The Cantankerous Contrarian
John Berryman: Selected Poems, edited by Kevin Young. Library of America, 2004.
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Young’s admirable edition of John Berryman’s verse (for the Library of
America’s American Poets Project) meets the primary expectations readers
may bring to a new edition of Berryman’s selected poetry. It offers a
responsibly chosen representative sampling of work from the whole course
of his career, allowing new readers to form general impressions of the
poet’s verse without engaging the full corpus of his writing. Secondly,
it gathers many of his most famous and accomplished poems into one slim
volume, thus making available most of Berryman’s best poetry to readers
who may be unable to afford larger collections. Finally, readers
conversant with Berryman’s work will find that Young’s selection is
sufficiently dexterous that one reencounters known poems in uncommon and
A new edition of Berryman is welcome if only to disquiet the drowsy
complacencies that have already settled around his reputation. By wrapping
this challenging, haunting, irritating, and sometimes elegant writing in
the essentially meaningless—because so maddeningly vague—delineation
“confessional,” we have eroded precisely the most interesting edges
from the man and his work. He is often compared with Walt Whitman and Ezra
Pound, occasionally with Donald Justice: he shares with them a sprawling
multiplicity, a comfort with contradiction, a tendency to shift abruptly
from the brawling to the tender, and a peculiar brazenness that sometimes
results in discovery, sometimes in grotesque self-indulgence. And like
those poets, he had a fantastic sense of humor; it is a sad diminishment
of his legacy to examine the anguished Berryman whilst neglecting the
joyful and amusing aspects of his work. It is worth recollecting, when one
is confronted with evidences of Berryman’s torment, that he also wrote
some of the funniest poetry in modern English.
For many readers one of the most pleasant, and immediate, surprises
in this volume will be the discovery of Berryman’s work before Homage
to Mistress Bradstreet (1956). That poem too often seems to have burst
forth ex nihilo as the beginning of his major writing: but he had
been writing poetry for over twenty years when Homage appeared.
Although nothing he wrote previously matches the sustained accomplishment
of Homage, these early verses are far from ignorable juvenilia.
They are not marked by youthful inadequacy so much as by thoughtful
apprenticeship, and this renders them particularly valuable as guides to
his entire body of work. The early poems serve as demonstrations both of
Berryman’s early saturation with the poetry of his time, and as
benchmarks of how far he later developed his own style.
The opportunity to survey the whole of Berryman’s development in convenient selection draws one’s attention to the enduring influence of William Butler Yeats. The early influence is pervasive and consciously evoked. Take this first stanza from “The Animal Trainer”:
I told him: The time has come, I must be gone.
It is time to leave the circus and circus days,
The admissions, the menagerie, the drums,
Excitements of disappointments and praise.
In a suburb of the spirit I shall seize
The steady and exalted light of the sun,
And live there, out of the tension that decays,
Until I become a man alone of noon.
Here is intentional employment of the Yeatsian poetry of renunciation: the declaration—to persuade oneself?—that it is time to set enthusiasms aside, the reluctant parting from the paraphernalia of a circus, and the overblown proclamation of what “I shall” now go do to accomplish some significant and necessary transformation of the self. Yet this similarity is not the insolence of humorous stylistic travesty, nor is it the sad pantomime of incompetence mimicking mastery. This is a serious young poet’s manipulation of the stylistics of an admitted superior. And this stanza is just one exemplification of an ongoing process of development. Here and elsewhere the Yeatsian tonalities in Berryman’s work demonstrate how carefully attuned he was to the most significant poet of his youth. Yet as he developed, Berryman learned to employ Yeats in more subtle evocations. Consider how closely this famous passage resembles the later Yeats:
Henry’s mind grew blacker the more he thought.
He looked onto the world like the act of an aged whore.
He flung to pieces and they hit the floor.
Nothing was true but what Marcus Aurelius taught,
“All that is foul smell & blood in a bag.”
can imagine the late Yeats envying this stanza, particularly the
validation of ancient thought provided by the squalor of the modern world;
but what is most impressive about it is that Berryman was able to write on
such a personal level, about the loss of a close friend, without
abandoning the aesthetic and stylistic structures he learned from his
engagement with the Irish poet’s work. That is the true mark of a proper
influence: one may employ what one learned from another to articulate
better one’s own impressions.
