“You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you’re merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that’s always easiest.”
Dream Songs 1
by John Berryman (1914 – 1972)
Huffy Henry hid the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point,—a trying to put things over.
It was the thought that they thought
they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
But he should have come out and talked.
All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry’s side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don’t see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.
What he has now to say is a long
wonder the world can bear & be.
Once in a sycamore I was glad
all at the top, and I sang.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.
John Berryman and Robert Lowell met in 1944 at the suggestion of mutual friends and Lowell’s mother. Each was still married to their first wives at the time and it was thought that their socializing as couples would do them both some good. Ha! It probably did, but maybe not the way mothers intend. There are many similarities to their personal histories, temperaments, fierce intellect, vices and destructive personal decisions that it’s not a surprise they found enjoyment in one another’s company. When you have a tendency towards leaning into a bit of insanity and have a mirror to that fracturing in a friendship with someone of the same self destructive inclinations, it can help bring respite and lucidity once in a while, in that at least you know you are not alone in your state of mind.
Berryman did not grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. He succeeded in spite of his father’s betrayal. He succeeded on the sheer audacity of his talent and intellect. It does not mean that doors were not opened for him because he was white and male, but Berryman is a writer’s writer in my mind. Writing entirely consumed him as maybe the only thing that could keep him alive for as long as it did. Berryman died when he was 58, though he looks more like 78 at the end.
I will turn the same age this year. I have written before on Fourteenlines that I walked across the bridge that Berryman jumped to his death probably a 1,000 times as a young man, on my way from classes on the East bank to the glass studio in the fine arts building at the time on the West bank. In every one of those passages I was completely unaware of Berryman’s fate, his poetry not yet in my consciousness. Despite spending 12 years on the same campus, treading the same paths, entering the same buildings, eating at the same greasy diners, while getting an undergraduate degree and graduate degree, I did not have the good fortune to overlap with Berryman in being physically at the same place at the same time. Looking back, that bridge holds more meaning for me today as a metaphor for the life I have tried to navigate the past 40 years. On one side of my river I have a foundation in practicality, academics and the industriousness to make a living to support myself and my family. On the other side lies the buttress with my heart and soul; creativity and expression. Through the middle of it runs my own mighty Mississippi of time, my bridge just beneath its singular falls on its entire stretch from Minnesota to a gulf, a hypoxia zone where not enough oxygen exists. Unlike Berryman, I do not have the talent or the ego to earn a living from my passions and so I shall have to continue to cross that metaphorical bridge every day and enjoy its views.
I have wondered, as I think about the men and women of letters, who managed to stay productive and thrive into old age, is it because they did not see writing as their profession; William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens but two examples? Or was writing always such a thrill that it never became a chore? We will never know if writing kept Berryman and Lowell alive as long as it did, or whether winning Pulitzers, being crowned as “the” best, created such an unbearable weight of expectation to continue to be brilliant that it may have actually accelerated their own self destruction. Maybe Dickinson did it right? Fill your desk and dresser drawers with scraps of your brilliant self as postcards to your older self. Give your friends the best of your art in cards and thank you notes and gifts. Scatter your creativity throughout your house and those of your loved ones and don’t bother with putting it out there in the world beyond the reach of your own fingertips.
Almost every great poet is also a great translator. There are exceptions, but it is far too common to be a coincidence or a requirement. I have come to believe this tendency to translate is a solution to the problem of trying to be productive as an artist every day. Maybe there are people who can wake up every day with inspiration to write brilliantly? But I suspect, more people suffer from the same thing I observe in myself. Most days nothing comes of my efforts. Sometimes whole months or even a better part of a year goes by without my muse whispering in my ear. Writing is a craft as well as an art, and a writer that can wake up everyday and translate someone else’s brilliance, bringing it to a different mother tongue, that has yet to enjoy the satisfaction of the original poet’s humanity can feel productive and satisfied without the need to entirely create something on their own from nothing.
Lowell was an incredibly gifted translator. There is a silky smooth aspect to some of his translations, like the one below, that he rarely achieved with his own words, so much pent up emotions coursing through his veins, that it may have been impossible to find that level of calm when searching his own mind. Meditation is an example where the madness of Baudelaire is becalmed under the madness of Lowell and in its place resides a little pool of sonnet peace. Dive in!
Translated by Robert Lowell
Calm down, my Sorrow, we must move with care.
You called for evening; it descends, it’s here.
The town is coffined in its atmosphere,
bringing relief to some, to others care.
Now while the common multitude strips bare,
feels pleasure’s cat o’nine tails on its back,
and fights off anguish at the great bazaar,
give me your hand, my Sorrow. Let’s stand back;
back from these people! Look, the dead years dressed
in old clothes crowd the balconies of the sky.
Regret emerges smiling from the sea,
the sick sun slumbers underneath an arch,
and like a shroud strung out form east to west,
listen, my Dearest, hear the sweet night march!