The Law Rushes Like Mud

200
This is the two hundredth blog post on Fourteenlines.blog

200

The Dream Songs
By John Berryman

I am interested & amazed: on the building across the way
from where I vaguely live there are no bars!
Best-looking place in town.
Only them lawyers big with great cigars
and lesser with briefcases, instead of minds,
move calmly in and out

and now or then an official limousine
with a live Supreme Court justice & chauffeur
mounts the ramp toward me.
We live behind, you see.  It’s Christmas, and brrr
in Washington.  My wife’s candle is out
for John F. Kennedy

And the law rushes like mud but the park is white
with a heavy fall for ofays and for dark,
let’s exchange blue-black kisses
for the fate of the Man who was not born today,
clashing our tinsel, by the terrible tree
whereon he really hung, for you & me.


Sometimes mud rushes pretty darn fast, recent pictures of flash flooding in the burn scars in California show mud-rivers hurtling down mountains. Mostly mud just hangs around and slowly makes it way down watersheds as sediment to eventually settle out in slow moving places. Either way, the landscape can be changed forever. Which trajectory of mud will the Mueller investigation take in the next couple of months?

It is unsettling to me that it is suddenly the 200th post. It feels like it was just the 100th post. I am sure I’ll be saying the same about the 300th. Time speeds up as you get older. The days, weeks and months move by at an ever quickening speed.  Our human agency of mud rushing us along until it sweeps us away at the end or covers us up.

I have been reading Berryman’s The Dream Songs on planes the past month.  Berryman’s quixotic mind is capable of almost anything one page to the next. I go back and forth between revulsion and awe with Berryman, but no matter what, his poetry leaves a bitter after taste, the sheer self destructiveness of  his real life oozing out onto the page.  I am not one who glorifies the writer as romantic drunk.  Which is the chicken and which is the egg for many writers: poets becoming alcoholics or alcohol becoming poetry? It is shocking how few teetotalers exist among the pantheon of great poets. What does that say about the human mind as addict and as artist?

Regardless of whether you like the man Berryman, it is hard not to be pulled under the sway of Berryman the poet, even when he is at his most self-effacing, an obvious rakish cad. It helps to remember when reading The Dream Songs that he didn’t share them publicly until decades after the real life betrayal of his by then ex-wife by seducing another man’s wife. At least he waited for the healing balm of time to scab over his amputations before showing the stumps of his scars to the world.

Berryman was original, he created his own sonnet form, to fit his own needs and poetic vision. Even when I don’t like the man and muse behind The Dream Songs, I find myself enamored by the construction of them, his use of rhyme, his unique re-imagining of the form. classical poetry is fresh under his masterful control.

For a far more academic and insightful analysis of Berryman’s sonnets, read April Bernard’s essay in Poetry Magazine.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2014/06/berrymans-sonnets

The truth of it is that Berryman was a drunk, a stinking drunk and drunks eventually break things, even if what they break is primarily themselves, the rush of mud of into the crevices. But its interesting that numerous students remember him only with fondness. Multiple students can be found in the bowels of Google with articles, or a little video or an audio version of what sound like love letters of appreciation to what Berryman brought to them as a Professor, as a lasting influence in their life. By all accounts he was a remarkable teacher.

Of course Levine went on to be a very successful poet. But if I am honest, he is the kind of poet that I struggle reading. He writes the kind of free verse that I tend to read about 15 lines and drift away, never to return.

Levine was our Poet Laureate for a bit and when asked by a writer from the New York Times what he thought of the initiative by The Poetry Foundation to utilize a $200 million endowment to increase the popularity of poetry by encouraging poets to write more upbeat poetry, he responded by belittling the Poetry Foundation, proudly remaining an angry, angst-ridden poet right up until the end. I don’t think Levine got it, that he was exactly the kind of poet that makes poetry less popular.

I have picked out the one sonnet I can find of Levine’s.  It is not representative of Levine’s body of work, which is probably why it is the one poem of Levine’s I actually like.  You tell me if this poem is about Berryman?

Happy 200 Day!


