Married Life Is A Boat

John Berryman

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. There is nothing permanent except change.


Dream Song 257

by John Berryman

The thunder & the flaw of their great quarrel
abased his pen.  He could not likely think.
He took himself out of it,
both wrong & right, beyond well beyond moral,
in the groves of meaningless rage, which ache & stink
unlike old shit

which loses its power almost in an hour,
our burgeons.  When I trained my wives, I thought
now they’ll be professional:
they became professional, at once wedlocks went sour
because they couldn’t compete with Henry, who sought
their realizations.  The J. P. coughed. 

Married life is a boat
forever dubious, with the bilge stale.
There’s no getting out of that.
Gongs & lightning crowd my returned throat,
I always wept at parades: I knew I’d fail:
Henry wandered back on stage & sat. 

Berryman took a sabbatical to the University of California Berkeley following his divorce from Ann in the fall of 1959.   He was in ill health, with a persistent cough, which he blamed on a mysterious malady he had contracted on his trip to the orient, rather than his smoking.  He was desperately lonely and oddly disconnected once again from the rest of the English department, given that they had recruited him to come to California.  He managed to stay the entire academic year and fulfill his contract, but it was not without tribulations.   He eventually was able to cobble together some connections to get him out of his apartment, befriending several poets and writers in the bay area, including Thom Gunn and Anthony Ostroff.  

Berryman was glad to return to Minneapolis in the spring of 1960 and immediately began chasing younger women.  In fact, it almost reads in his biographies like he had started these relationships with these two women before he left.  Now back in town, he threw himself headlong into both relationships, professing his love. There is a disingenuous quality to Berryman pursuing two young women simultaneously, as if he was hedging his bets.  Wisely, both women fended off his advances, while still maintaining some kind of a friendship for a bit.  Berryman obviously could be quite charming when he put the full intensity of his intellect upon an individual, particularly women and for some reason, particularly devout Catholic women.  Something about Berryman’s world view and presence was cathartic for young Catholic women trying to figure out their sexuality and adulthood in relationship to their faith. Was he a father figure, an accomplished artist, or was he an entry into a world of all that was forbidden?  Who knows, but Berryman instantly was embroiled in drama after drama, both at the University and with these two young women, which always eventually fueled the onset of illness. 

He was also broke, as he had agreed to pay child support to Ann for Paul around $100 a month.  Berryman couldn’t really manage a budget and was always in arrears.  Ann sued him in court that summer, something that would reoccur several times over the next 10 years.  Berryman would respond to these legal actions by frantically trying to generate additional funds by writing for awards or grants, or by accepting additional lectures on top of his teaching load.   He would eventually dig himself out of debt with Ann and pay his legal fees, which he did several times, only to fall back into debt again.  This forced creativity that was his only source of income, just added to his stress. 

The tragedy of Berryman’s third marriage is he knew it wasn’t going to work even before he got married. Berryman couldn’t manage life without being in a relationship with a woman.  He simply could not function, even to the point of not being able to feed himself properly.  He was an adolescent man with a raging intellect, if not a raging hard-on by this point in his decline.  It may be why his often ragged poetry subconsciously has a child like effect on the reader.  There is in his poetry a wild eyed quality, a hopefulness of youth that is or isn’t right there, just out of reach below the surface, that is eventually overwhelmed by his negativity.  But its that hint of retribution, that keeps the reader going.  Berryman was frozen in time as an adolescent the moment his father died.  And like an adolescent, he vacillated between disparate, almost hormonal, vastly different emotional states, seemingly uncontrollably.

In June of 1961, Berryman went to Indiana University, in Bloomington, to teach an eight week course.  He had 15 students and by his own account, said they “were the best students he had ever taught,” collectively.  However, because Berryman could name drop the whose-who list of poets and writers of his generation as personal friends or acquaintances, many of his students at Indiana University didn’t believe him.  They thought he was embellishing his lectures and word got back to him about his perceived fabrications through the department chair, who found it amusing, knowing that Berryman was telling the truth. This lack of acceptance by his students, made Berryman unsteady and frustrated. Berryman always did his best when he was in the presence of adoration, particularly when it came to teaching.  The age gap between him and his students was growing and with it became a larger and larger chink in his armor, to shield himself from this nagging sense that he was a failure. He left that summer feeling less than fulfilled and in turmoil, in part over Hemingway’s death, which had resurrected emotions from his own father’s death that he was always trying to keep at bay.  Berryman wrote Dream Song 235 in response. 

