Something Like A Sonnet for Phillis Miracle Wheatley
by June Jordan
Girl from the realm of birds florid and fleet flying full feather in far or near weather Who fell to a dollar lust coffled like meat Captured by avarice and hate spit together Trembling asthmatic alone on the slave block built by a savagery travelling by carriage viewed like a species of flaw in the livestock A child without safety of mother or marriage Chosen by whimsy but born to surprise They taught you to read but you learned how to write Begging the universe into your eyes: They dressed you in light but you dreamed with the night. From Africa singing of justice and grace, Your early verse sweetens the fame of our Race.
His Excellency General Washington (Excerpt)
Phillis Wheatley – (1753-1784)
. .The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair, Olive and laurel binds Her golden hair: Wherever shines this native of the skies, Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise.
Muse! Bow propitious while my pen relates How pour her armies through a thousand gates, As when Eolus heaven’s fair face deforms, Enwrapp’d in tempest and a night of storms; Astonish’d ocean feels the wild uproar, The refluent surges beat the sounding shore; Or think as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign, Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train. In bright array they seek the work of war, Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air. Shall I to Washington their praise recite? Enough thou know’st them in the fields of fight. Thee, first in peace and honors—we demand The grace and glory of thy martial band. Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more, Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!
“Who hasn’t walked through a life of small tragedies?
Jacqueline Woodson, Another Brooklyn
sometimes no words are needed
by Jacqueline Woodson
Deep winter and the night air is cold. So still, it feels like the world goes on forever in the darkness until you look up and the earth stops in a ceiling of stars. My head against my grandfather’s arm, a blanket around us as we sit on the front porth swing. Its whine like a song.
You don’t need words on a night like this. Just the warmth of your grandfather’s arm. Just the silent promise that the world as we know it will always be here.
what god knows
by Jacqueline Woodson
We pray for my grandfather Ask God to spare him even though he’s a nonbeliever. We ask that Jehovah look into his heart, see the goodness there.
But my grandfather says he doesn’t need our prayers. I work hard, he says, I treat people like I want to be treated. God sees this. God knows.
At the end of the day he lights a cigarette , unlaces his dusty brogans. Stretches his legs. God sees my good, he says. Do all the preaching and praying you want
Silence is a sounding thing, To one who listens hungrily.
by Gwendolyn Bennett (1902 – 1981)
He came in silvern armour, trimmed with black— A lover come from legends long ago— With silver spurs and silken plumes a-blow, And flashing sword caught fast and buckled back In a carven sheath of Tamarack. He came with footsteps beautifully slow, And spoke in voice meticulously low. He came and Romance followed in his track…
I did not ask his name—I thought him Love; I did not care to see his hidden face. All life seemed born in my intaken breath; All thought seemed flown like some forgotten dove. He bent to kiss and raised his visor’s lace… All eager-lipped I kissed the mouth of Death.
To a Dark Girl (1927)
by Gwendolyn Bennett
I love you for your brownness, And the rounded darkness of your breast, I love you for the breaking sadness in your voice And shadows where your wayward eyelids rest. Something of old forgotten queens Lurks in the lithe abandon of your walk And something of the shackled slave Sobs in the rhythm of your talk. Oh, little brown girl, born for sorrow’s mate, Keep all you have of queenliness, Forgetting that you once were slave, And let your full lips laugh at Fate!
Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.
by James Joyce
My love is in a light attire
Among the apple trees,
Where the gay winds do most desire
To run in companies.
There, where the gay winds stay to woo
The young leaves as they pass,
My love goes slowly, bending to
Her shadow on the grass.
And where the sky’s a pale blue cup
Over the laughing land,
My love goes lightly, holding up
Her dress with dainty hand.
Love is in the air, even if it is a wiff of burned brownies. Nothing says I love you like a little effort on your part to make your valentine smile. Net carbon neutral flowers, otherwise known as weeds, work great for a bouquet if you live someplace where things are blooming, but us northerners have to buy the roses flown all the way from Chile. This year I have Uganda free trade chocolate and Chilean roses. It’s a real festival of nations.
If you are need of a soundtrack for your celebration, here’s a classic. A friend sent this to me with a reminder that Teddy Neeley starred as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar. What’s your favorite song on Valentine’s day.
To My Valentine
by Ogden Nash
More than a catbird hates a cat, Or a criminal hates a clue, Or the Axis hates the United States, That’s how much I love you.
I love you more than a duck can swim, And more than a grapefruit squirts, I love you more than a gin rummy is a bore, And more than a toothache hurts.
As a shipwrecked sailor hates the sea, Or a juggler hates a shove, As a hostess detests unexpected guests, That’s how much you I love.
I love you more than a wasp can sting, And more than the subway jerks, I love you as much as a beggar needs a crutch, And more than a hangnail irks.
I swear to you by the stars above, And below, if such there be, As the High Court loathes perjurious oathes, That’s how you’re loved by me
His gift receded. He could write no more. Be silent then, until the thing returns.
