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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 Dream Songs is the originality.

Outside the New World winters in grand dark
white air lashing high thro’ the vir- gin stands
foxes down foxholes sigh,
surely the English heart quails, stunned.

A passage like that, from the second stanza of Mistress Bradstreet, has a haunting, difficult cadence, a panorama both idiosyncratic and classically sparse. Berryman is an uncomfortable poet working in the unaccommodating, modernist tradition of the destructive element. Bookish, and a little creepy, Berryman represents the hard-nosed loner with the battered grin, celebrating defeats and pratfalls, Donne’s “medicinal falling,” the scrapped possibility, the failure of God, love, sex, and the Partisan Review. These are modish failures, the cant of alienation. But much of the poignancy in Berryman’s work is in his awareness of how he himself has erred, in the exposure of his own hang-ups or sado-masochistic itch, or the humorous unburdening of cultural baggage. His is the partial, radical sensibility of Eliot and Pound, especially the latter. In his own way, a considerably less synoptic, less robust way, Berryman is the Pound of our day, the Pound of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, and some of the better, screwier passages of the Cantos, and some of the more lyric ones. Berryman’s “Note to Wang Wei,” is essentially Poundian—and charmingly so. Charles Olson is fashionably held up as Pound’s successor, but he is merely a pamphleteering second-rate Pound, jawing among the classics, being inane and cracker-barrel insolent.

Like Pound, too, one feels Berryman deliberately created his risk-taking procedures, a case of daring the gods; but the most punch-drunk, unprepossessing sort of daring. Berryman is the lilliputian grammarian fiddling in his study (“If I were making a grandiose claim, I might pretend to know more about the administration of pronouns than any other living poet writing in English or American”), or waiting five years to complete the opening of Mistress Bradstreet: “What had happened was that I made up the first stanza…and the first three lines of the second stanza, and there, for almost five years, I stuck.” Stuck with a hazardous genre, the historical narrative, and a seemingly unpromising subject, Anne Brad-street, that “boring high-minded Puritan woman who may have been our first American poet but is not a good one.” Still, “somehow she chose me,” Berryman says, and whether with the fugue-like ellipses of Mistress Brad-street, or the odd chuckling acceptance of Dream Songs, there is an insistent purity and rightness, the little-boy puzzled frown of the totally absorbed consciousness. The atmosphere of Dream Songs is a harlequin’s hell; painted devils, canned laughter, but real flames—amid all the grab-bag difference and ampersands, the deepest suffering, the deepest activity go on.

PAIN IS REALLY the prime presence in Berryman’s world, as it is in Robert Lowell’s—but with Lowell the cry is monumentally shaped or dramatized. With Berryman it seems never on cue, passing almost half-noticed, yet it is there like the over-all setting where the clown cavorts, unappeasable Henry:

Henry was not a coward. Much.
He never deserted anything; instead
he stuck, when things like pity were thinning.
So may be Henry was a human be- ing…

Awkward and magical, the style of Berryman’s verse seems as if it can’t quite focus, like a delirious patient not coming up with coherent answers, half trying to be understood, and at unexpected intervals making himself all too piercingly clear, in a sly phrase catching the intricacy and fallibility of a whole life—his and his listeners. Here, as always, it is the Berryman tone, the elusive off-pitch, rubato rhyme, which give Berryman his distinctive leaps, the ironic fade-outs and impugned quizzical grace.

The sonnets are another matter, an earlier effort, as already noted, and a far more subjective one than the major works. Uneven, but on the whole spunky and fresh, the sonnets suggest both the gnarled moodiness of the old (“New Year’s Eve,” particularly) and the Henry high-jinks to come. One-hundred-and-fifteen poems, more or less in the Petrarchan mode, the story of a brief bewildering affair, they are inflamed and summery, repetitive and cryptic. A shade too cryptic. Is the affair, as one would gather, extra-marital and post-war? In any case, Berryman’s whole intent here can be summed up in Pound’s line: “Who calls me idle? I have thought of her.” Berryman thinks and thinks of her through a thousand-and-one packed conceits, mostly literary, mostly cerebral. Not surprisingly, the sonnets where Eliot, Kafka, Petrarch, and (I believe) The Pilgrim’s Progress figure are among the best of the sequence, especially the Petrarch, an elegant performance. The animating spirit is a kind of inverted schwarmerei:

