“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,
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.
One thought on “Fate Across All Them Rolls”
I learned “stet” many decades ago in mid-century as a working proof-readers’ term, defined more or less as above, meaning your own proofreading change, or the author’s or another proof-reader’s change, should be ignored on second-though and the “corrected” original is better.