It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.Earnest Hemingway
A Dialogue Between Old England and New (An Excerpt)
The publication of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet in 1953 in the Partisan Review is a demarcation in Berryman’s life and career. Berryman had been appointed a prestigious position for the spring of 1952 at the University of Cincinnati. Eileen, herself an accomplished writer and successful therapist, joined him and began working at the University hospital, while waiting to open her own practice. Eileen published a remarkable memoir in 1982, The Lives of Young Poets, a generous account of their lives together and their friendships with the myriad of poets of their generation.
Eileen suffered from back issues throughout their marriage, with a combination of degeneration of disks and benign tumors that required several surgeries. She suffered from chronic pain and for periods during the final seven years of their marriage was proscribed opioids for pain management, at times nearly bed-ridden because of the condition. Eileen’s prolonged illness created a justification in Berryman’s mind for his repeated affairs, trysts, one night stands and womanizing. Berryman’s adultery was not a mystery to either Eileen or his friends. More often than not, he was eventually found out by someone in his inner circle. Several times he had close calls where he feared he had of fathered a child with one of his lovers, and may have in fact done so, but none of his lovers ever held him accountable. In reading the multiple biographies its clear that Berryman had a high sex drive that did not align with Eileen’s. It’s also hinted at that she in part blamed herself for his extra-marital activities. Berryman was the kind of man who both loathed and worshiped women, a chaos fueled in part by his complicated relationship with his mother. His loathing extended to a part of himself for the force that sex held over his thoughts and actions. His eventual regrets never seemed to stop him from taking advantage of the sexual relationships that his looks and intelligence afforded him.
Eileen made several attempts to help her husband reform his ways. She demanded he get help for his drinking and to start psychotherapy to see if he could put to rest some of his demons from his past. He took to the psychotherapy, but not abstinence. This period of critical success with his writing did help out their finances, but it was also marked by a cycle of shortage of funds. By the time they moved to Cincinnati in spring of 1952, Berryman owed thousands of dollars to friends, landlords, his psychiatrist and banks. Berryman and his wife never could afford to buy a house during their 10 year marriage, despite both having successful careers. There were always medical bills and other expenses that got in their way of achieving a level of financial comfort that both desired. Berryman suffered for his art, intellectually, financially and at times socially. Berryman’s boat floated but rarely glided down stream with ease.
The two would spend one final summer together in 1953 in Europe. Berryman toured and lectured following the critical success of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. Berryman’s timing of publication was fortunate. There was still an acceptance of long form poetry among critics and publishers. The 57 stanza 544 line poem likely would not have received as much literary acclaim if published just a few years later. Eileen had grown tired of living with his literary “mistress” that the writing of his long poem required as well as his repeated affairs in real life. They would separate when they returned that fall and divorce two years later in 1956.
Berryman had already begun his magnum opus, the long process of writing the first volume of Dream Songs. During this time he would teach one semester at the University of Iowa in 1954, only to be dismissed for intoxication, profanity and an arrest for disturbing the peace. It didn’t phase him. He would be recruited by the University of Minnesota to become a lecturer in the Humanities Department in 1955, where he would remain until his death in 1972.
Although reading Homage to Mistress Bradstreet is a bit of a slog today, its clear that Berryman had already honed his writing and poetic style that is carried forward into the creation of Dream Songs. His intellectual capacity to connect history and literature in his writing was well established. So too was his lifelong self destructive habits that were as immovable as his drive to be a successful poet. I have not read Eileen’s memoir, but have ordered a copy for February as a way to mentally cleanse myself as I venture further into Berryman’s demise. I’ll share anything I find particularly compelling later in the year. Berryman’s final lines in stanza 37 are chilling in the honesty and complexity of his struggle to find peace in his relationships with women and the destructive tendencies of his behavior on their lives.
Homage To Mistress Bradstreet (An Excerpt)
by John Berryman
–Hard and divided heaven! creases me. Shame
is failing. My breath is scented, and I throw
hostile glances toward God.
Crumpling plunge of pestle, bray:
sin cross & opposite, wherein I survive
nightmares of Eden. Reaches foul & live
he for me, this soul
to crunch, a minute tangle of eternal flame.
I fear Hell’s hammer-wind. But fear does wane.
Death’s blossoms grain my hair; I cannot live.
A black joy clashes
joy, in twilight. The Devil said
‘I will deal toward her softly, and her enchanting cries
will fool the horns of Adam.’ Father of lies,
a male great pestle smashes
small women swarming towards the mortar’s rim in vain.