John Berryman
John Berryman; drawing by David Levine

Touchende mi confession
I axe an absolucion
Of Genius, er that I go.
—John Gower, Confessio Amantis

The confessions of John Berryman’s last two books of poems, Love & Fame (1970) and the posthumous Delusions, Etc. (1972), are continued in the novel Recovery which he left unfinished when he killed himself in January, 1972. It is about as much a novel as those other last books are poems. They had lines and rhymes, and flashes of Berryman’s verbal genius. Recovery has a sort of story in the progress of its confessions: confession is the chief method of treatment in the clinic for alcoholics that is its setting, confession repeated and repeated until, supposedly, some kind of purgation takes place. There is a hero, a figure called Dr. Alan Severance; there are other figures with other names, and there are flashes of the author’s sharp intelligence and wit. But its plot, setting, characters, thought, or diction are scarcely even pieces of novelistic machinery in this book. They do not beguile us into revelation, we are spilled into it at once. The novel’s reason for being, like that of the last two books of poems, is the author’s confession. A prefatory note tells us,

I don’t write as a member of the American and international society, Alcoholics Anonymous (founded 1935), but as an author merely who has experienced certain things, witnessed things, heard things, imagined some. The materials of the book, however, especially where hallucinatory, are historical; all facts are real; ladies and gentlemen, it’s true. J. B.

Who would presume to judge this? The pain must have been such as he neared the end that just getting it anyhow off his chest was some relief; and, moreover, he hoped that confession might let him face his life, and be better, and go on living. Anyone would be sorry a man was driven to this exposure. But hold them cheap, the mind’s cliffs of fall, may who ne’er hung there. Even so, he kept trying to get it into literature, and in some ways he did.

We always try to dig out the private lives of public persons and put together private and public. Much of our literature consists of just this. It wasn’t always so, of course. Perhaps the ancients couldn’t imagine the split we assume between private and public, between a man’s feelings and thoughts and deeds alone or in his family, and what he wrote or said and did that made him important. And then, in the small communities of one language that used to be, the few who cared knew naturally, couldn’t help knowing. If they wrote it down it was almost accidentally, as John Aubrey did (one of Berryman’s talismans). Berryman became a public man as a writer, and if for all his prizes and Life photographs and his concern for his celebrity, his name was known not in every household so much as in every creative writing course, he did shine brightly in the small poets’ corner of the literary world, as indeed he had long before the awards and the interviews came, ever since thirty years ago he first published poems in the quarterlies and covered new verse for Partisan Review.

In the poets’ corner the scandals were known, too. Putting them in print, though, does make a difference even there; print is like fame itself, it makes even friends take a man’s life seriously in a new way, as Berryman himself said among the many remarks he made on that last infirmity of human mind. There is a power of taboo about it. Revelations of messy lives may still put certain goals out of bounds for senators and financiers but not often these days for writers. (There was a time, though, when his behavior cost Berryman jobs and a much-needed grant.) Anyway, the confessions are now part of the Berryman literature.

How useful a close knowledge of this particular poet’s life may be in sorting out the difficult course of his writing, and in interpreting and valuing the heights of his best language, can already be seen in the superb article of The Times Literary Supplement for February 23, 1973. Here all his books but Recovery are characterized and placed among the events of his life, and this is so well done that all studies coming after, as surely many will, can only fill in its structure. The short article is an outline for a critical biography.

Anon suggests also in that TLS, noting Berryman’s literary affiliations and emulations and rivalries, like all those he had with Robert Lowell, how the literary historian will not be content simply to winnow the best from The Dream Songs and let blow away The Dispossessed, the Sonnets, Mistress Bradstreet, the late poems. Anon’s own sieve though is almost perfect: “John Berryman’s poetry ripened from dignified impersonality to comic egoism, and declined from that into sober self-exploitation…. The hysterical sonnets…the grace of inarticulateness as a disarming style for conveying the nature of his protagonist: weak, corrupt, and self-absorbed…. If the poem [Mistress Bradstreet] received unusual attention, the reason is that a shocking mixture of religiosity with sensuality will attract intelligent readers if it is served with exalted language…. The splendid virtue of the Dream Songs…. He develops an expressive style out of the inarticulateness that fascinated him and that belongs to our time; and through it he not only disarms us but shares the wordlessness of readers who distrust elegance and fluency….” I would gladly go on quoting Anon for as long as the law allows.


