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Good Poems, Sad Lives

Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir

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

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.

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