Tears Henry shed for poor old Hemingway
Hemingway in despair, Hemingway at the end,
the end of Hemingway,
tears in a diningroom in Indiana
and that was years ago, before his marriage say,
God to him no worse luck send.

Save us from shotguns & fathers’ suicides.
It all depends on who you’re the father of
if you want to kill yourself-
a bad example, murder of oneself,
the final death, in a paroxysm, of love
for which good mercy hides?
. . . .
Mercy!  my father; do not pull the trigger
or all my life I’ll suffer from your anger
killing what you began.

Oddly, his two (likely platonic) relationships since he had returned from California did bear fruit. His letter writing campaigns to each continued while in Indiana, maintaining their connections.  While still courting a woman referred to as J, he met a friend of hers named Kathy Donahue when he returned at the end of the summer of 1961. Berryman took to calling her Kate, who like J, was a good Catholic, and 22 years old.  Kate’s mother had died when she was young.  Her father had a drinking problem and she was a caretaker by default.  Berryman was still professing his love for J, in letters to Kate, which only added to the conflicted romantic ideals of this ill matched couple.  Her father was horrified when he found out his lovely Catholic daughter was dating a man more than twice her age, and was twice divorced.  His disapproval might just have sealed the deal for Kate, as Berryman was a way out of her father’s house and yet she could transfer her best nurturing abilities onto him. Berryman even consulted a priest on how to proceed in his relationship with Kate and then took offense at his advice, which was to stop.  Of course what this all meant was their relationship took on even more trappings of secrecy, forcing the two of them to seek shelter only in each other. Kate and Berryman’s love was being battered by the misunderstandings from the rest of the world, and so almost inevitably, to prove everyone else wrong, by the end of the summer of 1961, the two were married.  Berryman made a mess of the proceedings, barely sober enough to sign his own name or suffering from withdrawal tremors or both, he had to practice several times before he could sign his own name legibly on the marriage certificate in front of the justice of the peace.  Kate, the good Catholic, under the tutelage and care of nuns for 16 years, did not have a Catholic wedding.  

Kate got pregnant almost immediately and by summer of 1962 their first daughter arrived while he was a visiting professor at Brown University.   Kate, enormously pregnant, drove the entire way to Rhode Island after the spring semester was over in Minnesota, as Berryman was physically and mentally incapable of driving long distances.  Kate would lovingly care for Berryman for the next 10 years.  But she couldn’t save him from himself.   

I have wondered if Berryman’s infatuation with much younger women, was in part a cry for help.   Was he courting not only their love, but at the same time trying to court a love of himself, which had never really taken root as an adult?  Was Berryman trying to find that reset button to transport himself back to his 20’s and try and start over?   The pictures of Berryman with both his second and third wife are striking because they are both so young and vibrant and Berryman has not aged well, looking much older than his years.  It looks like they are in the presence of their grandfathers, so wide is the age gap in appearance.  By the 1960’s when Kate meets him, he has stopped shaving or even grooming in some instances and he has this permanent, wild disheveled look, with blackened teeth from incessant smoking.   

There is only one explanation for why all these young women were attracted to him, because he was a walking, talking, drooping, coughing, addicted, drama machine; in the end it must have been electric to be in his company, to be his confidante, his muse, his friend, even his lover, if you had no other sexual relationship to compare it too.  And devout Catholic girls at the ages he was courting them by and large in the 1950’s and 1960’s were virgins.  He obviously overcame all the reasons of why not to fall in love with him based on his charisma at the right time and at the right place. He was childlike in many ways, and possibly that seemed attractive to young women experiencing love for the first time who see in his dependence some type of affirmation of themselves as a romantic partner.  He was never a great husband in any of his marriages, but his long standing friendships are a testament that he could be a great friend.  And lets hope it is in friendship that his marriages were founded and survived as best they could. 