But I began to say, Berryman’s career is one of the main exhibits in that strange literary display of our period, the “confessional” or “extremist” movement, with its requirement that the poet must have suffered strikingly painful and gruesome experiences, and must put these into verse in all their actual detail. There has been a lot of talk about this already, something like it has happened to all the arts in our time; and there will be a lot more talk, with Berryman as a prize figure. Are the best of us insane today, does the worst pain produce the best art, or, as it seems, is the worst pain in itself ready-made the best art? Or is there no art?

Berryman wasn’t so sure: “He had really thought,” he says in the voice of Dr. Severance, “off and on for twenty years, that it was his duty to drink, namely, to sacrifice himself. He saw the products as worth it. Maybe they were—if there had been any connexion.” The madness of the poet, scapegrace and scapegoat, themes as old as Plato and never quite let alone by any generation, only more literal now, acted out….

And to go further back, there is all the history to be told of Berryman’s own generation, so many of whom didn’t quite or only barely lived into that era of confession that followed Life Studies, Dylan Thomas, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Theodore Roethke, worshippers of the mighty Yeats and Eliot and Auden, disciples to their august and demanding prophets the New Critics…. Then the whole matter of the irreversible miscibility of ink and alcohol in this century, our three best American novelists: “the giant-killer.”

But I must not seem to dodge around the actual confessions in Recovery and make them seem more horrendous than they are. They can be repeated here. The scandals have already appeared, pretty much all of them, in the poems, at least by allusion. The poet hurt others grievously in the process of destroying himself, and knows it, but chiefly the pain is the terrible disgrace of knowing what he has done to his gifts and powers and to his great pride; he can’t see why it had to be, and say it again and again as he will, he cannot believe it could be true.

Twenty-three years of alcoholic chaos, lost wives, public disgrace, a night in jail and a last job, injuries and hospitalizations, a blacked-out call to a girl student threatening to kill her, involuntary defecation in a public building, $$$T’s once, convulsion once…. I lost when drunk a manuscript containing scandalous facts about well-known friends…. Many injuries drunk, three weeks one mental hospital, half a dozen times another. Four or five incomplete homosexual episodes when drunk. Lost all night once abroad, drunk, walking streets, couldn’t remember my address. My second wife left me because of liquor and bad sex, taking our son with her of course—nearly killed me…. Drinking a quart of bourbon a day last Fall. Too ill to give an examination myself, had to cancel a lecture…. Moderate drinking several months, began a new book, gradually up to a quart a day…. The worst things I have done in my awful life were to make three excellent women utterly miserable with my drinking and bad sex and to seduce once after we both married my dearest girl cousin…. Once without even knowing who it was. Friends’ wives, virgins. Unspeakable. And the myriad unacted….

Well, it was awful enough, but many a man has done worse with less provocation. Born John Smith in Oklahoma, 1914, Roman Catholic, father shot himself when the boy was twelve, the boy heard the shot; mother married a Berryman who adopted the boy; the poet, a life-long Don Juan and hero-worshipper and drunk, tried the Episcopalians, the “God as we understood him” of AA, wanted at last to become a Jew. An intellectually ferocious scholar, hardcore Freudian, broken but cocky still in his fame, he sat down with a hockey player and housewives and salesmen and sweated blood over the Twelve Steps.


Excruciating in their desperate innocence:

Step One, We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. Step Two, Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Step Three, Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. Step Four, Made a fearless and searching inventory of ourselves. Step Five, Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs, Step Six, Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. Step Seven, Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings. Step Eight, Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. Step Nine, Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. Step Ten, Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. Step Eleven, Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. Step Twelve, Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Could Recovery reach out as a beacon for those riding near the breakers? Berryman quotes the joke about two drunks coming out of the film of The Lost Weekend. “My God I’ll never take another drink.” “My God I’ll never go to another movie.” A half-finished first draft, it is probably not accessible to many. We can imagine that Berryman might very well have made it a distinguished novel given the chance. He loved Under the Volcano. He had published at least one very good story. “The Imaginary Jew,” reprinted in this volume; he could handle narrative and certainly had been able to present, in Stephen Crane—“glowing with psychological insight,” Anon—an extended prose record of a life.

