The Cantankerous Contrarian

As Reviewed By: Andrew Goodspeed

John Berryman: Selected Poems, edited by Kevin Young. Library of America, 2004.

Kevin 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 galvanizing juxtapositions.

[private]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.

Delmore, Delmore.

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.”

One 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 withDream Songs. Young has made the best of a difficult position. He includes numerousDream 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 book.

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 theDream 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 theDream 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 theDream 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.[/private]

About Andrew Goodspeed

Andrew Goodspeed was born in New York City. He was educated at the Unversities of Michigan, Oxford, and Trinity College, Dublin. He is currently a professor of English Literature at the South East European University, Tetovo, Macedonia.
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