The reference below to Chatterton can be taken as a metaphor or a joke.   Its obviously a shout out to D. H. Lawrence’s novel about the adulterous affair of a young married noblewoman, after her older husband comes home from the war, paralyzed from the waist down.   Who is Henry or Berryman in relation to this poem?   I’d place my bet on both, the paralyzed, impotent husband and the charming, sexually adept, groping young gardener.   

Dream Song 263

by John Berrman

You couldn’t bear to grow old, but we grow old. 
Our differences accumulate.  Our skin
tightens or droops; it alters.
Take courage, things are not what they have been
and they never will again.  Hot hearts grow cold,
the rush to the surface falters,

secretive grows the disappearing soul
learned & uncertain, young again
but not in the same way:
Heraclitus had a wise word here to say,
which I forget.  We wake & blunder on,
wiser, on the whole,

but not more accurate.  Leave that to the young,
grope forward, toward where no one else has been
which is our privilege.
Besides, you gave up early in our age
which is your privilege, from Chatterton
to the bitter & present scene.

Let’s Lie.

One must be ruthless with one’s own writing or someone else will be.

John Berryman

Dream Song 190

by John Berryman

The doomed young envy the old, the doomed old the dead young.
It is hard & hard to get these matters straight.
Keats glares at Yeats
who full of honours died & being old sung
his strongest.  Henry appreciated that hate,
but what now of Yeats’

lucky of-Fanny-free feeling for Keats
who doomed by Mistress Gonne proved barren years
and saw his friends all leave,
stale his rewards turn, & cut off then at his peak,
promising in his seventies! all fears
save that one failed to deceive.

I scrounge ensamples violent by choice.
In most what matters,  Henry wondered.  Let’s lie. 
All we fall down & die
after a course worse of a stoppage of voice
so terrible I have no more to say
but best is the short day.

I have met a few men whose womanizing was in part a cover for their hidden bisexuality.  I always find it curious that men who have had a long-standing successful marriage, fathered multiple children and who eventually divorce are generally classified as now coming out as “gay,” if later in life they have a relationship with a man.  In my mind their life experience is the definition of being a bisexual.  Of course, we all choose the label that is most comfortable to wear when it comes to our sexuality.  But, I think this black and white characterization around sexuality is easier for society to process.  There is an uneasiness with the concept of bisexuality, often because of a judging morality that goes beyond many people’s views on homosexuality, that underscores how being bisexual carries its own unique set of challenges as well as illuminations.  Bisexuality doesn’t fit societies norms of marriage, commitment, faithfulness and authenticity.   There is a mistaken assumption by particularly heterosexuals, that identifying as bisexual means you must be promiscuous and unfaithful.   Bisexuals can be every bit as monogamous or more so than most heterosexuals or homosexuals, it’s a matter of putting relationship above desires.  The challenges of monogamy are universal.  It’s unfortunate that to this day, both the heterosexual and homosexual community tend to view bisexuals with some degree of wariness for their perceived “lack of authenticity.”  Whereas for those who are truly bisexual, it maybe their most personal true authentic self.  And since Berryman was raised Catholic and had a reoccurring attraction to devout Catholic women, there was a third rail of his homosexual attractions that even if it was just a fantasy for Berryman, would have created strong potential emotional conflicts internally.

It’s impossible to get inside the head of Berryman and know for sure, but in John Haffenden’s biography there are several references to Berryman’s sexuality written by Berryman himself.   Berryman wrote constantly.  He left a huge number of musings, self-diagnoses that were part of his intense self-examination that were also possibly part inspiration for future Dream Songs.  

Berryman was a painfully shy, disquieted man, who covered it up with a loud, boisterous, boozy demeanor at times.  He could tell great stories about many famous men and women of letters and of his travels all over the world, and yet not really share anything about himself.  He disliked parties but could entertain for hours in a bar and loved to talk poetry and art under the influence with other writers and academics.  He was also a drug addict.  His addictions were all prescription drugs, which was not uncommon in the 1950’s and 1960’s when various versions of tranquilizers and speed were routinely prescribed by doctors to the white middle class suffering from the kind of manic and depressive episodes that were part of Berryman’s life.

