“I didn’t want to be like Yeats; I wanted to be Yeats.”John Berryman
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–
Appalled: by all the dead: Henry brooded.
Without exception! 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.