Curiously, it is Berryman’s creative discipline that strikes one most forcefully in reading through a selection of his lifetime’s work. His reputation would suggest an undisciplined, chaotic man: he made the untidiness and difficulty of his personal life into part of his subject matter, and his later poetry repeatedly offers collisions of exquisite beauty and troubling thematic material—suicide, alcoholism, despair. He was undoubtedly capable of creative sloppinesses and self-indulgences, yet it is surprising to see how great a proportion of his oeuvre bespeaks rigor, care, and erudition. These factors are most famously present in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, a long subtle poem of precision and recondity, and a deservedly famous achievement. But this precision, this subtlety, this erudition all remained strong in Berryman’s writing, despite the later turn to more objectively personal subject matter expressed in less formally elegant phraseology.
Whatever the merits of his other work, it is by the Dream Songs
that Berryman will be best remembered, and it is they that represent his
most significant accomplishment. This imposes difficult burdens upon an
editor, as a truly representative sampling from the poet’s career will
overbalance the selection with Dream Songs. Young has made the best
of a difficult position. He includes numerous Dream Songs, yet what
he offers provides an adequately streamlined introduction to the form, the
concerns, and the major players—Henry, Mr. Bones, Delmore, the laments
for other dead, etc. Any reader previously acquainted with Berryman will
likely find a cherished few omitted, but the general sampling Young
provides is difficult to fault, given the scope and restrictions of the
It is in the Dream Songs that Berryman attains his most
engaging and personalized articulations. This observation would be an
abject banality were it not for the curiosity that Berryman’s most
personal poetical voice is a polyphony, incorporating numerous personae
and commented upon by a strangely heckling interior narration employing
modern American references and colloquialisms. There is something
reminiscent of James Joyce in Berryman’s narrative position in the Dream
Songs, particularly in both men’s willingness to mingle high verbal
sonority and sophomoric humor, as well as in the conviction with which
each writer accepts dialect and colloquialism as being self-validating and
substantive creative material. It is a vast polyphony, and it is the
polyphonic character that is most striking in the Dream Songs as a
whole. It is sometimes unpersuasive—few significant poets have ever been
more greatly misled by dialect and patois humor than the Berryman of the Dream
Songs—yet when it succeeds, it is magnificent. He is able to shift
from high to low verbal registers with astonishing speed, creating one of
the most variegated idiolects in modern American poetry. Even where a joke
goes wrong, or a dialect adds nothing to the verse, it is intensely
impressive to see the sheer breadth of Berryman’s verbal and
intellectual register. This variety of vocal and thematic manipulation
remained with him until his death; the same man who ends a poem on Emily
Dickinson with the ghastly vapidity “Hot diggity!” was also capable of
evoking the solemnity and grandeur of ancient prayer in verse: “O my
lord, I am not eloquent/ neither heretofore, nor since Thou hast spoken .
. . / but I am slow of speech, of a dim tongue.”
The major failing of this work—if it can be termed so with any
sense of justice to Mr. Young’s selection—is that to edit Berryman
unavoidably trims the frustrating, oblique, and self-indulgent aspects
from his work, and they are ineluctable. To read some of Berryman is
exhilarating, but to read all is frequently exhausting and irritating. A
reader of his selected poems may therefore forget, or never perceive, how
truly baffling, impenetrably personal, and occasionally presumptuous some
of Berryman’s poetry could be. If his courage and audacity were crucial
to his poetical discoveries, they also led him into numerous errors:
forced inapposite jokiness, absurd and needless dialectal phraseology,
and—sadly—intense self-accusation that seems excessive to any wrong he
may have committed. By showing readers how strong a poet Berryman could be
at his best, an editor is forced to omit much of the evidence of how
severely the poet occasionally erred.
This selection offers readers the opportunity to grapple again with Berryman; what is perhaps most important about the volume is that it makes clear that Berryman is someone worth that struggle. He is, because of his often cantankerous contrarian proclamations, easy to dismiss as an eloquent crank, or a divine failure. Yet this poetry is not a poetry of eccentricity or failure: it is a poetry of intense accomplishment that, when winnowed by selection, remains one of the more formidable achievements of twentieth-century American poetry.