Why do I mention sex and drugs and booze?   For some people it is only in the loss of control that they are able to act on the entire range of their innermost selves.  In October of 1954, when he moved to Minneapolis alone, he had neither a job or a full time sexual partner.   He set out to seduce a series of much younger women through letters and poems, a technique that had often worked in the past.  But it troubled him.  He left behind in his notes the following that is recounted in Haffenden’s biography;

“What’s wrong that I am so at all these very young women?. . . Am I doting?. . . I am thoroughly ashamed of the nerve-wracking & evil complex I have got myself into . . . Spare them!  WORK.”

Berryman hoped that by documenting his thoughts and dreams he would find some level of control over his compulsions.  He himself saw a connection between his periods of excessive drinking and sex.    He wrote in 1954:

“my woman-killing nightmares were homosexually oriented….liquor must be important, because . . . I find it so closely related to my adult wd-be homosexual experiences (all of them); and because, to my amazement, I experience today & yesterday almost no craving for alcohol – much as I’d been drinking – and this fact suggests that it must be psychological, i. e. neurotic.  I have never really believed that till tonight; I’ve always thought my will just weak.”

“So on these two scores alone – not to add that it looks as if my promiscuity might disappear, as well, with the (possibly even imminent) clearing up of the homosexual business – I wonder if today is not one of the most important of my life. “

Neither of course was true.  His need for personal validation through intimacy with both men and women continued, though the vast majority of his sexual experiences were with women and his intimacy with men was by and large intellectual.  He continued to drink to disassociate from tension and as a writing aid.  The problem with mixing drugs, alcohol and stress is it wears you down and ceases to work as a stimulant for creative pursuits.  It’s impacts on the brain and body eventually catch up with everyone.   

By 1969, Berryman’s health hit rock bottom.  He had a series of alcohol induced trauma’s, physically, professionally and personally.   He was admitted into Hazelden, a famous alcohol and drug treatment center in St. Paul.  There is an infamous no-nonsense approach to Hazeldon.  Berryman did everything that the counselors at Hazeldon required.  Hazeldon uses the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 step program, with Step One to admit that “we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”   As part of Step One, every patient is required to write a recitation of their life that doesn’t shield themselves from their transgressions and actions under the influence and provides transparency to the counselors and others in their group on the depth of their honesty in their ability to accept their own humanity and change.  It is a big step in the process around acceptance, forgiveness and to be open to not judging others in their struggle. 

Berryman wrote a book called Recovery, an accounting of his experience in treating addiction, and in it he recounts his testimonial in Step One.   It is a long, painful confession that reaches back to more than 30 years of despair and guilt.   He seems to recount every single thing that he had done to destroy himself, including his long list of sexual misadventures with mostly women, but with a reference to seducing students drunk and to homosexual advances, though he then minimizes it by saying of the homosexuality that it occurred only “4 or 5 times.” It was such an unvarnished explanation of his past that his counselor at Hazeldon thought it was one of the very best Step One confessions he had ever read.   But, as the sobriety didn’t take for long, he also felt in hindsight after Berryman’s death, it was also one of the most misleading.  

Berryman did what he needed to do to get out of Hazeldon and never went back.  He instead checked himself into an AA group at St. Mary’s Hospital, which was closer to where he lived and worked on campus.  He also had more control of how he checked in with the process at St. Mary’s. He did admit to himself and his group that alcoholism is a 100% fatal disease.  He understood he could not escape it’s effects.  But then so again is living.  Life is a fatal condition.    