The Drunkard

by Phillip Levine

He fears the tiger standing in his way.
The tiger takes its time, it smiles and growls.
Like moons, the two blank eyes tug at his bowels.
“God help me now,” is all that he can say.

“God help me now, how close I’ve come to God.
To love and to be loved, I’ve drunk for love.
Send me the faith of Paul, or send a dove.”
The tiger hears and stiffens like a rod.

At last the tiger leaps, and when it hits
A putrid surf breaks in the drunkard’s soul.
The tiger, done, returns to its patrol.
The world takes up its trades; the man his wits,
And, bottom up, he mumbles from the deep,
“Life was a dream, Oh, may this death be sleep.”

I Am Then A Poet, Am I Not?

Epiciteus
Epictetus – Stoic Philosopher 50 AD to 135 AD

 

And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.

  • Gospel of Luke 6:34 – 35, Sermon on the Mount

Professor’s Song

by John Berryman

(…rabid or dog-dull.) Let me tell you how
The Eighteenth Century couplet ended. Now
Tell me. Troll me the sources of that Song––
Assigned last week––by Blake. Come, come along.
Gentlemen. (Fidget and huddle: do. Squint soon.)
I want to end these fellows all by noon.
‘That deep romantic chasm’––an early use;
The word is from the French, by your abuse
Fished out a bit. (Red all your eyes. O when?)
‘A poet is a man speaking to men’:
But I am then a poet, am I not?––
Ha ha. The radiator, please. Well, what?
Alive now––no––Blake would have written prose,
But movement following movement crisply flows,
So much the better, better the much so,
As burbleth Mozart. Twelve. The class can go.
Until I meet you then, in Upper Hell
Convulsed, foaming immortal blood: farewell.


I am confident incoming freshman had no idea that they were bound for Berryman’s unique ring of hell when signing up for his English Lit 101 in the 1970’s.  Just kidding JB, I would have loved to sit in your sweat lodge and let you pontificate on Blake.

I could spend weeks and months on Berryman, so deep is the well-spring of his sonnets and so conspicuous his intelligence, nay scholarship, contained within his poetry. But I suspect, dear reader, that you are much like me, and need a little lighter fare to munch on after these past few posts.

Berryman invokes the specter of Epictetus in his poem, Of Suicide, below.  Epictetus was a stoic philosopher, born a slave, whose philosophy preached the spirit of self-determination. Epictetus stated that the foundation of all philosophy is self-knowledge and that the degree of our conviction to our ignorance and gullibility should be the first subject of internal inquiry. Given the state of preposterous political discourse in this country I think all voters should give some thought to the degree of their gullibility, regardless of which way they lean on the political spectrum.

Then again, I have to remind myself, that one of the greatest lies of our current democracy is that it remains within the power of our will. Gerrymandering, unlimited dark money and unbridled ambition to say and do anything to get elected have disfigured our democracy into something that appears for now, to be beyond the electorates control.  Instead, Epictetus would encourage us to focus on more realistic matters.  Fellow citizens, as Berryman says, we must labor and dream!

Only the educated are free.

No man is free who is not the master of himself.

Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.

There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of your will.

Epictetus

Of Suicide

by John Berryman

Reflexions on suicide, & on my father, possess me.
I drink too much. My wife threatens separation.
She won’t ‘nurse’ me. She feels ‘inadequate.’
We don’t mix together.

It’s an hour later in the East.
I could call up Mother in Washington, D.C.
But could she help me?
And all this postal adulation & reproach?

A basis rock-like of love & friendship
for all this world-wide madness seems to be needed.
Epicetus is in some ways my favourite philosopher.
Happy men have died earlier.

I still plan to go to Mexico this summer.
The Olmec images! Chichèn Itzài!
D. H. Lawrence has a wild dream of it.
Malcolm Lowry’s book when it came out I taught to my precept at Princeton.

I don’t entirely resign. I may teach the Third Gospel
this afternoon. I haven’t made up my mind.
It seems to me sometimes that others have easier jobs
& do them worse.

Well, we must labour & dream. Gogol was impotent,
somebody in Pittsburgh told me.
I said: At what age? They couldn’t answer.
That is a damned serious matter.