John Berryman, Dream Song 310
Untitled published in Henry’s Fate
Henry scampered, young. Henry doddered old Steps bother him. Packages in both hands unbothered him. His figure altered not, he remained slim but the memory loss. Persons from other lands read him their poems bold,
demure, in Chinese, Bengali, Spanish, and chanted in high Cambodian. Henry was enchanted on an Iowa afternoon but what did it have to do with his failing life, his whiskey curse, his problems with his wife,
when ‘Let’s have a new tune’ said Hayden to somebody? He brought his trouble home and they were grand, and foreign poetry was foreign poetry; valiant, but not as brilliant as a comb to make him less dishevelled. Old Henry never wept but then he never slept.
Paul Mariani’s biography contains a detailed accounting of the events leading up to Berryman’s death. It is a death spiral. After Hazeldon, Berryman’s care was largely overseen by Dr. Zosel at St. Mary’s Hospital. Berryman was admitted to St. Mary’s repeatedly, in ever worsening physical and mental states. Mariani attributes Dr. Zosel as stating in an interview, that Berryman was not fully committed to a higher power that Zosel believed was necessary for recovering addicts to be successful. Berryman was willing to share in other’s recovery, but increasingly felt suicide was his only solution to stop his own madness.
Berryman was deeply disturbed by world events and particularly what was happening with the United States role in Vietnam and Cambodia. He felt some kind of obligation for poets to bring a clarion call to sanity, but watched as many of his fellow poets (Schwartz, Pound, Jarrell, Plath, etc) had succumbed to declining mental health and feared he was on the same path. Berryman’s cycles of seeking help, detoxing, then getting out, then regressing and abusing alcohol in massive quantities in an attempt to sleep and write, were wildly out of control.
Berryman was in demand for readings and interviews coming off the attention and accolades of the Dream Songs, but he was not adept at managing his schedule. He bungled a request from Meredith to participate in a symposium and went to the wrong city on the wrong date in the fall of 1970, flying home in a stupor. As his disappearance stretched on for several days after his return flight had arrived, Kate became increasingly distressed and sought help. He finally sheepishly appeared on their doorstep, 3 days late. Its not surprising, Kate and his doctors immediately transported him to St. Mary’s for a week long stay in a locked ward to sober him up. Things were grim in the fall of 1970. Everyone, including Berryman, was at wit’s end. This is the context that leads up to Berryman writing his mother the letter I shared excerpts in the previous blog.
Remarkably, Berryman rallied. He pulled himself together, stopped drinking enough to resume life. He put together an impressive list of travels and readings throughout the year of 1971. He surrounded himself with support and did his best to stay sober. He received a Senior Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He was working hard and writing. Kate got pregnant again. But Berryman’s wins, again, proved to be short lived. A fissure had opened with his lifelong friend Allen Tate, who was hurt by some of the material in Love and Fame, published in 1970. Berryman questioned himself and whether he was losing control of his literary focus, questioned Tate’s criticism, and generally questioned the state of the universe.
Berryman was attempting to remain productive, at least in the creation of drafts, and was telling his editor Giroux in June of 1971; “All’s well, better than well, everything plunging ahead, especially the novel…” Berryman’s mother moved to Minneapolis that same month and barely had she arrived when Kate went into labor and gave birth to their second daughter. Life was complicated in the Berryman household but had all of the reasons to embrace it.
By 1970, Berryman had published thirteen books. He had mapped out the objectives of nearly thirteen more, but realized he would have to stop drinking if he was to complete them. He had been working on more than one book on Shakespeare for the better part of 15 years and he was eager to see them through. Giroux was offering a $10,000 advance on the opening draft of the novel Berryman had sent him and sent a letter back it was “marvelous.” It’s estimated that Berryman’s income in 1971 amounted to around $46,000 in combined salary, speaking fees and royalties. A sum well beyond his previous earnings and sufficient to allow him to indulge in purchasing rare books again. But, as before, success rattled him. He felt like success built the expectations of more success, brilliance can only be followed by more brilliance. Berryman was having a tough time holding it all together. Berryman completed the fall semester in 1971, but only barely, his teaching suffered. He increasingly felt on edge as thoughts of suicide kept creeping in. In a letter of condolence not long before his death, he wrote to Adrienne Rich, whose husband had committed suicide the year before:
“I hope you are not feeling responsible, but I suppose…. you probably are….Suicide is a purely personal, & aggressive act…. and in our culture w. its taboo the actor is always deranged and out of control.”
One of the unique conditions of the human experience is our relationship with death. It’s not that other mammals don’t experience grief. I personally have watched a dog grieve the loss of a kitten, exactly the same as his human housemates. My partner watched a horse react to the death of a long time equine companion with the same explosive grief she was experiencing. There are lots of animals that are monogamous and mate for life and who experience loss of companionship if their mate is killed. But no species carries the death of loved ones and even hated ones into the future like humans. Death is messy, in lot of ways. Our own deaths or our loved ones deaths are forever intertwined with an element of judgement around was it a good death or another kind. Hardly anything else we experience as a natural consequence of being born is as complicated as our relationship to death. Yet for the vast majority of us, we have no control over how and when it occurs. And, if we do, there are consequences for the living.