Berryman was married three times, had at least three children.   He had countless affairs and one-night stands with women.  All of that was to some degree out in the open and not without its own aspects of shame, guilt and self-destructive tendencies.  Having also a sexual attraction for men and acting on it, both in his youth (which is hinted at several times in the biographies and was not uncommon in all male boarding schools), and as an adult, is a good deal more difficult.  In 1969, homosexuality was still considered a mental illness and a criminal offense, let alone the damage it could do to your career, marriages and family relationships, particularly the relationship with his wives and mother.  Berryman was both privately honest at times about his bisexuality and publicly very much in the closet because he didn’t have any other choice.  How much his sexuality was at the core of his torments is only for him to know.  But in reading through his poetry and his biographies, it is clear that during all the different treatments he went through during his lifetime, sex was not alongside the other addictions he was attempting to address.  In retrospect it feels like a miss.  Sex was not a focus in his treatments, despite sex having similar brain effects as the chemicals he ingested right up until his death.  Each of them combined and interacted to impact his serotonin and dopamine levels and with it his feelings of self-worth, happiness and control, as well as shame, guilt and despair.  If he confided to his therapists and psychiatrists about his bisexuality is only for them to know.  If talk therapy brought him peace, it would appear it was always short lived at best. Berryman survived, thrived and self-destructed all in the same breath.  He also worked hard to leave a body of writing that can be condemned or admired for the level of truths contained within their lines, both around the beauty and ugliness of the human condition.  If Berryman prevaricated in the truth of his innermost secrets in his personal relationships is impossible to know and unimportant to everyone but those with which he had those relationships, but he did not do so in his art.  Berryman spilled his blood on nearly every page.  Whether you like it or dislike it, is up to you.  His writing and legacy are certainly not for the faint of heart.


The Ball Poem

By John Berryman
What is the boy now, who has lost his ball.
What, what is he to do? I saw it go
Merrily bouncing, down the street, and then
Merrily over—there it is in the water!
No use to say ‘O there are other balls’:
An ultimate shaking grief fixes the boy
As he stands rigid, trembling, staring down
All his young days into the harbour where
His ball went. I would not intrude on him,
A dime, another ball, is worthless. Now
He senses first responsibility
In a world of possessions. People will take balls,
Balls will be lost always, little boy,
And no one buys a ball back. Money is external.
He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes,
The epistemology of loss, how to stand up
Knowing what every man must one day know
And most know many days, how to stand up
And gradually light returns to the street,
A whistle blows, the ball is out of sight.
Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Floor of the harbour . . I am everywhere,
I suffer and move, my mind and my heart move
With all that move me, under the water
Or whistling, I am not a little boy.

History Has To Live


Robert Lowell and Lady Caroline Blackwood

“I was overcome with a pathological bout of enthusiasm.”

Robert Lowell


by Robert Lowell

History has to live with what was here,
clutching and close to fumbling all we had—
it is so dull and gruesome how we die,
unlike writing, life never finishes.
Abel was finished; death is not remote,
a flash-in-the-pan electrifies the skeptic,
his cows crowding like skulls against high-voltage wire,
his baby crying all night like a new machine.
As in our Bibles, white-faced, predatory,
the beautiful, mist-drunken hunter’s moon ascends—
a child could give it a face: two holes, two holes,
my eyes, my mouth, between them a skull’s no-nose—
O there’s a terrifying innocence in my face
drenched with the silver salvage of the mornfrost.

What have I learned this month?   My appreciation for Lowell has grown, along with my empathy.   The quote above is what endears maniac depressives to those around them.   The lows are a cross to bear for all, but the highs, when in moderation, can power the world with their energy.  I am envious of Lowell’s friendships among his vast circle of friends, and the talent in that remarkable group that helped each other become better writers, still recognizing the negative self destructive tendencies that these men and women had in their own lives and others. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have grown to like Lowell the man, but I have grown to appreciate more of Lowell the artist and accept his humanness.  

Robert Lowell was the product of two generations of men of letters in this country and the patience and emotional intelligence of  multiple women.  His poetry evolved to fit the style that the New Critics applauded and rewarded; Merrill, Tate, Ransom, Warren, Jarrell, Taylor, Frost, Schwartz and Berryman literally molded Lowell out of clay.  His passion and the depth in his poetry was influenced by Stafford, Hardwick, Blackwood and Bishop.  Did Lowell win those two Pulitzers, or do all of them deserve some of the credit as well?   Does it take a village to raise a poet? In Lowell’s case, I think the answer is yes.   

