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.