He was particularly fascinated by lives of those whose products were notable and whose living center was obscure and difficult, to be reached only by much probing and speculation, like Crane’s, like Shakespeare’s, whose biography was a lifelong project of his—one brilliant part was published, “Shakespeare at Thirty,” Hudson Review, Summer, 1953—lives that were like his own as it seemed to him. But he did not have the chance. He clung to his work and to his duties, proud of his performances, taking a cab from the hospital, the cab waits as he delivers his totally prepared and organized lecture, he falls into the cab and rides back to the hospital. At the end even that seems to have gone.

Before audiences he mumbled incomprehensibly or strangely shouted. He sent Delusions, Etc. to press with its flat repetitions of old verses to his friends, its personal trivia, its rambling arguments, its prayers made after the rites of Gerard Manley Hopkins, absurdly pharisaical had they come from a man in his right mind. I am like your sun, Dear, in a state of shear…. As had so many others of the extremist poets, he found that on the far side of his breakthrough—of his breakdown—everything was flat. Henry, that blithe and desperate spirit, came no longer with his fractured dreamy songs, his soft-shoe shuffle, his baby-talk that frightened the grown-ups with its sudden naked infantilism. Without him, the world was small and orderly like a room made of cement blocks. The penultimate poem ends with what might be scribblings found on some awful wall.

It’s enough! I can’t BEAR ANY
Let this be it. I’ve had it. I can’t

But he kept planning Recovery. There was to be a “Vol. II, the Present Sick White World.” Cryptic chapter heads remain, a few sentences for “Last Page of Book…”: “He was very, very lucky. Bless everybody. He felt—fine.” And the final heartbreaking writer’s note, “9 sections (9 months)—30 pp. av.=270 pp.”

Drinkers beware. “Relief drinking occasional then constant, increase in alcohol tolerance, first blackouts, surreptitious drinking, growing dependence, urgency of first drinks, guilt spreading, unable to bear discussion of the problem, blackout crescendo…support-excuses, grandiose and aggressive behavior, remorse without respite, controls fail, resolutions fail, decline of other interests, avoidance of wife and friends and colleagues, work troubles, irrational resentments, inability to eat…decrease in alcohol tolerance…long drunks…impaired and deluded thinking, low bars and witless cronies, indefinable fears…despair, hallucinations—ah!”

Alcohol, sex, and the weed that kills. The helping hand holds dew and manna that is bane. We are used to saying that only those who know what evil is can know the good. We might say that only those who know despair can know the bad reality of what only the despairing are allowed to call “fun.” Berryman knew the depths and knew how it would end. Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so. But he rendered also as who else ever has the wrong and outrageous heights—the “highs” as they say now with the proper note of cheapness—mere fun and wrong, wrong. Perhaps Burns did, or Cummings who told no guilt—not Hart Crane or Dylan Thomas or any of the other roaring boys. Human kind cannot bear very much unreality.

Supreme my holdings, greater yet my need,
Thoughtless I go out. Dawn. Have I my cig’s,
my flaskie O,
O crystal cock….

Or Henry Pussycat’s fourth Dream Song:

Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken páprika, she glanced at me
Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the fact of her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her

or falling at her little feet and crying
‘You are the hottest one for years of night
Henry’s dazed eyes
have enjoyed, Brilliance.’ I ad- vanced upon
(despairing) my spumoni.—Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls.

—Black hair, complexion Latin, jewelled eyes
downcast… The slob beside her feasts… What wonders is
she sitting on, over there?
The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars.
Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.
—Mr. Bones: there is.

For Henry’s transgressions of the law, can there be absolution? Torn so in public on the blatant Oedipal horns, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard,” do these artists, our Azazels bring absolution to us?

With all the hallucinated total certainty of childhood omnipotence, Henry Pussycat knew that everything in the world was his fault and he knew that everybody else knew it too.

Henry sats in de plane & was gay.
Careful Henry nothing said aloud
but where a Virgin out of cloud
to her Mountain dropt in light,
his thought made pockets & the plane buckt.
“Parm me, lady.” “Orright.”

This Issue

August 9, 1973