth, no happy marriage.)

The feeling of “something missed”—a sort of “Beast in the Jungle” aura—surrounds Blackmur as well as Berryman the more we see of them in Poets in Their Youth. They had many things in common (how many poeple could they talk to on the level on which they talked to each other? for one) and one special thing: each was engaged in a lifelong project he would never finish: Blackmur’s book on Henry Adams and Berryman’s work on a definitive text of King Lear.

The portraits of Jean Stafford and Robert Lowell are not as successful as those of Schwartz or Blackmur, possibly because they are fixed in a particular place, at a particular time, two weeks in the summer of 1946 in Maine. We never see them again at any length in another setting. Yet Mrs. Simpson’s is the only account I’ve ever read in which Lowell’s charm and humor as a young man come through. The Stafford-Lowell marriage was about to break up at the end of the same summer and there is already more than a hint of a growing drinking problem in Stafford, and a strange inner dissatisfaction in Lowell. They appear as two enormously gifted but strange undergraduates with Stafford’s “black tongue” her one antidote, other than “booze,” for a deepening depression.

The chapter devoted to the Lowells is the most self-contained chapter in the book, and the events in it occur two years after the publication of Boston Adventure and just before the appearance of Lord Weary’s Castle. The bitterness of the Lowell-Stafford divorce, Stafford’s subsequent stay at Payne Whitney, and Lowell’s mental breakdowns are all in the future.

The lives of poets being, in this century, so dismal has led to the notion, commonly held, that poetry is somehow to blame. Mrs. Simpson, having no axe to grind, merely presents what happened, as she saw it and lived it. But something more needs to be said. The truth is that there are hundreds of thousands of clinically depressed people in the United States, uncountable numbers of manic-depressives, alarming increases in the incidence of paranoia, and thousands and thousands of suicides. They do not leave behind works like The Dream Songs or Losses or Life Studies or Boston Adventure or The Double Agent.