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 …

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