Rembrandt was sober. There we differ. Sober.
Terrors came on him. To us too they come.
Of suicide I continually think.
Apparently he didn’t. I’ll teach Luke.

 

 

While My Love Longs And I Pour

John-Berryman.png
John Berryman (1914 – 1972)

Sonnet 96

by John Berryman

It will seem strange, no more this range on range
Of opening hopes and happenings. Strange to be
One’s name no longer. Not caught up, not free.
Strange, not to wish one’s wishes onward. Strange,
The looseness, slopping, time and space estrange.
Strangest, and sad as a blind child, not to see
Ever you, never to hear you, endlessly
Neither you there, nor coming.. Heavy change!—
An instant there is, Sophoclean, true,
When Oedipus must understand: his head—
When Oedipus believes—tilts like a wave,
And will not break, only iov iov
Wells from his dreadful mouth, the love he led:
Prolong to Procyon this. This begins my grave.

 


There was a time this summer when it felt like I was surrounded by death. The death of my uncle, the death of pets, the death of friends, the death of young men. A friend of a friend’s son committed suicide in July by jumping off the same bridge that John Berryman jumped to his death on the University of Minnesota campus. I walked across that bridge countless times as an undergraduate. I am thankful that jumping off it never crossed my mind.

Suicide can be contagious. Berryman’s father shot himself outside his window when Berryman was 12. A cruelty that only the most mentally ill can not fathom. Berryman’s life was never the same.

It’s a bit strange I haven’t shared on this blog a Berryman sonnet sooner, given the body of sonnets that make up a size able portion of his work and the fact that he spent most of his career in Minnesota. It’s not that I don’t like Berryman. I worry I might get lost in him, so I take his writing in measured doses. I can only read sadness for so long, before I need to recharge with something else.

It is curious that the sonnet form often oozes with sadness, regardless of the poet. Is it because the poet and reader both know it will come to an end shortly? A sonnet’s canvas is stark and brief. In brevity there is rarely joy, for joy takes a bit of momentum to get rolling and then it rings like a bell, sustained, thrumming into the future.

I too have played with the difference between fare well and farewell in my writing. It has expanded my understanding of what each means, at least to me. For a writer so caught in the web of his own misery, I am pleased that Berryman choose Fare Well for his title. There is one line in the poem below that gut shots me every time – Where warm will warm be warm enough to part…. Us! 

Fare well  and be well! Don’t sink, like Berryman, keep swimming, even when the warm is warm enough to part.

P. S. – Canorous means melodious and resonant, like joy.


Fare Well

by John Berryman

Motions of waking trouble winter air,
I wonder, and his face as it were forms
Solemn, canorous, under the howled alarms, –
The eyes shadowed and shut.
Certainly for this sort of thing it is very late,
I shudder, while my love longs and I pour
My bright eyes towards the moving shadow .   .  where?
Out, like a plucked gut.

What has been taken away will not return,
I take it, whether on the crouch of night
Or for my mountain’s need to share a morning’s light, –
No, I am alone.
What has been taken away should not have been shown
I complain, torturing, and then withdrawn.
After so long, can I still long so and burn
Imperishable son?

O easy the phoenix in the tree of the heart,
Each in its time, his twigs and spices fixes,
To make a last nest, and marvelously relaxes, –
Out of the fire, weak peep!  .  .
Father, I fought for mother, sleep where you sleep.
I slip into a snowbed with no hurt
Where warm will warm be warm enough to part
Us.  As I sink, I weep.

 

 

The Mosts Were Flying

file-6 (2)
When my lady came in jeans and a sweater.

 

Sonnet 115

by John Berryman

All we were going strong last night this time,
the mosts were flying & the frozen daiquiris
were downing, supine on the floor lay Lise
listening to Schubert grievous and sublime,
my head was frantic with a following rime:
it was a good evening, and evening to please,
I kissed her in the kitchen – ecstasies-
among so much good we tamped down the crime.

The weather’s changing.  This morning was cold,
as I made for the grove, without expectation,
some hundred Sonnets in my pocket, old,
to read her if she came.  Presently the sun
yellowed the pines & my lady came not
in blue jeans & a sweater.  I sat down & wrote.