What do whales think about when as a group, they ground themselves on a beach to die? What is that call to action sound like in whale song? I recognize there is no way to discuss suicide in a way that sheds any insight. It’s not a concept that as humans we want to understand. It’s too emotional, too complicated, too personal and beyond our ability to put into words when it happens within our inner sphere. But I believe that in some situations, death can be a prevention of more suffering.
In most jurisdictions, suicide is a criminal act. There is an investigation by law enforcement afterwards because death in the modern world carries with it all kinds of legal implications around life insurance, property and inheritance. A death certificate must be filled out with the cause of death. No one goes to jail, but there are serious repercussions. Any commentary around Berryman’s final moments alive is bound to be clumsy and misinformed. So I’ll make it brief.
John Berryman died, on January 7, 1972 about 9:15 am. His death was caused by a fall from a height of approximately 100 feet. It was the result of him jumping from the north side of the west side of the walk bridge over the Mississippi river connecting the west bank and the east bank of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He hit the ground near the bridge abutment and landed in the gravel parking lot or the grass adjacent, on the west side of the river that existed then. He had no identification on his body except for a blank check. His name was engraved on the inside of his glasses that shattered, but remarkably still sufficiently legible to identify his body as they remained on his face.
I have read several accounts of Berryman’s death. Nearly all of them have a clunky quality, without I believe intending to. There is a tinge of anger or judgement that finds its way in. I think its because we all want a happier ending. I think those qualities are difficult to evade when discussing suicide. The living have a hard time conceiving why someone would take their own life. Yet, for John Berryman, in that moment, on that day, it may have been the only way to address his pain. The question that no one can answer is why Berryman would continue the generational ambiguity of suicide, passing it along as his three children’s inheritance, knowing how much his own father’s death had cost him.
I walked across that bridge almost daily in the years from 1981 to 1986. I had no knowledge of John Berryman or his poetry at the time. The only thing I had ever seen fall from the exact place where Berryman died were stolen bowling balls from the Coffman Memorial Union bowling alley on the east side of the bridge. A bowling ball dropped from the height of the walk bridge could crush the hood or top of a car parked below. College students can be cruel.
I took a stroll on Thursday of this week all the way from the West bank to the East Bank on the north side and then back on the south side of the walk bridge in the open air. As you can see from the pictures, the bridge span is quite long. It has a quality of infinity when you begin on one side, especially in winter, which is why there is a covered portion in the center, for comfort to get out of the wind and elements when the view intimidates you. The bridge hasn’t changed much in the 40 years since I walked it daily and the more than 50 years since Berryman made his final traverse. It is the same structure, with a slightly newer coat of paint. However, the University on either side of the bridge has fundamentally changed. The spectacular architecture of The Weisman Art Museum now anchors the south side of the bridge on the East Bank, which didn’t exist when either of us walked the span. The west, south side of the bridge is the same group of buildings from 40 years ago, but nothing remains of the fine arts complex on the north side of the west side of the bridge. The funky bowels of that group of buildings that had the hot glass, ceramics and metal casting studios, have been replaced by a modern library, several lecture halls, along with an expansion of the complex supporting the Law Department. I think Berryman would be appalled. Out with art, in with more law, was not what he was about, even if they have named the complex after Vice President Mondale.
The picture below would likely be similar to Berryman’s last panorama alive. The parking lot immediately below has been replaced by a park, no errant bowling balls able to reach unsuspecting cars anymore. I am not even sure that I have the right side of the bridge figured out from the biographies, was his final moments on the north or south side? I suddenly have doubts as I write this. The north side makes the most sense in some ways, in terms of his state of mind. If he jumped from the north side, he was looking across to the buildings that housed the English department, and beyond the Humanities Department, where he spent his career lecturing on the East Bank. He would have been looking across the ice of the Mississippi to the place of where his greatest triumphs occurred. The south side of the bridge looks at a big sweeping bend in the Mississippi, with St. Mary’s hospital overlooking the sprawl. I don’t think that would have been his choice, despite it being the prettier view.
My experience in January, when I walked that bridge, is that not many people choose the open air portion of the bridge on the north side, because that’s where the wind tends to blow. You can see in the pictures from this Thursday, the pedestrians are sparse. In 1972, there were several people who witnessed Berryman’s final moments. No one was able to intervene. There is no doorway nearby that specific spot where someone could have rushed out from inside the enclosed walkway and pulled him to safety. Berryman was alone at the end.
On Thursday, I stood and reflected with my hand on the railing in about the same spot as Berryman’s. I read several Dream Songs in his honor out loud, but didn’t make a show of it. No one noticed. I then headed to have a celebratory drink in his honor at one of the many fine dive bars that existed in his day on the West Bank. All of them were closed, most of them permanently. The few that were still around were not yet open for the day at 11:30 am. I settled for a cup of coffee instead and asked the 20 something behind the counter if he had ever heard of John Berryman. He looked at me quizzically, thought for a second, like it was something he might have heard about in a lecture long ago, and said. “No.”
