Harlequin in Hell

Berryman’s Sonnets

by John Berryman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 84 pp., $3.95

A strange bumbling nobility, the aristocrat with reservations or exacerbated sympathies—

Rilke was a jerk
I admit his griefs & music
I titled spelled all- disappointed ladies

the master of the heart-shaped irony—John Berryman. Tone is practically everything with Berryman—that, and the peculiar gaunt delicacy of his diction, filling the iron lace work of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, the blues-y balloons of Dream Songs. Born in 1914, Berryman is particularly admired as a poet who came into his kingdom relatively late, or at least after a suitable struggle, unlike Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, his contemporaries and peers, whose first volumes presented fully established personalities. Even now the character of John Berryman continues to mutate, becoming more obscure, more crashingly comic. Also sadder, much sadder, more whimsical and desperate—familiar emotions to the poet:

   They’ll say “I wonder
What is in Berryman lately? I find him stranger
Than usual”—working their nickel in the slot

They’ll try again, dreamless…

The lines come from Berryman’s Sonnets, composed as long ago as the late Forties, but only recently published. Of course, Berryman’s poetry has never been published at fashionable moments. Homage to Mistress Bradstreet appeared during the neo-Victorian sunbursts of the Fifties when Richard Wilbur was king, Dream Songs some years after Life Studies. Nevertheless, Berryman has arrived, and knows it. You find that not only in the progressive surety and experimental hauteur of Dream Songs, but also in direct twinkling statements:

Now Henry is unmistakably a Big One.
Funnee; he don’t feel so.
He just stuck around.

Self-advertisement is a gaudy perennial in American letters, extending de haut en bas, from Poe to Mailer. It exists in Berryman, too, but almost as an afterthought. In the scattered references he has made to his career, whether in the poems or prose, something of pride and a wry cynicism meet, suggesting the survival of the fittest even by mishap.

Perhaps one reason Berryman took longer than Lowell and Miss Bishop to come to the fore is the absence of thematic substance (the fundamental Lowellian one of temporality, of “Time and the grindstone and the knife of God”), or descriptive power (Miss Bishop’s high visibility colors, her painterly statements), which were immediately recognized in these poets, while nothing so dominant seemed apparent in Berryman. If you look over the early work, in spite of the stray successes, you cannot call it really good: cold-water rhymes, an involved twisting non-music, rueful self-defeating rhythms—they call to mind literary angst, iceberg-low personal problems. Introspection without style, or style without density. “The Dispossessed” is the most interesting of these early poems, and the one most characteristic of Berryman’s later work—more interesting, it seems to me, than the pretty and much admired “Winter Landscape.”

Berryman somewhere remarks on all the poets “Winter Landscape” does not echo; he forgets Eliot, Stevens, Graves, not to mention a phrase from King Lear. But the clearest thing about Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and …

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