Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Yeats

John Berryman Part Three:Berryman’s Irish Sojourn

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday August 24 2014.

ashtray

In the 1960s, Berryman started receiving a great deal of national attention from the press, from arts organizations, and even from the White House, which sent him an invitation to dine with President Lyndon B Johnson at a dinner in honour of General and Mrs Ne Win of Burma.

Berryman wrote to tell LBJ that he had not boycotted the event. The invitation arrived after the event and he could not have gone because he was living in Ireland on a Guggenheim Fellowship. With his wife Kate, who was of Irish origin, Berryman arrived at Cobh, my father’s birthplace, on September 1, 1966. He quickly adapted to Dublin life and pub culture. Ronnie Drew (whose singing voice has been described as sounding like coke being pushed under a door) of the Dubliners folk group became one of Berryman’s drinking buddies.

Dream Song 366


Chilled in this Irish pub I wish my loves

well, well to strangers, well to all his friends,

seven or so in number,

I forgive my enemies, especially two,

races his heart, as so much magnanimity,

can it all be true?

Mr Bones, you on a trip outside yourself.

Has you seen a medicine man? You sound will-like,

a testament & such.

Is you going? —Oh, I suffer from a strike

& a strike & three balls: I stand up for much,

Wordsworth & that sort of thing.

The pitcher dreamed. He threw a hazy curve,

I took it in my stride & out I struck,

lonesome Henry.

These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand

They are only meant to terrify & comfort

Lilac was found in his hand.

 John Berryman

Berryman wrote many Dream Songs during his Irish sojourn. He also managed to upset some Irishmen with his condescending manner and boorishness when drunk, which he often was. The Irish poet John Montague remembers Berryman in his book of essays The Figure in the Cave and describes a comic scene at a Dublin reading by Berryman when Patrick Kavanagh took offence at Berryman and went off in a huff.

Montague-Collected-Poems-cloth

Montague had met Berryman in 1954 when the Irish poet enrolled in Berryman’s workshop at the University of Iowa. Montague remembered seeing Berryman eating alone at the Jefferson Hotel, a copy of The Caine Mutiny open before him, “nervous, taut, arrogant, uneasy.” Berryman was offended at Montague mentioning Iowa, which he regarded as a territory of limbo.

kavanagh

Kavanagh was offended when Berryman mentioned Liam Miller of the Dolmen Press, whom he considered an enemy.

ronnie drew

Ronnie Drew objected to a member of the audience expressing his admiration too loudly and kept saying, “Shut up, John”. This confused John Berryman and John Montague.

Ballsbridge

During his Irish sojourn, Berryman was introduced to the actor John Hurt and was star-struck. Hurt, in turn was impressed by Berryman’s bravura recitations of his poems. Hurt commented: “That man has genius and it’s burning him up”.

withKate

Berryman was not impressed with the local poetic talent and some have accused Montague of inflating his own relationship with him.

All these poets!  Holy God!

Many are drunk & some are odd.  

What am I myself here doing

when I could be off & doing?

 

My near namesake, Philip Coleman, is a lecturer in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, where he is also Director of the MPhil in Literatures of the Americas programme His book John Berryman’s Public Vision: Re-locating the ‘scene of disorder will be published in 2014.

 dream songs

In Dream Song 312 Berryman claimed he went to Ireland “have it out” with Yeats:

I have moved to Dublin to have it out with you,

majestic Shade.

Whatever about the impression Berryman made on Dublin, or the impression Dublin made on him, Berryman will be celebrated in Ireland on the centenary of his birth. A John Berryman Centenary Symposium is being organised by the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies in October 2014 at the Mater Dei Institute, Clonliffe Road, Drumcondra. Academics from all over the world will speak on topics such as The Metabolization of Tradition, Berryman, Boredom and Identity, Berryman’s Schwartz, Satanic pride: Berryman, Schwartz, and the Genesis of Love & Fame, The Pornography of Grief: John Berryman and the Language of Suffering. There will be a walk to Berryman’s lodgings in Ballsbridge. A symposium was held at Trinity College Dublin, in January 2002, to mark the 30th anniversary of Berryman’s death. The event was marked by the publication of a book of essays titled After Thirty Falls.

Perhaps he did want to exorcise the influence of Yeats. Despite the immense influence of Yeats on Berryman’s early work, he now believed that Yeats’s overweening ego had made him turn everything he came in contact with into a symbol and he understood “nothing about life”. He made a pilgrimage to Yeats’s grave in Sligo.

Yeats on Cemetery Ridge

Would not have been scared, like you& me,

He would have been, before the bullet that was his,

Studying the movements of the birds

 

However, he wrote in his diary Dublin was “CHEAP; English spoken, [and it was] n[ea]r London & [the] continent”.