I can almost feel the strain of relief come through the computer, coming from those of you that read this blog regularly, glad that we are done with Berryman. I admit, this month and a half has been difficult for me too. We all have suffered for Berryman’s art. As I lay down the Berryman journey and skip to Valentines Day, remember that Berryman was a romantic at heart. I suggest that we collectively heal by indulging our own romantic nature next week; with valentines, champagne, sweets, and sweet nothings, the works. And whether you toast Berryman or eschew him, be sure to toast yourself as a survivor in this increasingly crazy world. And if you are of the mind, toast Henry too.
Dream Song 360
by John Berryman
The universe has gifted me with friends, was special of it, whom I not deserve save for my own love back imperfectly manifested with amends which Henry had need of, graded on a curve by certain, Henry on the track
strapped, awaited the train. Instead came a cable from the most beautiful woman in the United States, devout & lovely: ‘Why do you honor me?’ she weirdly askt. Henry relaxed & stable but busy busy made reply: ‘We awaits a lady even more worthy of honor:
until then suffer us to make do with you, which is forever? Gulls here beside the sea approve poor Henry’s choice. Allow then in our end that we make do with the mysteries of you which are one mystery’ half-enhanced by Henry’s voice.
“I didn’t want to be like Yeats; I wanted to be Yeats.”
From Nine Dream Songs in Poetry Magazine in 1963
By John Berryman
Some good people, daring & subtle voices and their tense faces, as I think of it I see sank underground. I see. My radar digs. I do not dig. Cool their flushing blood, them eyes is shut– eyes?
Appalled: by all the dead: Henry brooded. Without exception! All. All. The senior population waits. Come down! come down A ghastly & flashing pause, clothed life called; us do.
In a madhouse heard I an ancient man tube-fed who had not said for fifteen yeaers (they said) one canny word, senile forever, who a heart might pierce, mutter ‘O come on down. O come on down.’ Clear whom he meant.
The two years leading up to Berryman’s death were marked by the extreme highs and lows that punctuated his entire adult life. Following the success of His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, published in 1969, Berryman published Love and Fame in 1970. He received a Regents Professor position at the University of Minnesota. He and his third wife welcomed a second daughter, Sarah Rebecca, in 1971. But the stress of trying to live up to his own standards of academia, creative writing and being a father were a burden as well. He had several nervous breakdowns requiring hospitalization. He fell into a deep depression and he returned to drinking with zeal despite an enormous personal investment in sobriety. It is during this period where the letters between him and his mother are the most illuminating and also the most heartbreaking. Berryman is still trying to make sense of his father’s death and emerge from the fog that shrouds its circumstances. He is still, after all those years, trying to comprehend the after-effects on himself and his family. It is not the first time that he has engaged his mother on some of these issues in letters. But it is the most direct.
Berryman writes to his mother in November of 1970 from Saint Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis near the campus.
This is a matter of unique & urgent importance: Have you kept my letters fr. South Kent? If so, I want them as fast as poss., air, registered. They may help in the present crisis of my(going on the whole very well, utterly different fr. last Spring’s) treatment.
Also: think back carefully & be absolutely candid abt these questions:
Did I hear Daddy threaten to swim out w. me (or Bob?) & drown us both? or did you tell me later? when?
When did I first learn he’d killed himself?
How did I seem to take his death when first told? Before the drive back to Tampa that morning? How did I act in the care? Back in Tampa? at the funeral parlor? in the graveyard in Holdenville (Oklahoma)? in Miami? Goucsester? thro’ the 8th grade? during the summer before I went to SKS?? (in Wash DC? – where I tho’t I recognized him on the street one day – crushed?) Please tell me everything you can remember abt me that summer! (I can’t even recall why we were still in Jackson Hts or moved to Burbury Lane.)
I cannot recall any intellectual life in me during my 4 yrs at SKS. Can you, in me? What did I read? (I recall not one bk – tho’ I read, often, after lights outs, w. a flashlight under the covers or in my closet.)
Can you pinpoint, or make any suggestions about, the beginning of my return to normalcy and the busy, effective, committed life I had as a freshman?
Many thanks. I hope yr energy and spirits are good.
She replies within the month, writing from Washington, D. C. at Thanksgiving 1970.
Please, John, it has taken a lot of doing, to go down under layer and layer, to depths I never thought of exploring, again. I was years after Allyn’s death before I freed myself from the return again and again to events don and over with – I used to wake up, sitting bolt upright in bed, saying to myself, “if I say this” or “if I do this” or “if we had only”… hopelessly, agonizingly. It must have been very hard for John Angus to endure, I realize now. But all the time I did not nor do I now believe that Allyn knew the gun was loaded when he pulled the trigger – to carry it around, empty, still, so the doctors daid, it might be the thing that made him feel strong and powerful and all agreed that it should not be taken from him, it was an assertion of self and was an affirmation of strength and even responsibility that he, alone of the men around, had a gun. I buried the bullets way down the beach, and when Allyn asked bout them I said what the doctors tole me to say: that they (the bullets) were old and probably no good. and that when we went to Tampa again we could get some if he wanted them; that the gun was enough to frighten any thieves or rascals away, and that all was all he wanted it for, wasn’t it? and he agreed…..
