Am I a Good Man?

John Berryman

He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes,
The epistemology of loss….

John Berryman

Dream Song 239

by John Berryman

Am I a bad man?  Am I a good man?
–Hard to say, Brother Bones.  Maybe you be both,
like most of we.
–The evidence is difficult to structure towards deliberate evil.
But what of the rest?  Does it was for wrath
in its infinitive complexity?

She left without a word, for Ecudor.
I would have liked to discuss more with her this thing
through the terrible nights.
She was than Henry wiser, being younger or
a woman.  She brought me Sanka and violent drugs
which were yet wholly inadequate. 

My doctor doubles them daily.  Am I a bad one–
I’m thinking of them fires & their perplexness–
or may a niche be found
in nothingness for completely exhausted Henry?
But it comes useless to canvass this alone,
out of her eyes and sound.

The connection that brought Berryman to the University of Minnesota was his long time friend Allen Tate, who had taken the position that Robert Penn Warren had held in the English department.  But the English department was not interested in Berryman, his reputation for bad behavior and emotional instability had followed him from the University of Iowa from the previous spring.  It was Ralph Ross in the Humanities department who took a liking to Berryman and saw in him a charismatic lecturer with the prestige of academic awards for his writing.  Ross had the freedom and support of the University to appoint top talent, mostly recruited from the east coast.  It was Ross, combined with friendships through Berryman and Tate that brought Saul Bellow, Issac Rosenfeld and George Amberg to the University of Minnesota to teach in the Humanities department. 

Berryman cobbled together grants, awards and lectures to get through the winter of 1955 and finally landed a full time fairly well-paying Associate Professor teaching position in the Humanities department in the spring.  As usual, Berryman couldn’t let a good thing stand, and carped continuously on the injustices of not being considered for a position in English Department.   However, the period from fall of 1954 to 1956 were some of Berryman’s most stable and productive of the decade.   He sobered up (or as much as he ever did), took to teaching again with a workman like enthusiasm, and began writing the Dream Songs.  

Berryman saw the Dream Songs as a direct off shoot of his ongoing therapy and his detailed documentation of his own dreams. Berryman believed he had to suffer for his art.  He also believed art could create life, new life, for the artist and those that read the artist’s work.   Berryman embraced the idea that he could create a new personna, “Henry”, from which he could imbue and disembark from his own emotions.  It was a vessel to shape, reshape and renew. 

Early in his career at Minnesota, Berryman met Elizabeth Ann Levine.   She was a Harvard educated bright, beautiful graduate student in the English department. Although Berryman had no qualms about sleeping with other women while still married to Eileen, he was a nervous wreck over the steps required to achieve a proper Catholic divorce.   He was informed by his lawyer that he had to file a document with three witnesses testifying to the effect that Eileen had abandoned him.  Even Berryman felt the guilt of that untruth.  The stress of it, and the unwanted attention it brought from his mother, and the challenges of trying to become a tenured professor at the University, brought about yet another near nervous breakdown.  However, in among the emotional chaos, Berryman found the courage to propose to Ann and get a divorce from Eileen.  Once the divorce was final, he wasted no time getting married to Ann in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in the fall of 1956.  

Berryman’s son Paul was born in 1957.   At first Berryman was smitten by the new baby, and his beautiful young wife, but it doesn’t take long for tensions to rise.  He accepted a lecturing series that summer that took him to India, Japan and Italy for over two months and more importantly, gets him out of Minneapolis.  When he returns, he throws himself at writing and teaching.  It doesn’t take Ann long to resent his selfish attitude and lack of commitment to being a father and a husband.  Although he and Ann had cemented their friendship with Saul Bellows and his wife, during this period, it doesn’t wallpaper over the growing divisions in the Berryman household.  The wives spend the summer of 1958 taking the kids to play while their husbands are busy writing indoors.  Berryman overworks himself to the point of exhaustion again and by 1959, Ann realizes that the marriage is not going to work.  She does not wait around, and the divorce is final before the end of the year. 

Dream Song 242

by John Berryman

About that ‘me.’ After a lecture once
came up a lady asking to see me. ‘Of course.
When would you like to?’
Well now, she said.  ‘Yes, but I have a lunch-
eon–‘ Then I saw her and shifted with remorse
and said ‘Well; come on over.’

So we crossed to my office together and I sat her down
and asked, as she sat silent, ‘What is it, miss?’
‘Would you close the door?’
Now Henry was perplexed.  We don’t close doors
with students; it’s just a principle  But this
lady looked beyond frown.

So I rose from the desk & closed it and turning back
found her in tears-apologizing-‘No,
go right ahead,’ I assur-
ed her, ‘here’s a handkerchief. Cry.’ She did, I did. When she got
control, I said “What’s the matter-if you want to talk?’
‘Nothing.  Nothing’s the matter.’ So.
I am her.

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A Sonnet Obsession

I am a life-long Minnesotan who resides in Minneapolis. I hope you enjoy my curated selection of sonnets, short poems and nerdy ruminations. I am pleased to offer Fourteenlines as an ad and cookie free poetry resource, to allow the poetry to be presented on its own without distractions. Fourteenlines is a testament to the power of the written word, for anyone wanting a little more poetry in their life.

2 thoughts on “Am I a Good Man?”

  1. Thank you for your devoted January commitment to Berryman. I read all the posts, something I’d never have done otherwise–the notes and the feeling I was given an assignment and also a gift nudged me.

    Thank you once again for the windows you so often provide in poetry, a world in which I’m an amateur but an avid reader and appreciator. This is likely to embarass you but in my mind you are a local treasure.



    1. I am so glad you are enjoying the series. Normally I only spend January on a retrospective but a combination of a buy travel schedule at work and lots to cover with Berryman means I am going to break my rule and muster on. I mapped out the remainder of the story I am going to tell and it will keep the focus on Berryman through first half of Feb.


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