How can I sing, western & dry & thin,
You who for celebration should cause flow
The sensual fanfare of D’Annunzio,
Mozart’s mischievous joy, the amar anthine
Mild quirks of Marvell, Villon sharp as thin…

The recipient of these lovely lines is the lovely Lise. Unfortunately, Lise is little more than a vaguely theatrical presence, nubile and distracting, mysteriously and alternately Petrarch’s Laura, Anne Frank, the daughter of a Texas oilman, a matron in an institution, and Ilse Koch, the “SS woman” and “strip-murderer.” Lise is also blonde, “more clear/and witching than your sister Venus.” While Berryman is his familiar insular, spellbound self, losing heart in the free world, hunting sex (“a spot of poontang on a five-foot piece”), staring “down the intolerable years/To the mild survival,” the glum lusts of middle age and beyond.

YOU CANNOT TAKE Berryman too seriously as a lover: his is a studiously wrought, wordy passion, and a number of the sonnets are romantic exercises for the poet in his moony prison before his mirror and date book, “willing my eyes should daze/Fast on her image, for an exhaustless phrase.” After twenty-five, after thirty anyway, love is generally chancy, bothersome, absurd. Most adults, perhaps, don’t like falling in love; certainly most intellectuals don’t. The intellectual loves his booklined armory, his copy of Bradley: “…my experiences fall within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside.” Usually most intellectuals are spooks in the matter of love, spooks and tots. Mentally they’re off in the distance, objectifying reality with Platonic forms, or meditatively malingering: “…suddenly your tongue like a mulled wine/Slides fire—I wonder what the point of life is.” Emotionally they’re up close, children looking for Big Mama’s breasts. Didn’t want it to happen: the no-man’s land of kinky affairs—

My god, this isn’t what I want!
   You tot
The harrowdays you hold me to, black dreams,
The dirty water to get off my chest.

The romantic agony recorded in parts of Berryman’s sonnets cannot even correspond to a possible European counterpart, Cesare Pavese, for whom love was “the cheapest of religions.” Pavese is the entrenched intellectual par excellence, communing with his beloved from some mental foxhole, the flesh flashing in a chiaroscuro of phantom contact. It is the absolute remoteness, the intolerable distance of the emotions, which drives Pavese to suicide. In Berryman, “among fatigues and snows, the gangs and queers,” we get an American version of the romantic agony, which is to say a serio-comic one. In America the senses are not so much self-destructive as grandly self-deceptive, self-illusory, pleasantly, pimpishly eroding everything in sight. The desolation of a European intellectual or amorist manqué like Pavese exists on a different plane. Berryman in love is pretty much a manic mass of stylish contradictions, a hit-and-run kiddie-car driver within the sacred precincts of the sonnet:

The University of Soft Knocks
will headlines in the Times make: Fellow goes mad,
crowd panics…He was in love and he was had.

Berryman deliberately sports puckish images, dipped in blood; he insists on his individuality, then martyrs it to his beloved’s needs or wants or caprice: “I lose, yes…but then I submit!” At times an almost compulsive self-disesteem, or the obsessive need for self-appropriation by the Other, inhabits these poems—as it does most of Berryman’s mature work. What gives the hallucinatory edge to so hieratic a creation as Mistress Bradstreet is the strange underwater interlocking between the poet and his subject: the agony of Anne Bradstreet (her churchly seventeenth-century devotions, marital trials, the child-bearing and deaths) shade in to the agony of Berryman’s person. The reflective psychology, the austerity, the high-collar meta-physical tone is never very far from the erotic center, the devouring union between the poet and his past, or the past he fancies through Anne, or the eerie psychic empathy they share.