The letter continues and Berryman’s mother attempts to address some of his questions. She struggles and all of it is still as much of a burden as it is for Berryman. She concludes the letter with the following.
…..I have torn up more paper than ever before on any enterprise, and eventually realized that I could not answer your questions immediately, that it would not be fair or just to Allyn or to you, for it is only by understanding him that he can be seen in his own light, and surely we are all entitled to that? Clearly all hi life had been self-centered, perhaps because no one really welcomed him and instead of being, as many youngest of a large family is loved and delighted in, he was not….. In his presence, at the full dinner table, his mother said that for an unwelcome child, the third unwelcome child, he had done very well. Perhaps if it had been a brother (not a sister) just older his whole life might have been different. But he became, in self defence, his own world, poor man. I had always held against him his forcing me to marry him but now I realize that being himself, the self had made, he could do no other. I pray for him and have done so, for most of the years since his death. (I prayed dutifully for so long, but now in loving kindness).
With dearest love,
There are only a few letters between the two in the intervening 13 months between this exchange and his death. In reading them it appears that neither of them have the emotional energy to revisit these topics again or his biographer and family chose to keep them private. The lack of letters is due in part to Berryman insisting that his mother move to Minneapolis in 1971. They were able to converse in person and its safe to assume that letters no longer held the importance that they had in their communication prior.
Berryman’s mother remained in Minneapolis following his death. Kate bought a duplex on the hill overlooking the campus, called Prospect Park, and she lived in the downstairs with the kids and Berryman’s mother lived upstairs. Her energy faded in the final years, a combination of Alzheiemer’s and heart disease, and she became increasingly withdrawn. She spent her final months in assisted living, passing away at the age of 82 from cardiac arrest. She was cremated and her ashes were placed on John Berryman’s grave.
This poem was published posthumously in Henry’s Fate. This poem was written in December of 1968, two and half years before his second daughter’s birth.
The New Year? Henry sank back on his haunches. It certainly could not be denied that the old year was ahses, ashes, all fall down. He shopped until he bled, all the way downtown. He constructed lists of his surviving friends and of the others the ends.
Toward the close, heavy snow helped to blanket his thought, no one dead or alive was anywhere going, every battle was fought. Mary-Mary at the January sales would represent him, contrary. The mails will lessen. Lectures by the pair
grimly will begin, with Epictetus, parties will thud to a finish, the tree’ll come down & shedding out & over. Who shall we say was the heroine of Christmas but Henry’s lady & the little baby. Clown Henry, lying above her.
Perhaps God resembles one of the last etchings of Goya & not Velasquez, never Rembrandt no.
Dream Song 266
by John Berryman
Dinch me, dark God, having smoked me out. Let Henry’s ails fail, pennies on his eyes never to open more, the shires are voting him out of time & place, they’ll drop his bundle, drunkard & Boy Scout, where he was once before:
nowhere, nowhere. Was then the thing all planned? I mention what I do not understand. I mention for instance Love: God loves his creatures when he treats them so? Surely one grand exception here below his presidency of
the widespread galaxies might once be made for perishing Henry, whom let not then die. He can advance no claim, save that he studied thy Word & grew afraid, work & fear be the basis for his terrible cry not to forget his name.
There are 36 Dream Songs with at least one references to God with a capital G published while Berryman was alive. I counted them. There is one little g reference to a god that is not profanity (all of which I did not include in the count). God was not a frequent visitor but not completely absent a presence in Berryman’s writing of the Dream Songs. God was not a no show like his father.
Berryman realized after he published His Toy, His Dream, His Rest in 1968, thereby releasing 385 Dream Songs into the world that he had created a problem for himself in any future writing that he somewhat regretted. In interviews with journalists and with friends he acknowledged that his use of black face in some of the Dream Songs now prevented him from using the Dream Songs concept, style and structure to address weightier literary issues he would like to address in language that would be more acceptable to a broader audience. If ever John Berryman had a catholic (lower case intentionally) confession, this was it. But it was too late. Once your brilliance is enshrined with awards by the literary community, its hard to bail the ballast of stupidity out of your dingy.
Yet, if you read the entirety of the Dream Songs, for all the absurdity of some of it, it deals with the ideals he spent his whole life wrestling, family, fatherhood, friendship, art, God, sex, romance, drinking, kindness and evil. Of all the Dream Songs that mention God, I feel 266 is the most direct conversation. The final lines share the same way that I look at life after death, which is the only afterlife I will ever experience, is the love I instill in my family and friends, and the art I leave behind. Berryman’s Dream Song 266 is his prayer to his Lord, in hope that someone, somewhere would not forget his name.
