“Certainly the bearded one is not for everyone – as Marianne Moore said of poetry, I too, dislike it – but there is something in him that provides a model, or at least an anti-model, something to fight for or even against,” Kevin Young, poet and poetry editor of the New Yorker, remarks adroitly on the poems of John Berryman. And while this capacious, warts-and-all selection of Berryman’s letters is a landmark, a thorough undertaking from Philip Coleman and Calista McCrae, it may not be for everyone either.
The facts of Berryman’s life were tragic, from his father’s suicide when he was 11 until he jumped off the Minneapolis’s Washington Avenue Bridge to his death in 1972. Like Hamlet, Berryman was haunted by his father’s spectre throughout his suffering alcoholic life.
His star has waxed and waned since his death, yet he has never ceased to be a source of fascination – his inimitable splintered rhetorical style, his explosive form opened up new possibilities for poetry. He was also an insightful critic, particularly of Shakespeare, the main inspiration behind his innovative poems. Berryman looked to the past and made it new.
His groundbreaking The Dreamsongs is studded with blackface dialogue, often fulsome with the male gaze. His most anthologised Dream Song 4 has both:
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 advanced upon
(despairing) my spumoni.-Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls . . .
Kevin Young wasn’t kidding when he said Berryman wasn’t for everyone. When the editors state that his “references to women can be demeaning”, they weren’t kidding either. Yet I was unprepared for just how demeaning. His asinine, “Why do you need a poetass?” to James Laughlin in June 1940 when Laughlin was seeking a female poet for the New Directions list was par for the course. The letters to his friend EM Halliday in the 30s make for grim reading: “All that now interests me is chasing shepherdesses up dark lanes. Whee for pious penis. It’s time I left, nearly raped the wife of my best friend here yesterday, she willing we think. No harm done.”
And: “. . . if I take the trouble to undress a woman, I should at least be rewarded by fascinating markings of some kind or fur or something – but all I get is a dull expanse of white, ineffectual skin, two nipples more or less brown, a matt of hair, and two legs that coyly open on an odorous and impatient portal . . . ”
Placing these alongside the almost saccharine letters full of filial devotion, which he wrote to his mother in this period, certainly gives one food for thought. Most letters to his mother have been already collected (We Dream of Honour, 1988), his editors careful not to overlap, especially as Berryman’s prolific letter-writing covers volumes. Thankfully, the offensive misogyny fades from the letters as he ages. It is arguable that poems cannot and should not be confused with the author’s biography, but I doubt I’ll read Dream Song 4 again.
There are riches here, however, particularly for fans and scholars of Berryman. The letters can be entertaining, covering a range of tones reflecting his multi-voice verse. He can tell a tale musically, succinctly and he can be funny, “thousands have wept on my shoulder recently, I weep on my own shoulder,” he says of Caitlin Thomas after Dylan’s death in a letter to Robert Lowell. Still, he can’t resist himself: “she offered to cut my throat with a knife and wanted me to go to bed with her . . . and don’t pass any of this letter out, of course . . .”
There are no clues here on the deeply troubling minstrel interlocuter in The Dream Songs. The editors hoped to find letters to Ralph Ellison (his sounding board for the blackface lines) but none emerged, “perhaps in part because by the 1960s Berryman chose to telephone Ellison, to read aloud from The Dream Songs”.
When Berryman talks about writing, he soars, and he talks about writing much of the time. He was a judicious, generous critic; it’s a thrill to see his letter to Donald Justice mentioning Justice’s The Wall. One can imagine what a fine teacher Berryman was, “Never change things because someone suggests it; but if you like I can make various remarks of this kind all thro the book – but only if you like.”
American Mules by Martina Evans is due out in April from Carcanet