What, should we get rid of our ignorance, the very substance of our lives, merely in order to understand one another?
R. P. Blackmur
by R. P. Blackmur (1904 – 1965)
My friend, what brothers us in each? – I take, most mine out of the wordling worlds we bled, not life, but what is takeable, the dead. I say the dead. Things cannot sleep nor wake, nor grow nor lessen, upleap nor ever slack, which have been changed between two selves. I said the dead – what’s not but was. This struggle-bread, the pressed wafer of knowledge, this I break.
I eat the past, the matter we have been, and so eat god, a fast; devour my part in you. Yet you’re untouched. You say that’s so of me? – my dead selves only you draw in your often eye and seldom smile? Live heart, we lag – we are ahead of all we know.
There are days this long winter, when it is difficult to be surprised. Then comes along a March sunny day, the sparkle of snow-diamonds bedazzle contrasted by the denim blue of long shadows, that blue that only exists in spring-snow right before it melts, and I am awestruck by the simplicity of white. I had the same feeling reading R. P. Blackmur’s poem Struggle-Bread. How could I have missed this poem, these long years? Where had it been hiding? Blackmur published sparingly his own poetry, but commented elegantly as a critic on others work. I wonder what held Blackmur back from sharing more; modesty?
My Dog My Wife and Most Myself
by R. P. Blackmur
Because the elm-tree buds are red in sunlight, yellow-brown in shade, I think not of a living thing — my dog my wife and most myself — but that I think of it as dead.
Because the harrowed land is black and the wet wales ashine like flesh in sunlight, dull blue steel in shade. this much I do expect, and hate, I shall be fertile so when dead– fertile and indiscriminate.
In the gloom the gold, Gather’s the light about (against) it.
Ezra Pound, R. P. Blackmur
Dream Song 173
In Mem: R. P. Blackmur
by John Berryman
Somebody once pronounced upon one Path. What rhythm shall we use for Richard’s death, the dearer of the dear, my older friend of three blackt out on me I am heartbroken-open-heart surgery-see! but I am not full of fear.
Richard is quiet who talked on so well: I fill with fear: I agree: all this is hell Where will he lie? In a tantrum of horror & blocking where will he be? With Helen, whom he softened-see! see! see! But not nearby.
Which search for Richard will not soon be done. I blow on the live coal. I would be one, another one. Surely the galaxy will scratch my itch Augustinian, like the night-wind witch and I will love that touch.
R. P. Blackmur would begin teaching English literature in 1940 at Princeton and would remain a faculty member of the department for the next 25 years. Blackmur was an eloquent voice for the new age in criticism. His own small body of published work well behind him, he parlayed his keen intellect, intimidating good looks, sharp tongue into a successful teaching career and eventually literary criticism. It was he that put in a good word for Berryman and helped him obtain a position in the fall of 1943. The period from 1943 to 1953 saw Berryman hold various positions at Princeton and saw him rise in stature as a poet among his peers.
During this period he befriended Robert Lowell, Ezra Pound, Caroline Gordon, Jean Stafford, Randall Jarrell, Saul Bellows, R. P. Blackmur, in addition to his long standing relationships with Schwartz, Tate and others. He won numerous awards during this period for essays, short stories, a biography of Stephen Crane and in 1953, for his long poem Homage to Miss Bradstreet. The list of awards is note worthy, including a Rockefeller Foundation Research fellowship (1944), Kenyon-Doubleday first place award for writing, (1945), Gurantors Prize for Poetry (1949), Shelley Memorial Award for Poetry (1949), Levinson Prize for Poetry (1950) and a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing (1952).
These ten years mark both the rise of Berryman as an established poet and writer as well as the fall of Berryman as a man and a husband. It is a period marked by repeated affairs, excessive womanizing and multiple betrayals of Eileen. It is a wonder their marriage lasted ten years. That it did, is a testament to Eileen’s kindness and forgiveness. Her inability to have a child was a source of both relief and agony for both during their marriage. Berryman’s drinking and ill health as well as Eileen’s own health issues, peppered their ten year marriage with constant drama, but also mutual dependence.
It was during this period that he had his affair with Lise in 1947, the much younger wife of a graduate student. It was an all consuming, destructive affair. It was also mind games, as Berryman used Lise to not only fuel his ego sexually, but also to construct a muse for his writing of sonnets, that would chronicle the affair. He wrote them in secret, used them to seduce her and would only publish them as a volume called Berryman’s Sonnets twenty years later. The 130 plus sonnets were published in 1967, after publication of 77 Dream Songs in 1964.
