Homage to Mister Berryman
For a brief period in 1960 when he was in New
York on academic vacation, John Berryman was of the opinion that I would
make him a good wife. He proposed this to me regularly. It seems he was,
in the years between his second and third marriages, proposing to every
halfway decent looking woman he met. It was perhaps his way of acknowledging
guilt at the failure of his previous marriages and an indication of his
good intention to do better next time. Late in the sixties at a women’s
group, his name came up when the issue of male commitment arose—he
was the example cited of overcorrection. Among the seven women in the
room it turned out that he had proposed to three of us. And that was
only in New York, in his spare time. The campuses where he taught in
those bachelor years, 1959–61, were checkered with other potential
Mrs. Berrymans. So it was perhaps not the mark of distinction it seemed
in the moment.
John Berryman came into my life in 1956 as my teacher at the University of Minnesota. He was then a clean-shaven professor of Humanities teaching the classics from the Greeks to Shakespeare. Once exposed to his electrifying classroom technique, I took every class he offered. Then, after he began to recognize me, after two or three semesters, I got to tag along when he invited the most promising of his students out for coffee and further discussion after class. Brilliant Jerry Downs was trained by the Jesuits, and troubled. I was bright enough to sit next to him, share notes—and Berryman. Jerry adored him too, and, when lucky enough to be asked, we would sit with him in some campus greasy spoon for an hour after class, or as long as Berryman’s cigarettes held out. There in a haze of smoke Mr. Berryman, as we called him, held forth with ideas about everything from the text we were reading to his days at Clare College, Cambridge. He harbored nostalgic yearnings for those ivied halls, snowbound in the wild terrain of northern Middle America.
A couple of years after my graduation, he re-entered my life in his capacity as poet. On one of his visits to the offices of Louise Bogan, poetry editor of The New Yorker, he discovered me behind a desk on the editorial floor. Invitations to lunches and dinners ensued.
He had a personal triangle of stopping places when he was in Manhattan, from the Chelsea Hotel, to Chumley’s on Bedford Street, to the White Horse on Hudson. My apartment was on Jane Street and so formed an insert in the baseline of his larger configuration. He often stopped by, shouting his newest Henry poem, more pleased by it, more acute about its merits, chagrined about its weak lines, and acute about those too, than any outside commentator could be.
His courting was full of high-flown compliments about the magnificence of my face, the golden flamingness of my hair, the metamorphosis of my body from its former student shape into what he perceived as its present womanly glories. But these remarks had a professorial, ex cathedra air about them. The real text of his conversation was more likely to be concerned with what he was writing, where he was reading his poems, how he was faring on one of his projects or another, or, with lapses into intimacy, something of what his son—on a post-divorce visit—might have said to him as he watched his father shave. Berryman’s talk was fast and compounded of so many diverse elements that ran into each other at such dizzying speed that I found it impossible to react. I felt vaguely stunned in his presence.
He never touched me, except to draw his stretched-out second finger down the side of my face. I saw little of him, far too little to have justified his conviction that I would make him a good wife. There was only the occasional visit with a new poem and heavy compliments, or a telephoned summons to meet him at one of the points on his triangle, where there were sure to be others present. Youngsters, out on a date, hugged themselves and their beer mugs with delight at having stumbled on an evening with an authentic genius—eccentric, a poet, and in his cups.
So we made the rounds, or rather, the angles, John dropping the great names of his famous friends, Cal and Saul and Delmore, and, when he was at the White Horse Tavern, of Dylan Thomas, another poet who drank more than was good for him. I sensed that he was both hurt and angry that he was not included in the ranks of those great and famous friends, had not achieved more, been recognized more. I knew, too, that he was hoping for the offer of a chair at Columbia—with what encouragement I am not sure, but he spoke of it as the hinge on which to swing our marriage. It did not seem to be forthcoming. I could not have married him anyway, for I was in love with somebody else. But it was clear that John was going through a bad time and the time never seemed right for me to tell him that.