 

On New Year’s Day 1967, Berryman resolved to go through, at a rate of five a day, the 300 Dream Songs he had collected. Unfortunately, he fell and hurt his back so badly that Kate thought he had broken his spine. He denied that alcohol was the cause of the fall but he was particularly accident-prone, which must have been related to his drinking. He stuck to his schedule and hoped to finish the project by March. At the end of January, Kate had him committed to Grange Gorman, a gothic mental hospital. After a week, he begged her to get him out.

 

He placed his alter ego, Henry, in the hospital for some Dream Songs.

 

I love my doctor, I love too my nurse,

But I am glad to leave them, as now I do.

Too long it’s been

out of the world, away fr. whisk’, the curse

of Henry’s particular life, who has pulled thro’

too & again makes the scene…

 

At one point, he had nearly set fire to the place:

Henry walked the corridor in dark, drug-drunk, smoking

And dropt it & near-sighted cannot find.

Nurses will deal hell if the ward wakes, croaking

To smoke antic with flame…

 

A Alvarez (Berryman’s biographer Paul Mariani repeatedly calls him “Tony Alvarez” even though most people know the poet and critic as Al Alvarez) came to Dublin to film Berryman reading his Songs and talking at the Ballsbridge house and Ryan’s pub. The BBC broadcast the programme on March 11 and Berryman was back in New York on April 24 when Sonnets was published.

Although he had become bored with Ireland, he told a friend that the Irish had received him “like Sam Johnson at the court of the Dauphin”. Ireland was a place, he said, “right on the edge of Europe…crawling with delicious people who all speak English and are blazing with self-respect”.

Critic Kenneth Connelly saw in the Dream Songs the influence of two celebrated Dubliners: “Henry, the catalytic character of his poem—as well as the way his story is told—are greatly beholden to James Joyce, probably by way of Samuel Beckett…. [However] diluted, the presiding concepts and techniques of Joyce and Beckett structure his entire vision and method.” Like Joyce, Berryman mingles high verbal sonority and childish humor, literary high style with dialect and colloquialisms.

The use of dialect can go horribly wrong.

Nothin very bad happen to me lately.

How you explain that? —I explain that, Mr Bones,

terms o’ your bafflin odd sobriety.

Sober as a man can get, no girls, no telephones,

what could happen bad to Mr Bones?

—If life is a handkerchief sandwich,

in a modesty of death I join my father

who dared so long agone leave me.

 

Kevin Young is a Black American poet who has produced an edition of John Berryman’s verse for the Library of America’s American Poets Project. Young wrote that Berryman’s “use of ‘black dialect’ is frustrating and even offensive at times, as many have noted, and deserves examination at length. Nonetheless, the poems are, in part, about an American light that is not as pure as we may wish; or whose purity may rely not just on success (the dream) but on failure (the song). Berryman allows us to admit our obsessions, both as writers and as Americans.“

Next week a summation of Berryman’s life and achievements.

The Brilliant Work and Difficult Life of John BerrymanPart One

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday August 10

john_berryman1288616578

Confessionalism

The school of “Confessional Poetry” was associated with several writers who redefined American poetry in the ’50s and ’60s. These included Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and John Berryman, ‘Confessionalism’ is a style focusing on extreme moments of individual experience, the psyche, and personal trauma, including previously taboo subjects such as mental illness, sexuality, and suicide.

John Berryman incorporated much of his personal experience into his poems and his was an eventful life. The poet started out as John Allyn Smith Jr. He was born in Oklahoma where he was raised until the age of ten, and then submitted to a peripatetic existence. When Berryman was twelve years old, his father, John Allyn Smith Sr, shot himself. With the Florida land bust, suicide was not uncommon and Smith’s death did not grab the attention of the Tampa police. Much was made of Smith’s insomnia, depression and money worries, but nothing of his marital problems or the absence of powder burns. Ten weeks after her husband’s death, Martha Smith married John Angus Berryman, who had been her lover before Smith’s demise. The future poet took the new husband’s name and was taught to call him “Uncle Jack”. His mother took to calling herself “Jill”.

His father’s suicide (or murder?) left a mark on the poet.

Thought I much then of perforated daddy,

daddy boxed in & let down with strong straps,

when I my friends’ homes visited, with fathers

universal and intact

 

In his 1990 biography of Berryman, Dream Song, Paul Mariani wrote: “Much of what Berryman wrote about himself in his various autobiographical guises was brilliantly and highly original in its manner of saying. But it was also oblique, defeated, and – because of his long obsessions with alcohol, love, and fame – often, as he came himself to understand, delusory”.

After a long struggle with alcoholism and mental illness, Berryman threw himself off a bridge in 1972.

Early Work

berryman_john_photo_big

Berryman’s early work formed part of a volume entitled Five Young American Poets, published by New Directions in 1940. One of the other young poets included in the book was Randall Jarrell, whom I will discuss in future articles. New Directions published Berryman’s first book, entitled Poems, in 1942. His first mature book, The Dispossessed, appeared six years later, published by William Sloane Associates. Charles Thornbury recognised in this early work themes that would recur throughout Berryman’s work- the rite of reformation, cycles moving simultaneously to the alternations of day and night, desire and conception, the progression of the seasons, and the stages of youth and age.