I mention the affair and the book for two reasons. One, Berryman’s Sonnets was a critical and publishing flop. The context of their writing and the inappropriateness of the relationship gives everyone the willies and they aren’t very good. The very fact that it was published on the heals of winning the Pulitzer Prize is an hangover of the establishment of white men of letters of the time, who were allowed to get away with behavior that would be condemned today. Second, it is evidence that Berryman, who wrote an extensive biography on Shakespeare, was wrestling with the traditional sonnet form within the context of “romantic”, if you can call it that, literature. It is from this base of extensive sonnet writing that he would move on to the more stylized form that would become the basis of the Dream Songs.
Berryman is richly praised for his “original” creation of the Dream Song sonnet form. So it was a bit of a surprise when I stumbled across Blackmur’s poem below, published in 1933, years before Berryman wrote any of his Dream Songs. The eighteen line poem, consisting of three six line stanzas is identical in its construction and use of rhyme for which Berryman would become renowned. I have always felt that everything is derivative, nothing is completely original. Every writer, either consciously or unconsciously, is influenced by writing that came before their own. But it is striking to see an example of a close colleague, with whom he taught alongside for years, use the form that would become associated with Berryman 30 years later.
by R. P. Blackmur
I saw a face rise up made honest by the dark shadow of its hat. What animal out of the ark but would continue chaste had its opposite a face like that?
How have I seen this promise waste— treasure of company, complement in thought, the cord of Unity binding the public deed— spent, bewildered, broken, gone to seed.
How have I seen a smile unsought startle the mystery, make plain how all this action ends. From this his gestured generosity I think him such an actor as, maybe, might lay down a hated wife for friends.
Soft to the river falls the millet field moulding and giving to the wind, as might an ordinary woman slowly yield by moonlight her own summer to the night. Alas, this tardy love that comes elate, irradiant sun-flash on cresting seas, invades and wastes, as if by chosen spate not luckless blood, my quiet granaries.
I am at loss, all manners and no man, all aching breath, all queasy near the heart, the fond brain, vacillating plan to plan. All’s torment here, dull hope and under-smart – unless, O sweeping harvest, sleeping flood, the old love grow in me and find me good.
In my favorite used book store, Midway Books in St. Paul, the poetry section is located on the second floor. This is the kind of book store where they still don’t have a cash register. You take your precious finds to the front counter and the cashier writes down the cost of each book on a lined pad of paper, totals it up by hand or with a small calculator, only to start all over and head back to the lined note pad to add the tax. The place is enormous, with most of its stock hidden away in an adjoining building where the public is not allowed. Supposedly, this is where the most valuable and rare books are kept, only available through the research department, (which consists of a small desk wedged beneath the stairs going to the second floor), or on-line, but I have always suspected is simply the owners own personal book collection that he can’t bear to sell.
Midway Books poetry section is generous in both size and breadth of the authors represented. I have rarely taken an interest in a poet, wandered in and not found at least one volume of his or hers poetry to my liking. Across from that actual poetry section is an equally large section, with the ominous title; “Literary Criticism.” These are the books that will be there until the place collapses under its own weight. I must admit, I have never once purchased a single book that could be called literary criticism and I don’t give a fig what anyone ever had to say on the subject.
Such is the fate of “great” literary critics, R. P. Blackmur and Alan Tate often reported as two of the finest during their lifetimes. Does anyone really care what critics have to say, beyond the obligatory interest of academics and English literature professors of their day? My answer is no. There are too many good books and good poets to read, with a stack of books by my bed at any given time as proof, to ever even consider passing those by and reading criticism instead. I understand that the reputation of many of the great poets of the 20th century were made in part because of their contributions to literary criticism as well. But how long does criticism stay relevant or even have a purpose? The answer is, about as long as a donnut stays fresh.
I am not one who believes that poetry is dead, I think it thrives today as much as it has at anytime in history. However, the audience for most poets is watered down. Gone are the days of living rock star poets, when a poet could rise in stature to speak for an entire country or a generation. Today the sheer volume of new work, much of it shockingly good, creates a thinner veneer of support for new writers, except for the one or two names that are bankable and are on every skinny shelf of poetry in new book stores, giving the impression that poetry is in a tail spin careening towards its final doom. Some wit said, “There is nothing more unsaleable than a new poet’s first book.” And so the path to getting a second or third published, requires a poet not only to continue writing poetry, but to also write about other people’s writing. Many poets seem compelled to contribute to the broader conversation about poetry, maybe in part to wave a brightly colored flag to say look over here, read this person too. If that’s the case, and literary criticism is intended to somehow illuminate our path to find new voices, then maybe it has a purpose. The problem is, I don’t want someone else telling me what’s “good” and what’s “bad”. In the end, the only thing that matters to me, is the poetry.
Randall Jarrell said, “The poet writes his poem for its own sake, for the sake of that order of things in which the poem takes the place that has awaited it.” All poetry is an artifact of being human, it contains a living breath that connects us to an artistic web that reminds us that we aren’t alone. Poetry and art in general are lifelines being thrown to us everywhere. We just have to reach out and grab onto one.