Martha Little Berryman with her maternal grandfather, Colonel Robert Glenn Shaver of the Confederate Army.
“Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no // Inner Resources”John Berryman, Dream Song 14, quoting his Mother Martha.
Dream Song 58
by John Berryman
Industrious, affable, having brain on fire,
Henry perplexed himself; others gave up;
good girls gave in;
geography was hard on friendship, Sire;
marriages lashed and languished, anguished; dearth of group
and what else had been;
the splendour & the lose grew all the same,
Sire. His heart stiffened, and he failed to smile,catching (enfint) on.
The law: we must, owing to chiefly shame
lacing our pride, down what we did. A mile,
a mile to Avalon.
Stuffy & lazy, shaky, making roar
overseas presses, he quit wondering:
the mystery is full.
Sire, damp me down. Me feudal O, me yore
(male Muse) serf, if anyfing;
which rank I pull.
Martha Little was born on July 8, 1894. Born a “Yankee”, in Du Quoin, Illinois, because of poor timing by her mother in planning a trip from St. Louis to visit friends, Martha would spend the rest of her life overcompensating to insure there was no mistaking her southern upbringing. Martha was a single child of a moderately well to do couple, until her father abandoned her and her mother when she was five. Her mother never recovered, socially, emotionally or financially. She raised Martha as a single mother, overly cautious, dower, not allowing her a normal childhood. Martha was taught by a tutor, not allowed to attend primary grades or have friends her age. Mrs. Little did what she was required in raising her daughter, but did not imbue her role as mother with a loving nature, literally poisoned by the circumstances that her ex-husband had left her.
Both women of course focused on her side of the family in creating their identity. Martha and her mother basked in the attention of Mrs. Little’s father, Robert Glenn Shaver of the Confederate army. It was through his financial assistance that they were able to maintain a middle class lifestyle. But before you look too kindly upon the bearded gentleman, it should be noted, that Martha’s fondness for her grandfather does not take into account he was a notorious founder of the KKK in Arkansas and accused of murder. He was a racist, violent man, educated and wealthy enough to get away with it. He knew his way around the law as a lawyer and after losing the civil war, as a Sheriff in Arkansas.
Mrs. Little, Martha’s mother, always felt she was being judged for being a single mother, as much by her family as in her community. Martha absorbed that bitterness into a feeling she was being looked down upon for being a “bastard child”, her words, of a broken marriage. Martha grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. It wasn’t until she was 12 that they moved to McAlester, Oklahoma, where for the first time Martha was allowed to attend school, and in some ways literally allowed into the light.
Martha was intelligent, hard working and because of her prior tutoring, years ahead of other students her age. At fifteen she entered a Christian Junior College for Young Women in Columbia, Missouri. She graduated as valedictorian two years later in 1911. She began her teaching career at age 17, teaching grades 4 through 6, but lasted only until Thanksgiving. A bit overwhelmed and rudderless, she returned to the boarding house her Mother now owned and ran in Sasakwa, Oklahoma.
The relationship between Martha and her mother was not close. Martha wrote repeatedly in her letters to her son her mother did not love her, did not have confidence in her and was endlessly disappointed that her only child was not a son. This combination of being abandoned by her father and emotionally frozen out by her mother, made Martha all the more zealous when she became a mother, to focus emotionally almost exclusively on her relationships with her children. It is not surprising, that Martha did not have a good impression of men, nor that she struggled in her three marriages.
When John Allyn Smith began showing interest in Martha, she claims she was an innocent in all things related to sex and in relationships with men in general. Given the strained relationship with her mother she likely was looking for a way out from underneath her mother’s roof and possibly thought a young banker might be a way to start her life. Or if her accounts later in life are true, that he forced himself upon her and she felt she had no choice but to marry him. Either way, the odds of success were stacked against them. Combine that with Martha always wanting to be one step above her current financial and social situation, it would have been impossible for John Sr. to meet the standards of social climbing that Martha (and her mother) expected based on their somewhat snooty self image based on being the heirs of a noted Confederate Colonel. Martha always claimed her Grandfather was only kind and loving. But as it relates to shaping her personality and the subsequent impact on her poet son, it only added another layer of grandiose expectations and dysfunction that would both torment and inspire him for the entirety of his life.
Martha “Jill” Little Berryman was a powerful personality. She would become a successful business woman in New York, become the primary financial supporter of her two sons and husband as JB attended high school and then college, but most importantly, she would weave an unwavering belief in John that he was destined to be a great writer. From the age of 16 on, she kept every letter he wrote, even retyping many of them out to preserve them from his at times near illegible scrawl, so that they would be available for posterity one day, anticipating, foretelling, his eventual rise to recognition as a Pulitzer worthy poet.
I have a bit of insight into what happens to a family when a father abandons his wife and children. My Mother’s grandfather did exactly the same thing at about the exact same point in time. He walked away from his life, following a fire in the warehouse district of Minneapolis around 1905, leaving his wife and three small children to believe he perished in the flames of his workplace as a printer. He left them to fend for themselves, and to wonder what had become of him once it was determined he wasn’t dead but mysteriously vanished. His mother was so horrified by what he had done, she moved into their home and worked herself to an early grave by doing what ever she could to support her daughter in law and grandchildren. The impact of that abandonment reverberated emotionally into the next generation and the next, and if I am honest, to the next. It is still ringing at a decibel not able to be heard by anyone but his descendants today.
Dream Song 64
by John Berryman
Supreme my holdings, greater yet my need,
thoughtless I go out. Dawn. Have I my cig’s,
my flaskie O,
O crystal cock, -my kneel has gone to seed, –
any anybody’s blessing? (Blast the MIGs
for making fumble so
my tardy readying.) Yes, utter’ that.
Anybody’s blessing? -Mr Bones,
you makes too much
demand. I might be ‘fording you a hat:
it gonna rain. -I knew a one of groans
& greed & spite, of a crutch,
who thought he had, a vile night, been-well-blest.
He see someone run off. Why not Henry,
with his grasp of desire?
-Hear matters hard to manage at de best,
Mr Bones. Tween what we see, what be,
is blinds. Them blinds on fire.