In the gloom the gold, Gather’s the light about (against) it.Ezra Pound, R. P. Blackmur
Dream Song 173
In Mem: R. P. Blackmur
by John Berryman
Somebody once pronounced upon one Path.
What rhythm shall we use for Richard’s death,
the dearer of the dear,
my older friend of three blackt out on me
I am heartbroken-open-heart surgery-see!
but I am not full of fear.
Richard is quiet who talked on so well:
I fill with fear: I agree: all this is hell
Where will he lie?
In a tantrum of horror & blocking where will he be?
With Helen, whom he softened-see! see! see!
But not nearby.
Which search for Richard will not soon be done.
I blow on the live coal. I would be one,
Surely the galaxy will scratch my itch
Augustinian, like the night-wind witch
and I will love that touch.
R. P. Blackmur would begin teaching English literature in 1940 at Princeton and would remain a faculty member of the department for the next 25 years. Blackmur was an eloquent voice for the new age in criticism. His own small body of published work well behind him, he parlayed his keen intellect, intimidating good looks, sharp tongue into a successful teaching career and eventually literary criticism. It was he that put in a good word for Berryman and helped him obtain a position in the fall of 1943. The period from 1943 to 1953 saw Berryman hold various positions at Princeton and saw him rise in stature as a poet among his peers.
During this period he befriended Robert Lowell, Ezra Pound, Caroline Gordon, Jean Stafford, Randall Jarrell, Saul Bellows, R. P. Blackmur, in addition to his long standing relationships with Schwartz, Tate and others. He won numerous awards during this period for essays, short stories, a biography of Stephen Crane and in 1953, for his long poem Homage to Miss Bradstreet. The list of awards is note worthy, including a Rockefeller Foundation Research fellowship (1944), Kenyon-Doubleday first place award for writing, (1945), Gurantors Prize for Poetry (1949), Shelley Memorial Award for Poetry (1949), Levinson Prize for Poetry (1950) and a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing (1952).
These ten years mark both the rise of Berryman as an established poet and writer as well as the fall of Berryman as a man and a husband. It is a period marked by repeated affairs, excessive womanizing and multiple betrayals of Eileen. It is a wonder their marriage lasted ten years. That it did, is a testament to Eileen’s kindness and forgiveness. Her inability to have a child was a source of both relief and agony for both during their marriage. Berryman’s drinking and ill health as well as Eileen’s own health issues, peppered their ten year marriage with constant drama, but also mutual dependence.
It was during this period that he had his affair with Lise in 1947, the much younger wife of a graduate student. It was an all consuming, destructive affair. It was also mind games, as Berryman used Lise to not only fuel his ego sexually, but also to construct a muse for his writing of sonnets, that would chronicle the affair. He wrote them in secret, used them to seduce her and would only publish them as a volume called Berryman’s Sonnets twenty years later. The 130 plus sonnets were published in 1967, after publication of 77 Dream Songs in 1964.
I mention the affair and the book for two reasons. One, Berryman’s Sonnets was a critical and publishing flop. The context of their writing and the inappropriateness of the relationship gives everyone the willies and they aren’t very good. The very fact that it was published on the heals of winning the Pulitzer Prize is an hangover of the establishment of white men of letters of the time, who were allowed to get away with behavior that would be condemned today. Second, it is evidence that Berryman, who wrote an extensive biography on Shakespeare, was wrestling with the traditional sonnet form within the context of “romantic”, if you can call it that, literature. It is from this base of extensive sonnet writing that he would move on to the more stylized form that would become the basis of the Dream Songs.
Berryman is richly praised for his “original” creation of the Dream Song sonnet form. So it was a bit of a surprise when I stumbled across Blackmur’s poem below, published in 1933, years before Berryman wrote any of his Dream Songs. The eighteen line poem, consisting of three six line stanzas is identical in its construction and use of rhyme for which Berryman would become renowned. I have always felt that everything is derivative, nothing is completely original. Every writer, either consciously or unconsciously, is influenced by writing that came before their own. But it is striking to see an example of a close colleague, with whom he taught alongside for years, use the form that would become associated with Berryman 30 years later.
by R. P. Blackmur
I saw a face rise up
made honest by the dark
shadow of its hat.
What animal out of the ark
but would continue chaste
had its opposite a face like that?
How have I seen this promise waste—
treasure of company,
complement in thought,
the cord of Unity
binding the public deed—
spent, bewildered, broken, gone to seed.
How have I seen a smile unsought
startle the mystery,
make plain how all this action ends.
From this his gestured generosity
I think him such an actor as, maybe,
might lay down a hated wife for friends.