Married Life Is A Boat

John Berryman

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. There is nothing permanent except change.


Dream Song 257

by John Berryman

The thunder & the flaw of their great quarrel
abased his pen.  He could not likely think.
He took himself out of it,
both wrong & right, beyond well beyond moral,
in the groves of meaningless rage, which ache & stink
unlike old shit

which loses its power almost in an hour,
our burgeons.  When I trained my wives, I thought
now they’ll be professional:
they became professional, at once wedlocks went sour
because they couldn’t compete with Henry, who sought
their realizations.  The J. P. coughed. 

Married life is a boat
forever dubious, with the bilge stale.
There’s no getting out of that.
Gongs & lightning crowd my returned throat,
I always wept at parades: I knew I’d fail:
Henry wandered back on stage & sat. 

Berryman took a sabbatical to the University of California Berkeley following his divorce from Ann in the fall of 1959.   He was in ill health, with a persistent cough, which he blamed on a mysterious malady he had contracted on his trip to the orient, rather than his smoking.  He was desperately lonely and oddly disconnected once again from the rest of the English department, given that they had recruited him to come to California.  He managed to stay the entire academic year and fulfill his contract, but it was not without tribulations.   He eventually was able to cobble together some connections to get him out of his apartment, befriending several poets and writers in the bay area, including Thom Gunn and Anthony Ostroff.  

Berryman was glad to return to Minneapolis in the spring of 1960 and immediately began chasing younger women.  In fact, it almost reads in his biographies like he had started these relationships with these two women before he left.  Now back in town, he threw himself headlong into both relationships, professing his love. There is a disingenuous quality to Berryman pursuing two young women simultaneously, as if he was hedging his bets.  Wisely, both women fended off his advances, while still maintaining some kind of a friendship for a bit.  Berryman obviously could be quite charming when he put the full intensity of his intellect upon an individual, particularly women and for some reason, particularly devout Catholic women.  Something about Berryman’s world view and presence was cathartic for young Catholic women trying to figure out their sexuality and adulthood in relationship to their faith. Was he a father figure, an accomplished artist, or was he an entry into a world of all that was forbidden?  Who knows, but Berryman instantly was embroiled in drama after drama, both at the University and with these two young women, which always eventually fueled the onset of illness. 

He was also broke, as he had agreed to pay child support to Ann for Paul around $100 a month.  Berryman couldn’t really manage a budget and was always in arrears.  Ann sued him in court that summer, something that would reoccur several times over the next 10 years.  Berryman would respond to these legal actions by frantically trying to generate additional funds by writing for awards or grants, or by accepting additional lectures on top of his teaching load.   He would eventually dig himself out of debt with Ann and pay his legal fees, which he did several times, only to fall back into debt again.  This forced creativity that was his only source of income, just added to his stress. 

The tragedy of Berryman’s third marriage is he knew it wasn’t going to work even before he got married. Berryman couldn’t manage life without being in a relationship with a woman.  He simply could not function, even to the point of not being able to feed himself properly.  He was an adolescent man with a raging intellect, if not a raging hard-on by this point in his decline.  It may be why his often ragged poetry subconsciously has a child like effect on the reader.  There is in his poetry a wild eyed quality, a hopefulness of youth that is or isn’t right there, just out of reach below the surface, that is eventually overwhelmed by his negativity.  But its that hint of retribution, that keeps the reader going.  Berryman was frozen in time as an adolescent the moment his father died.  And like an adolescent, he vacillated between disparate, almost hormonal, vastly different emotional states, seemingly uncontrollably.

In June of 1961, Berryman went to Indiana University, in Bloomington, to teach an eight week course.  He had 15 students and by his own account, said they “were the best students he had ever taught,” collectively.  However, because Berryman could name drop the whose-who list of poets and writers of his generation as personal friends or acquaintances, many of his students at Indiana University didn’t believe him.  They thought he was embellishing his lectures and word got back to him about his perceived fabrications through the department chair, who found it amusing, knowing that Berryman was telling the truth. This lack of acceptance by his students, made Berryman unsteady and frustrated. Berryman always did his best when he was in the presence of adoration, particularly when it came to teaching.  The age gap between him and his students was growing and with it became a larger and larger chink in his armor, to shield himself from this nagging sense that he was a failure. He left that summer feeling less than fulfilled and in turmoil, in part over Hemingway’s death, which had resurrected emotions from his own father’s death that he was always trying to keep at bay.  Berryman wrote Dream Song 235 in response. 

Tears Henry shed for poor old Hemingway
Hemingway in despair, Hemingway at the end,
the end of Hemingway,
tears in a diningroom in Indiana
and that was years ago, before his marriage say,
God to him no worse luck send.

Save us from shotguns & fathers’ suicides.
It all depends on who you’re the father of
if you want to kill yourself-
a bad example, murder of oneself,
the final death, in a paroxysm, of love
for which good mercy hides?
. . . .
Mercy!  my father; do not pull the trigger
or all my life I’ll suffer from your anger
killing what you began.