Basically both Mistress Bradstreet and Dream Songs are memory pieces, historical complements. In the first Berryman simultaneously affirms and denies the faith of our fathers; in the second he stumbles about the shards. Mistress Bradstreet is the old America, the puritan symmetry, ritual, and worldly disgust, reset with the Songs of Solomon. Dream Songs is where we are now: a finky sophistication, unexpiated guilt, those collision-course thrills the American dream assumes. The dream itself is a tyrannical cliché, a vaudeville for Fort Knox. Again and again, interpreting the American scene, past or present, Berryman, even with all his highly individualized tics, takes on its contrary pulls, its mocking lawlessness and hidebound creeds. There is throughout all of Berryman a double movement, a wrenched, wistful backing away and sticking close: Berryman, the artful dodger, in love with the enemy, the pop world’s loony pursuits; and Berryman, the shut-in scholar, accumulating the saving remnants—“unto this epigone/Descends the dread labour, the Olympic hour.” His very abjection, certainly in the sonnets or the Henry poems, surges and sags, creating a harrowing unease, suitable to our whacky days. America consuming more and more, deifying fads, progress, and the dollar, and damning itself for doing so. Land of the Irish Mafia, the white Negro, and the Jewish cowboy. Also, God as a space man. The power, the style of contemporary America, are as awesome and loud as a gluttonous sot unable to touch his toes. And behind America stands the rest of the world, as full of platitudes and as eager to turn on with fun and games. “Love, but see to it what you love,” said Augustine. “Love to God and love to neighbor is called Caritas; love to the world and love of temporal things is called Cupiditas.”

BERRYMAN’S ART, his singularity, is largely anti-poetic. His diction seems to have evolved both beyond and against the tradition of resonance, in a rebellious return to some drastic modernist search for a particular nuance, an integral but individual rhythm. On these terms, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet is the most perversely beautiful poem in the English language since “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” Charred and ecclesiastical, it seems upsettingly there as if by some twin miracle of scholarship and madness. The best parts of the poem ring in the mind, they drop you into the poem like a diver dropped in a diving bell. God knows how long and with what fervor Berryman pondered the possibilities of English meter before settling on his chiseled modulations, latinate accents, and sprung lines. Gray and endlessly quaint, full of off-putting inversions, the poem pushes past its literary and theological debris, reaching toward trance-like, often unfathomable, effects, circling round and through Anne Bradstreet’s prim monologic forbearance, her colonial recessiveness, piety, and sin:

Still-all a Christian daughter grinds her teeth
a little, This our land has ghosted with
our dead: I am at home.
Finish, Lord, in me this work thou hast begun.

The duet of Anne Bradstreet with Berryman, a shifting soul-mating across the centuries, is paralleled in Dream Songs, a more obviously anti-poetic work, demotic, frolicsome, and harsh. Henry, the hero of the poem, converses on and off with a fellow pariah, a markedly contemporary one, his alter ego in black face who keeps calling him Mr. Bones, a buck-and-wing Sancho, as much burlesqued (or sighed over) as mock-Quixotic Henry, or Henry the mock-Faustian, or Henry the holy unholy fool, unable to see his son, stoned in provincial hustling bars, with a wife who’s “a complete nothing,/ St. Stephen/ getting even.” Henry pants and fails, Henry sings and cries. Relationships and what happens to them (“Peter’s not friendly…The architecture is far from reassuring…His last words are:/’We betrayed me.’ “), the thickening grossness of age—these are recurrent concerns, surrounding Henry in his splendid tinny ping-pong world with its billion-dollar investments in the good life and the bomb, where the “frozen daiquiries whir at mid-night” and “the worse anyone feels, the worse/treated he is.”