Chair

The Dispossessed was not well-received. Randall Jarrell wrote, in The Nation, that Berryman was “a complicated, nervous, and intelligent [poet]” whose poetry in The Dispossessed was too derivative of WB Yeats. Berryman later said, “I didn’t want to be like Yeats; I wanted to be Yeats.”

The influence of Yeats is everywhere in the early work. Berryman also tried on the ill-fitting public persona of the WH Auden of the 1930s. Most of these socio-political poems are what Randall Jarrell called ”statues talking like a book”.

 

setee

In 1947, Berryman started an affair with a married woman named Chris while he was still married to his first wife, Eileen. He documented the affair with a sonnet sequence of over a hundred poems. This marked a major stage in his development, moving from a public rhetorical style to a more intimate, confessional, nervous voice. He refrained from publishing the Sonnets to Chris until 1967.

Homage to Mistress Bradstreet

Berryman’s first major work was Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. The long title poem first appeared in Partisan Review in 1953 and the book was published in 1956. Berryman addressed the life of 17th century puritan American poet Anne Bradstreet, the first recognized poet of the American literary tradition, and combined her history with his own fantasies about her. Berryman told an interviewer in 1972: “The idea was not to take Anne Bradstreet as a poetess – I was not interested in that. I was interested in her as a pioneer heroine, a sort of mother to the artists and intellectuals who would follow her and play a large role in the development of the nation.”

Anne Bradstreet enjoyed a relatively privileged life in England. She was born in Northampton, in 1612, the daughter of Thomas Dudley, a steward of the Earl of Lincoln. Because of her family’s position, she grew up in cultured circumstances and was a well-educated woman for her time, tutored in history, several languages and literature. At the age of sixteen, she married Simon Bradstreet. At the age of eighteen, she, her husband, and her parents sailed with John Winthrop for the Puritan settlement at Massachusetts Bay. Her first book of poems, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was published in England in 1650 by her brother-in-law without her knowledge. These first poems are sometimes candid and immediate, but more often they are conventional in style and on accepted topics — her love for husband, children, God. Later poems show a different attitude. Both Anne’s father and husband were later to serve as governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

john-berrymanYoung

In Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, a series of fifty-seven, eight-line verses, Berryman comments on, converses with and courts Bradstreet and sometimes speaks as her. In section 31, Berryman has Bradstreet moving towards him:

 

–It is Spring’s New England. Pussy willows wedge

up in the wet. Milky crestings, fringed

yellow, in heaven, eyed

by the melting hand-in-hand or mere

desirers single, heavy-footed, rapt,

make surge poor human hearts. Venus is trapt—

the hefty pike shifts, sheer—

in Orion blazing. Warblings, odours, nudge to an edge-

 

Berryman employed an eight-line stanza of great flexibility, gravity and lightness. The poem took him five years to complete and demanded much from the reader but won plaudits from critics at the time and continued to win praise in later years. In 1989, Edward Hirsch observed, “the 57 stanzas of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet combine the concentration of an extended lyric with the erudition and amplitude of a historical novel.” Berryman’s friend Saul Bellow described the poem as “the equivalent of a 500-page psychological novel”.

Out of maize & air

your body’s made, and moves. I summon, see,

from the centuries it.”

 

Berryman makes Mistress Bradstreet a rebel speaking out against the constraints of gender and environment. The underlying subject is, as Berryman indicated later, ”the almost insuperable difficulty of writing high verse in a land that cared and cares so little for it.” The poem examines the tension between Bradstreet’s personal life and her artistic life, concluding in a spirit of fatalism. The work primarily examines creative repression, religious apostasy, and the temptation to adultery. Critic Luke Spencer focused on “Berryman’s intimate dialogue with Anne Bradstreet and the mutual sexual attraction”. Berryman tried to “colonise” and seduce a virtuous member of the Puritan community by turning her into his mistress. Berryman portrays her as rejecting both her husband and father and the Puritan deity that sanctions their view of life. The historical Bradstreet’s letters portray her as a model of devotion to her husband; members of her family encouraged her writing of poetry.

 

Among the most moving parts of Berryman’s work are about Bradstreet’s conflicts with her own sensuality and the struggle for religious faith and peace. Berryman finds Bradstreet’s value and meaning in her suffering.

 

Veiled my eyes, attending. How can it be I?   

Moist, with parted lips, I listen, wicked.   

I shake in the morning & retch.

Brood I do on myself naked.

A fading world I dust, with fingers new.

—I have earned the right to be alone with you.   

—What right can that be?

Convulsing, if you love, enough, like a sweet lie.

 

 

More about Berryman’s life next week and about his masterwork Dream Songs.

 

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