When I managed a diplomatic refusal, he went back to Minnesota. In the following year he married a young woman from St. Paul called Kate. I became a person he looked up when he came into town from his many travels, in India, Dublin, and elsewhere. Kate waited at home in Minnesota with a new baby and hopes of his recovery from alcoholism. He would call asking me to meet him somewhere, and I would arrive, only to discover that in the interim he had moved on. I might or might not go after him. If I did not, I would be treated to an early-hour rousting out of bed to find a weary cab driver supporting him on my doorstep. He had remembered, with sorrow, our broken date. I might get him to take a little coffee or tea as he sagged on my living-room couch, smoking French cigarettes. He would not hear of sleep, not even when he was unfit for conversation. What helped was music. Certain Mozart quartets or any of the Brandenburgs commanded his reverent attention even when he could not speak
The last time I saw John he was bearded and very famous indeed, having won a Pulitzer for 77 Dream Songs. He, drunk and shirt-sleeved and rambling, his publisher, Robert Giroux, sober and correct and embarrassed, and I, also sober, also correct, also embarrassed, met, supposedly to lunch, at Giroux’s apartment on the Upper East Side. John came to the door bearing a water tumbler of bourbon in his trembling hand. Beads of cold sweat stood out on his forehead. Bob Giroux and I bounced worried suggestions off him about food and doctors, rest and warm baths. He would not hear a word from either of us. His talk was difficult to follow, but brilliant. Among other, more personal things about how fine I was looking and what sort of terms he hoped to get for his next book, he delivered a tercentenary tribute to Jonathan Swift and told us about a visit he had paid when he was a student at Clare College to the aged and oh-so-awe-inspiring Yeats, at which, as he recalled it, he tried to one-up him. Then he shouted a few poems at us. Then, out nearly cold on the sofa, he made heart-rending reference to what he knew he was doing, couldn’t seem to stop himself doing, to his wife—whose temporary retreat to New England with their child he applauded as “awfully wise.” This outburst was followed by an emotionless invocation to “please God let me be dead soon.” It seemed as if he might at least sleep.
But his stick-thin frame was shaken upright again by the ringing of the doorbell. Lunch arrived. He began again on the bourbon and cigarettes. Would not take hold of a morsel of bread, much less a bite out of a sandwich. I could not conceive that he could give a public reading that night. Yet at 8 p.m., I sat in the third row at the Guggenheim, next to Jane Howard, who was to write about him for Life, amid several hundred New York literati, and saw him do it. He was shaky, but he was eloquent; and his weaving and slurred speech only seemed to add to the drama and interest of the occasion.
Then one day I opened the newspaper to discover a photo of the bearded Berryman. Like every one else in the literary world, I was stunned to read that on January 7, 1972, John had left his home, walked to the bridge that crossed the Mississippi on the left side of the Minneapolis campus, and jumped. I imagined him briefly looking down at the river as a block of ice floated by, waving to a young couple kissing on the campus-side bank. Whether he did either of those things, he did jump a hundred feet to his death, a pocket of his overcoat yielding only one document, a blank check.
We who used to fill to capacity the auditoriums of the universities and museums in which he read met once more at the Donnell Library for a memorial service. Poet-friends read, but John stole the show. His familiar voice—on tape—made what had been a solemn and bleak occasion rocket toward hysteria with its power to evoke in us a mixture of laughter and grief.
In the years after his death, as I heard a sardonic Frenchman put it, “the dissertation bells went off all over the country.” I hated it when I heard the way he was being talked of by junior professors at MLA conventions and reedy-voiced sophomores in poetry coffeehouses—expounding on his death wish, lumping him together with three or four others who happened, like him, to be dead by their own hand.
I found that those who had known him wrote or told about it as if the frazzled, badly behaved neuroses were him. How unjust! To me his value lay neither in the titillating gossip of his riotous life nor the private gratification of having been admired by him. It is not the poems he left behind, though the poems loom large. It is the poet sage.
Not able to watch John make his poems, the next best thing was to watch him teach. As poet-teacher his ego was so invested in his work that while he was at work he was ego-free, a fleshless, selfless lover and sharer of enlightenment, pure spirit. This part of him is neither personal nor notorious nor recorded anywhere at all except in his poems and in the memories of his students, where he exists as the chief item in the little library of hours we’ve brought away from our lives in the university.
For those of us who took his Humanities course this meant fifty minutes a day, five days a week, for five trimester terms. The course, called something like Western Civ, covered everything from the Greeks and Romans to Flaubert. As he taught it, it became a remarkable monument to the Life of the Mind, or whatever real education had better be called, now that to call it education is to give it a bad name.
He came in a little late, but faithfully. They say now that he was often hung over, or on ambulatory leave from some local drying-out clinic or halfway house or mental ward. Perhaps the latter were only facets of the later years of his tenure. I recall his missing only one class in the two and a half years I attended the course. The occasion must have been more serious and predictable than a spate of illness; when he was merely ill, he came. On that one day he had made arrangements for a substitute chosen to make up to us for his absence—and perhaps in the case of anybody else’s absence, it would have done.
He sent us his friend Saul Bellow, visiting professor from Chicago, a figure who should have delighted our glamour-loving selves. Yet the one who came in John’s stead struck us as dull stuff, a burned-out case to the likes of us, who had been fed on real flames of a real spirit. The day passed. Back came our man, passing the light and culture of the past through the shining honeycomb of his passionate personality, informing it with life and intelligence. With him we entered once more into the world of sacrifice and ritual, of meaning and conflict and beauty. Existential truth emerged and took on life and breath before us.
The more I hear this man reduced to the wasteful contours of a faintly ridiculous fame as one of “the confessional poets,” the more necessary it seems to try to say in what lay his real worth. So I will try to tell how it was in his classroom.