Things, people, under-achievements, messy dreams—all crush uncrushable Hank. Henry’s the last gasp of humanist eccentricity, the loser in the winner’s country, before being strung up by the efficiency expert, or smothered with flowers by the be-in crowd:

The Soldiers, Coleridge Rilke Poe,
Shout commands I never heard.
They march about, dying & absurd.
Toddlers are taking over. O—…

LIKE ALL DREAMS, the Henry poems are split-second achievements, terrible jolts of pathic, funny, heartbreaking lucidity, “for the rats/have moved in, mostly, and this is for real.” The rats, the everyday devils, and Henry, the boozer, putting his bottles and speeches in order, swapping sorrowful jokes with his friend, hugging his few slurred moments of identity or release. Lastly, Henry’s a bit of a cop-out—through him Berryman can indulge, camp, and over-extend his creative drive without being brought to account, a technique known (among clever poets, anyway) not as poetic license but poetic justice, the poet’s justified revenge on his terrible calling:

Literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me…as bad as achilles,
who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.

All surface and articulation”—Blackmur’s verdict on Pound. How true is it of Berryman? Berryman’s faults, the faults his critics most often cite—the arbitrary juxtaposition of the banal and the sublime, the masked sentimentality, the irksome syntax and mandarin affectations—are faults justly noted. They’re also, in one way or another, hangovers from Eliot and Pound. The early modernist phase, from which Berryman descends, was programmatic, belligerent, magisterial. Eliot and Pound were warrior priests in the name of le mot juste. Civilization was the great task, civilization brought to birth or reclaimed. In part, they built vast systematic designs out of sheer arrogance. Berryman’s temperament, surely, is more “cracked” than Pound’s, but immeasurably more modest. Pound: “I was interested in civilization from the age of twelve when I first saw Venice.” Can anyone imagine so Augustan a remark being made today, or made believable? Berryman knew he could never hope to construct a view of the world to compete with the Quartets or the Cantos. That was the problem, the impasse of his generation. Only Lowell succeeded in making historical consciousness an instrument of both outer and inner renewal, the grand style, the grand theme, but scaled to confessional discords or quirks. A tremendous feat, difficult to sustain, and even Lowell, in a few of his more recent poems, shows how burdensome it can be, sounding trumpety and official. Berryman is a lesser talent, but sanier, freer. Berryman learned that historical consciousness exists only at certain times, in certain, all very limited, ways. With the Sonnets, a stumbling break-through, then Mistress Bradstreet, then the Dream Songs, Berryman arranged his serial works, never really fully aware of what he was doing, never wishing to be, except technically.

BERRYMAN IS a learned soul harboring an innate distrust of the learned. Imagistic, private, emblematic landscapes, not ideas, are what attract: tagends of interior references, grievances joys, wavering parts of a wavering whole, the proper proportions for his experiences, his time. The scope, the sturdiness of Eliot and Pound are gone. Poets of Berryman’s generation, and younger, have trouble enough just getting through the day, listening to the news, trying to top that, or watching the idols fall:

—ah, but the world is wigs,
as sudden we came to feel
and even his splendid hair kept not wholly real
fumbling & falsing in & out of the Bay of Pigs…

Though he is yet to command a youthful following, it is easy to see Berryman appealing to the young, to elitist, introverted youths who want to be world-weary swingers, washed up at nineteen, or to those with a hankering for the dour romance. Certainly Berryman toys with many types of adolescent staginess, and the more jarring, the more alienated the decor the better. Certainly, too, it would be foolish to argue any great profundity, either in thought or feeling, in Berryman’s works. His strengths are in small moments, beguiling, vulnerable connections, tones, overtones; an assessment as true of Mistress Bradstreet, the most unified of his achievements, as it is of Dream Songs, the most inchoate. The personality of John Berryman is thoroughly discontinuous—all sort of attitudes are scrambled, touchstones scattered, the phrases sometimes unforgetably reverberating, sometimes not at all. We’re once again living between two wars, or between any number of small wars, any number of lunging or small changes. To that condition, a dull, panicky one, Berryman speaks—almost completely out of things for pages on end, yet still somehow irresistibly a presence, an irresolute faux-naif, chivalrous and melancholic, full of saintly scuttlebutt, as maudlin and antic and in as much bad taste as Henry’s beddiebye farewell:

Man has undertaken the top job of all,
son fin. Good luck.
I myself walked at the funeral of tenderness.
Followed other deaths. Among the last,
like the memory of a lovely fuck,
was: Do, ut des.

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