There are lots of different opinions about Berryman’s relationship to God at the end of his life. Some friends and biographers express the sentiment that he was at peace with his spiritual self. I don’t agree with those sentiments. I think Berryman was in moderate control of his god, (intentionally lower case g). I get the impression spending a month with Berryman and his god, that each had the other on a mutual leash, lest the other run away. It was not that Berryman was not incapable of a reconciliation and salvation with whatever version of the almighty he chose to engage. I think Berryman had forgiven or at least accepted his god as much as he felt god had accepted him, which was middling compared to the very real grace he had experienced in his human existence and human relationships. Berryman believed in Kate and Kate believed in God and if that A equals B and B equals C, then A equals C theorem is true, than Berryman comprehended that he and God mutually loved the same woman and he welcomed it. I have wondered whether the concept of confession and forgiveness, which is central to Catholicism, was one of the reasons that Berryman more often than not had longer term relationships with devout Catholic women. Berryman knew that he was in need of a partner who could muster the courage and beauty of grace in his presence repeatedly.
The case to be made that Berryman became more spiritual at the end of his life are two fold: he repeatedly made attempts at sobriety in traditional AA programs requiring the addict to accept a higher power, embrace their God, Christian or Jewish or otherwise. Second, he wrote 11 Addresses to the Lord and published it in 1971, shortly before his death. If you are questioning Berryman’s ability as a poet, because of the messiness of the Dream Songs, read 11 Addresses to the Lord in it’s entirety. It will erase any question on Berryman’s writing ability. It’s a masterful rendering of art as well written of any poet of his time, and likely one of the most beautiful and most accessible poems of Berryman’s career. But is it really about God and his relationship to God? It is an address to his God. It is a letter and a proclamation and a warning. It is in some ways, his suicide note.
Whatever your end may be, accept my amazement.
May I stand until death forever at attention
for any your least instruction or enlightenment.
I even feel sure you will assist me again, Master of insight & beauty.
When I read the 11 Addresses what I feel is Berryman’s proclamation on life. And what I hear in his language is an awareness that beauty, art and love, all spring forth from something beyond our individual capacity to create alone or understand alone. I think Berryman found art and literature holy, a manifestation of God. In this he and I agree. This is where Berryman and I share another cross roads. I have spent the better part of the past 10 years writing a sonnet sequence that is my statement of faith. I have shared a couple of the sonnets on Fourteenlines, but most of them remain unpublished, not sure yet how I am going to proceed or if I ever will. They are my prayers to that same presidency of the universes, the unknowable, the unanswerable who is guessed at in Genesis as The Word. For a man who spent his entire life trying to put into words his art, he longed to cut that leash and let he and God be free. He longed for freedom of the suffering he had experienced and could not write himself out of. My prayer for him and his family is that he connected in whatever way he and they needed with their God at the end of his life and the aftermath of his death.
Eleven Addresses to The Lord (An Excerpt)
by John Berryman
After a Stoic, a Peripatetic, a Pythagorean,
Justin Martyr studied the words of the Saviour,
finding them short, precise, terrible, & full of refreshment.
I am tickled to learn this.
Let one day desolate Sherry, fair, thin, tall,
at 29 today her life the Sahara Desert,
who has never once enjoyed a significant relation,
so find His lightning words.
A Prayer for the Self
Who am I worthless that You spent such pains
and take may pains again?
I do not understand; but I believe.
Jonquils respond with wit to the teasing breeze.
Induct me down my secrets. Stiffen this heart
to stand their horrifying cries, O cushion
the first the second shocks, will to a halt
in mid-air there demons who would be at me.
May fade before, sweet morning on sweet morning,
I wake my dreams, my fan-mail go astray,
and do me little goods I have not thought of,
ingenious & beneficial Father.
Ease in their passing my beloved friends,
all others too I have cared for in a travelling life,
anyone anywhere indeed. Lift up
sober toward truth a scared self-estimate.
I think Berryman felt in the end that if there was a God with whom he had reconciled, it was a God that was not going to punish him. It was a God that would have mercy, to the same extent as he had mercy on the God who sent him a father of death. It was a God who would bless him with peace. In my opinion, what was missing in Berryman’s psyche and what he yearned for his entire adult life was a father of life. Religion did not meet that need entirely, it was a poor substitute for the real thing, in this very real world. The final sentence in the excerpt above from number 7 in the Addresses is a powerful statement; “Lift up sober toward truth a scared self-estimate. ” Not many of us are capable of such an honest and humble assessment.