He was, as I said, usually a few minutes late—a deliberate design on his part. There were no chummy huddles with the prof up front broken up by the bell, no fidgeting at the blackboard while stragglers got to their seats. He got straight to the business at hand. There was a sense of ceremony in his greeting—“Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen”—and in the way he set his bulging briefcase down on a chair beside the front desk, opened it, and extracted the text of the day. He’d lay it on the desk top and walk to the windows that ran along the right side of the room (his right, our left), twisting the cord of the window shade into spirals as he began the discussion.
It never became clear why he brought the books that caused the bulge, since he referred only to the text at hand and to his notes, if he brought any, not at all. Still, it was functional in a way. An outward and visible sign of all the background material he had gone through that now stood bulwark-like behind the easy command he displayed of his subject.
There was no talking down. If, in the course of opening a book, he paused to give us a disquisition on the correct way to open books, it was never with an air of condescension. Rather, he managed to convey the idea that there was always a best way to do even the simplest things, and to credit us with wanting to know that best way.
He began by pressing a few pages in from the back; open flat; smooth; a few pages in from the front; open flat; smooth; then the back a few, then the front, and so on, a few pages at a time, until he could lay the book open flat from the middle without breaking its spine.
In the same spirit of making us his confreres in technical inquiry, he took us into his confidence regarding his choice of which translation of a given classic we would be using. Here he went far beyond the point where any of us could hope to follow him in his comparison of the merits of the Rieu vs. the Lattimore versions of the Iliad, for example, or the Cohen vs. the Putman translation of Don Quixote. What did come through to us was the sense of what a tricky, delicate, and complicated thing it was to transfer poetic expression from one language to another. He showed a regard for our pocketbooks, too, assigning works in paperback, or if he assigned hardcover books seeing to it that the campus bookstores were stocked with inexpensive used copies.
He’d give us sample passages from rival translations whenever another version seemed to have an edge over the one we were using. But, however good he thought the translation he had settled on, he never let us forget that we were getting only a fraction of the power inhering to the original. He read aloud to us in the original so that we might not altogether miss the aural contours of a work. This method made a vivid impression on me in two instances in particular. One, in a term dominated by Dante’s Inferno, came in the Paolo and Francesca episode.
We were using the Ciardi translation, but we had samples of Pope, Sayers, and others as well. We were also grounded in the nature of the sin for which this pair of innocents had been condemned to circle through the whirlwind entwined in one another’s arms. He put it to us that in Renaissance Italy romantic love was downright seditious, an act of wanton rebellion on the part of marriageable children. Noble parents engaged in delicate negotiations to secure the perpetuation and, if possible, enlargement of their properties through marriage.
In such an environment the reading of any book of romance—certainly the book of Lancelot—in the company of a member of the opposite sex was flagrant disobedience. It was a reckless thing to do, never mind Francesca’s disclaimer, as we first met it in Ciardi: “We were alone, and without suspicion.” Even those of us who knew no Italian gained a greater sense of poignancy from the original, “Soli eravamo e senza alcun sospetto.” Though I suppose it would require the timbre of his voice as he read it to convey the full pressure of his feeling for these lines.
The second instance was a line of Hebrew from the poem of Job that knocked us out. By the time we got to it we were already veterans of the historical-critical method of biblical study practiced by Bultmann and others. We were aware of the folk origin of the beginning and end of the book of Job—the story of Job’s initial state of happiness and the last images of how, after his tribulations, God restores everything he has lost and multiplies it sevenfold. We knew that these “frame narratives” were probably added later than the core poem, which was the work of one “maker.”
We plunge immediately into the opening lines of the authenticated poem, noting the progressive intensity with which Job calls down oblivion upon himself. The earliest stage of erasure is relatively impersonal: “Let the day perish wherein I was born,” etc. But see the fanaticism of his curses, the successive degrees by which he seeks to expunge his own existence. He will call back, first, the day and the night in historical time of his birth, then the calendar dates, then the weather, the light, the meteorological and chronological particulars—all expunged in the specifics of the curses he hurls forth. Finally, Berryman tells us, the poet builds his poem in the Hebrew to a crescendo of outraged horror and revulsion over the moment of his conception, a cry so inadequate to the resources of English that even the King James version cannot do it justice: “that night in which it is said . . . a man-child is conceived . . . That night, let thick darkness seize it, Let it not rejoice in the days of the year, let it not come into the number of the months, yea, let that night be barren: let no joyful cry be heard in it, . . . let the stars of its dawn be dark, let it hope for light but have none, nor see the eyelids of the morning because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb nor hide trouble from my eyes.”
“Listen,” said Berryman, “and you shall hear the cry of a woman in sexual climax RENDERED INTO WORDS!”
We heard it. We who had never heard such a sound coming out of our own mouths—or the mouths of anyone we knew. We heard it, right there in Room 122 of Johnston Hall.
To see and hear Berryman lecture on a text he loved
was to be in the presence of the transcendent. To describe it otherwise
would be imprecise—and he was ever one for precision.