Oddly, his two (likely platonic) relationships since he had returned from California did bear fruit. His letter writing campaigns to each continued while in Indiana, maintaining their connections.  While still courting a woman referred to as J, he met a friend of hers named Kathy Donahue when he returned at the end of the summer of 1961. Berryman took to calling her Kate, who like J, was a good Catholic, and 22 years old.  Kate’s mother had died when she was young.  Her father had a drinking problem and she was a caretaker by default.  Berryman was still professing his love for J, in letters to Kate, which only added to the conflicted romantic ideals of this ill matched couple.  Her father was horrified when he found out his lovely Catholic daughter was dating a man more than twice her age, and was twice divorced.  His disapproval might just have sealed the deal for Kate, as Berryman was a way out of her father’s house and yet she could transfer her best nurturing abilities onto him. Berryman even consulted a priest on how to proceed in his relationship with Kate and then took offense at his advice, which was to stop.  Of course what this all meant was their relationship took on even more trappings of secrecy, forcing the two of them to seek shelter only in each other. Kate and Berryman’s love was being battered by the misunderstandings from the rest of the world, and so almost inevitably, to prove everyone else wrong, by the end of the summer of 1961, the two were married.  Berryman made a mess of the proceedings, barely sober enough to sign his own name or suffering from withdrawal tremors or both, he had to practice several times before he could sign his own name legibly on the marriage certificate in front of the justice of the peace.  Kate, the good Catholic, under the tutelage and care of nuns for 16 years, did not have a Catholic wedding.  

Kate got pregnant almost immediately and by summer of 1962 their first daughter arrived while he was a visiting professor at Brown University.   Kate, enormously pregnant, drove the entire way to Rhode Island after the spring semester was over in Minnesota, as Berryman was physically and mentally incapable of driving long distances.  Kate would lovingly care for Berryman for the next 10 years.  But she couldn’t save him from himself.   

I have wondered if Berryman’s infatuation with much younger women, was in part a cry for help.   Was he courting not only their love, but at the same time trying to court a love of himself, which had never really taken root as an adult?  Was Berryman trying to find that reset button to transport himself back to his 20’s and try and start over?   The pictures of Berryman with both his second and third wife are striking because they are both so young and vibrant and Berryman has not aged well, looking much older than his years.  It looks like they are in the presence of their grandfathers, so wide is the age gap in appearance.  By the 1960’s when Kate meets him, he has stopped shaving or even grooming in some instances and he has this permanent, wild disheveled look, with blackened teeth from incessant smoking.   

There is only one explanation for why all these young women were attracted to him, because he was a walking, talking, drooping, coughing, addicted, drama machine; in the end it must have been electric to be in his company, to be his confidante, his muse, his friend, even his lover, if you had no other sexual relationship to compare it too.  And devout Catholic girls at the ages he was courting them by and large in the 1950’s and 1960’s were virgins.  He obviously overcame all the reasons of why not to fall in love with him based on his charisma at the right time and at the right place. He was childlike in many ways, and possibly that seemed attractive to young women experiencing love for the first time who see in his dependence some type of affirmation of themselves as a romantic partner.  He was never a great husband in any of his marriages, but his long standing friendships are a testament that he could be a great friend.  And lets hope it is in friendship that his marriages were founded and survived as best they could. 

The reference below to Chatterton can be taken as a metaphor or a joke.   Its obviously a shout out to D. H. Lawrence’s novel about the adulterous affair of a young married noblewoman, after her older husband comes home from the war, paralyzed from the waist down.   Who is Henry or Berryman in relation to this poem?   I’d place my bet on both, the paralyzed, impotent husband and the charming, sexually adept, groping young gardener.   

Dream Song 263

by John Berrman

You couldn’t bear to grow old, but we grow old. 
Our differences accumulate.  Our skin
tightens or droops; it alters.
Take courage, things are not what they have been
and they never will again.  Hot hearts grow cold,
the rush to the surface falters,

secretive grows the disappearing soul
learned & uncertain, young again
but not in the same way:
Heraclitus had a wise word here to say,
which I forget.  We wake & blunder on,
wiser, on the whole,

but not more accurate.  Leave that to the young,
grope forward, toward where no one else has been
which is our privilege.
Besides, you gave up early in our age
which is your privilege, from Chatterton
to the bitter & present scene.

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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.

3 thoughts on “Married Life Is A Boat”

    1. Pat, I think you are in the vast majority. So don’t be too hard in yourself. It’s very difficult if not impossible to like Berryman the man. It’s also difficult to like Berryman the poet, particularly his body of work in its entirety. It’s easy and possibly even a good idea to leave him to the dust bin of literature. But I believe both the in things I find moving in Berryman’s writing and his example by being a bad example, that there is still a humanity of Berryman that is worth spending a little time. He is not beyond grace and understanding. There is no success story or happy ending for Berryman. But for how many of us, is there a happy ending? And how many of us are willing to provide a window into that journey to the depth of Berryman? Berryman is like watching a freight train moving at only 20 mph completely obliterate a car in its path because the force of the momentum is impossible to stop, even though everyone can see it coming a mile away. We beg the car to get out of the way. To move. And it doesn’t. Berryman’s destruction had such a head of steam that nothing could have prevailed. And it is in that dissatisfaction in the outcome, that leaves a lingering bad taste in everyone’s mouth.


  1. A lot of thought and judgement well-expressed in that answer above, as to why read Berryman anyway. There’s a melded monster and a fool in there along with some notable eloquence, however thornily expressed.

    A minor pedantic note, if I read you and Berryman right: Chatterton above is not likely Lady Chatterley, but Thomas Chatterton whose oh-so-romantic youthful suicide as an unsuccessful poet was idolized by some.


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