I have included a true sonnet below, published when he was writing sonnets back in the 1940’s at the beginning of his career as evidence that all the issues that Berryman wrestled with his entire life had continuity. There is really not much left of Berryman’s reputation before or after the Dream Songs. It’s the body of work he will forever be connected. But it’s like being a member of a Super Bowl Champion, only to get cut from the team the next year and not invited back for the 30 year anniversary party, because you fumbled in the fourth quarter and the team won in spite of your mistake. No one remembers the great plays you made in the first and third quarters or how your block on the winning drive was key to eventual success. It’s your mistake and the dumbest decision you made that will often connect you to history, more so than your best in your career of life. That is the fate we all share. That is the lesson why Berryman is worth the effort as a reader. Berryman’s best can stand with his peers of his generation and others. If you want to understand the sonnet in the 20th Century, I would contend you are going to have to confront, Lowell, cummings and in my opinion Berryman. But are they the end of the line for the sonnet form for white men? Did the sonnet die with Berryman? Not because white men didn’t continue writing them, is it that no one cares anymore? Dear reader, you will have to decide that fate? None of them were perfect. But what is the measure of any writer? Did you leave behind one poem that inspired others? And if the answer is yes, whether it was published or not, you are a poet, and for those who still read and remember that poem, they will not forget your name.
Not to Live
By John Berryman
It kissed us, soft, to cut our throats, this coast,
like a malice of the lazy King. I hunt,
& hunt! but find here what to kill?—nothing is blunt,
but phantoming uneases I find. Ghost
on ghost precedes of all most scared us, most
we fled. Howls fail upon this secret, far air: grunt,
shaming for food; you must. I love the King
& it was not I who strangled at the toast
but a flux of a free & dying adjutant:
God be with him. He & God be with us all,
for we are not to live, I cannot wring,
like laundry, blue my soul—indecisive thing . .
From undergrowth & over odd birds call
and who would starv’d so survive? God save the King.
“What is needed is suicide each year, the dead one then to phoenix into change”.
John Berryman, Diary in 1940
Dream Song 290
by John Berryman
Why is Ireland the wettest place on earth year-round, beating Calcutta in the moonsonn & the tropical rain-forest? Clearly the sun has made an exception for Ireland, the sun growled & shone elsewhere: Iowa, detestable State.
Adorable country, in its countryside & persons, & its habits, & its past, martyrs & heroes, its noble monks, its wild men of high pride & poets long ago, Synge, Joyce & Yeats, and the ranks from which they rose.
Detestable State, made of swine & corn, rich & ignorant, pastless, with one great tree in it & doubtless certain souls perplexed as the Irish whether to shout or mourn over man’s riddling fate: alter, or stet: Fate across all them rolls.
Before I continue the story, I want to call out a word in the poem above. I enjoy writers and poets, who force me to head to the dictionary; writers who stick in seemingly innocuous words in key places that my brain thinks I know the definition, but is really my ego glaring at me, and then my curiosity gets the better of me and I look it up. I own a 1947 copy of the complete Oxford dictionary which is a good 6 inches thick. I still look up words in it once in a while just for the smell of the woodiness of the volume and a hint of the cigarette smoke still clinging to its edges from an owner long ago.
The word is stet. It can be both a verb and noun, which is imminently useful to a poet, giving the reader much more leeway in their interpretation. As a verb, in several dictionary’s that I consulted, the first thing it says is: let it stand, which is quite a statement to make in reference to fate, particularly riddling fates. But there is a human quality to stet as well, in its meaning, that brings human decision making into play, more so than is implied by the word fate. The definition goes on to say this: stet is an instruction, a printed instruction (biblical?) to indicate that a correction or alteration contained within the instruction, should be ignored.
Berryman did not ignore his fate, he commiserated over it every hour of every day practically. He did ignore most instructions like they were a swarm of bees driving him away. Berryman detested following rules and was both bombastic in his opposition to even the most benign of them, as well as completely clueless to most of them, most of time. Other’s in his company preferred the latter in his presence, as it opened the door to more interesting conversation topics.
The years 1962 to 1968 would prove to be his most successful financially, academically and in many ways, personally of his life. Unfortunately, success did not breed happiness, in fact it feels like reading his biographies that the more awards, recognition and encouragement that Berryman received, the more miserable he became. He was in no condition to be in the spotlight, unless it was a very, very small stage, on off, off, off Broadway. He wrote in a letter to a friend and collaborator, Valerie Trueblood, recounted in Haffendon’s biography, ‘I have done without readers all my life,’ … ‘but now I am both famous & isolated, I need them. Just locate my errors & weaknesses, that’s all, exc. also obscurities.” Berryman realized he could not read his own work with the kind of exacting edits that were required. He needed editors to help protect him from himself.
Before the year long sabbatical at Brown began in the fall of 1962, Kate and Berryman spent several weeks at Middlebury College in Vermont during the summer. William Meredith invited Berryman to lunch and the two hit it off immediately when both showed up with a pint of gin. The two would spend hours together from that point on, discussing literature, sharing drafts of poems they were working on and drinking. Berryman also met with Robert Frost several times that summer, who was 81 at the time, and still a physical and mental force of nature. Frost intimidated Berryman in every way and it only fueled his insecurities. But this summer was an apex in Berryman’s life. His friends rallied around him, Kate was by his side. Berryman was completely focused on writing the Dream Songs, draft after draft, but was conflicted on what to do with them. He had doubts as to how to arrange them, doubts about whether they were merely snap shots, Polaroid pictures, or whether they stitched together a grander narrative of something more substantial.
Berryman had reached out to Robert Lowell when his marriage with Ann unraveled. Although the two had not been in contact for more than 10 years, the two instantly bonded again and remained good friends in the coming years. Lowell was incredibly kind and encouraging. I think it was an opportunity for Lowell to extend the hand of grace that had been extended to him many times before. Berryman would read drafts of the latest Dream Song he was working on at the time with whoever was in his company, and Lowell, Merrideth, Richard Wilbur, Allen Tate, Saul Bellows and other writers delighted in their promise, keeping the light of hope in him that there was something worthwhile on his arduous literary journey.
His first daughter was born in the fall of 1962. Berryman was besotted in his joy and jealously. He missed not being the entire focus of Kate’s mothering, yet, the next several years were likely the happiest of Berryman’s adult life. By all accounts in his biographies the year at Brown was stellar in terms of his skills as a professor. His student’s loved him and he for the first time in many ways, loved the preparation and delivery of his lectures. He was alive in the moment of juggling being a professor, being a new father and still finding time to write creatively into what was now becoming something he felt worthy of the altar of literature where he worshiped.
His long time editor and publisher, Robert Giroux, was also encouraging of what he was reading and hearing from Berryman. All of Berryman’s allies were telling him the same thing, stop judging your writing, ignore your inner voice that it is inadequate and disjointed, and organize the best of them into a volume. Just do it, put it out into the world. Berryman, in desperate need of money and validation, listened. In 1964, 77 Dream Songs was published. Berryman had compiled the best of the more than 300 that he had written up to this point, into a volume that gave him agency as a writer. The reaction of the literary world was immediate. Berryman was awarded the Russel Liones award by the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964. This would be followed by the Pulitzer Prize in 1965 and with it a Guggenheim fellowship and the financial support to spend a year in Ireland, to commune with the ghosts of his heroes, most importantly Yeats.
You would think that with all this success that Berryman’s health was on the upswing, but in fact in each of these years, Berryman was hospitalized repeatedly for mental health and/or alcoholism. He was in dramatic decline. It takes an almost athleticism of self abuse to keep the disparity of addiction and success far enough apart to keep going. It’s not clear at what point Berryman was proscribed Thorazine, but it was the new psychiatric drug treatment of choice at the time. Thorazine is a lithium based neurological “wonder” drug, that was used to treat bi-polar, schizophrenia and other severe neurological disorders. I have known a couple of people who were proscribed Thorazine. Each of them said it was the worst experience of their lives. Although it reduces the outward mania and depressive states of a patient, it also, in the case of my friends experience who have described it, robbed them of a vitality of their inner selves. It was torture to have everyone around them applaud their new flatlined emotional states as an “improvement”, while they were screaming silently, inwardly, into the void, “HELP”, even louder. Anyone who has ever been proscribed Thorazine and its generic analogs are instructed that on no condition to mix it with alcohol. The combination has severe side effects, causing even worse depression, gross impacts of the central nervous system, to the point of an inability to operate machinery or drive a car and it increases the risk of accidents and falling. The degree to which Thorazine caused these side effects was not as well known then as it is today. If you read Berryman’s biography, and the multiple references to his clutzy nature, his falls and piddly accidents, you can get the impression that he was just unlucky or physically inept or drunk. But I suspect that Berryman’s well intended doctors predestined him to this fate of self injury that were the result of his countless accidents and he would have been better off to stet their prescriptions.
Hazard Faces a Sunday in the Decline
By William Meredith
We need the ceremony of one another,
meals served, more love,
more handling of one another with love, less
casting out of those who are not
of our own household.
‘This turkey is either not cooked
enough or it’s tough.’
The culture is in late imperial decline.
The children don’t like dark meat or
pepper. They say the mother sometimes
deliberately puts pepper on the things
the grown-ups like better.
Less casting out of those in our own
household with whom we disagree.
The cat will not hear of cat food,
he waves it away. He has seen
the big thrush taken from the cold
box, dressed and put in the hot.
‘If I set the alarm clock, will you turn
on the oven when it goes off?’ then
she went off to see the profane
dancers of the afternoon. It was done.
The fact that I don’t like his pictures
should not obscure the facts
that he is a good man
that many admire his work (his canvases
threaten my existence and I hope
mine his, the intolerant bastard)
that we are brothers in humanity
& the art. Often it does, though.
The cat has followed Hazard from his studio,
he looks mean. He upbraids
the innocent dog and
all of us, he casts us out.
‘There’s pepper in this gravy. We’re
supposed to eat dry turkey and you’ve
put pepper in the gravy.’
The meal is served, nevertheless
with felt love, some godless benediction.
The grown ones have wine after the other
bottle. They cast out a lot. ‘The dancers
this afternoon were, well, thinky,’
she says. She toys with her glass.
‘He is strictly a one-joke painter,’
he replies, ‘painted that one twenty
years ago and is still putting pepper
on it, ha hah. Finish your turkey
you two and leave a little gravy for someone else.’