Obviously, Lowell brought something to the table.  I wonder though, if he had been born poor,  with the same talents, and written the same words, would a single thing he ever wrote have seen the light of day from a publisher?  Would he have had the financial ability and time to write? Even with the generous  support and royalties he received from publishers,  it was not enough to support him and his family without his father’s money to fill in the gaps.  Talent publicly recognized is almost always influenced by luck as well. Lowell exists in American Lit history in part because of the opportunities his families wealth, connections and the power his birthright afforded him, if not for the access to publishing, then for the glimpse into the halls of power in this country and its moral authority and failings which he used for some of his poetic inspiration.  Lowell may have been a confessional poet, but the history he shared was not just his own, it served as a sketchbook illustrating our broader society, his words a mirror for the American tendency towards narcissism that was reflected in his best work.

Lowell and Berryman always preferred criticism of their work by other writers.  They were writing during a unique time in history, existing within a relatively small literary bubble, where the best critics, were also some of their best friends.  There are tentacles in literature that extend from one generation to the next and influence poetry in ways that we may not even be aware. We owe a debt of gratitude to these men and women, who pushed poetry forward, in a legacy that would forever change how poetry is written and read today.   Even if it some of that work led to dead ends, it forced open doors of change, either positively or negatively, because of their commitment to their writing.  Sometimes things have to become broken to be put back together in a new more innovative way.

This past year in 2020, when several hundred poets of color demanded changes in the way the Poetry Foundation wields the power of its financial assets, and who sits as the gate keepers of that financial wealth, I applauded, even though it probably was painful to the multiple old white men who were forced to resign from the board of directors.  We have to remind ourselves that giving birth is painful.  It’s never easy and not to be taken for granted.  All parties don’t always survive the process.  Things don’t die and are buried because they did something wrong.  Things die, because things need to die, so that the next generation has room to breathe and grow and thrive.

After a month of reading Lowell, if I compare him to Berryman, there is no question which book of collected poems will continue to sit on my reading table; its Berryman’s.  For sheer enjoyment of the written word and intellectual fun of the poetry and creativity, Berryman’s poetry wins in my world hands down.  But it would have been easy for me to show case Berryman this year and stay in a familiar rut of sharing things I enjoy on Fourteenlines.  The beginning of 2021 is a time of reckoning.  This month has been a time for me to reassess white power and privilege that has shaped the past, my own included, and confront the underlying rot of white supremacy that is all around us, even in the creative arts and poetry.   It’s easy for me to write about things I like.  It’s much harder to write about things I don’t.  And though I have learned a lot by writing about Lowell this month, I will be glad to move on.

I wrote the poem below a week after the violence at the Capitol building in the midst of my month long journey with Lowell.  I readily admit it is a troubling poem.  I don’t like all the aspects of these characters.   And yet it begs the question, if we dislike the artist, should we dislike the art?  The risk of cancel culture is we cancel the very reminders of what not to be?   How many of us learned our most important lessons in life not from a role model of the epitome of our ideals but from the fuck-ups in our midst that we wanted to not emulate?   Spending a month in Lowell’s company and his cronies messes with you.   Lowell leaned conservative right in his ideology in some of his writing, but did he believe it or use it as a mirror to society?  Impossible to know. I don’t know why this poem shaped itself in my mind.   If you were to count it out, it is roughly a sonnet, 14 lines.   Was it inspiration for what could be a broader script for a play someday wrestling with the death of the sonnet and the ideas these men wrote about over a lifetime?  There’s probably 90 minutes of pretty interesting dialogue waiting to be crafted if I tried to insert myself into the minds of these four men playing cards.   What is it trying to tell me? What about the perspective their month of company has imparted, formed n my mind in both good ways and bad, that brought out this poem?  I may delete this poem and post in a year because it isn’t relevant and reads like trite nonsense or I may find in it something I don’t see now?  I honestly don’t like the men behind the art of all the writers I read. It doesn’t mean I find that disagreeable taste in my mouth any less worthwhile than the bitter coffee I sometimes choose to drink.  

Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and John Berryman Play Euchre in Heaven

By T. A. Fry

(This poem is intended to be read by screen play rules – words in parenthesis and gray italics should not be read out loud, rather help inform the reader on characters and plot. Lines in black are Robert Lowell’s. Lowell is partnered with Pound and Berryman is partnered with Jarrell.)

.       . “Jezzus Chrst Mr. Bones, would you stop dropping
 ashes on the table.  Lets do clubs – Pounder. “  ( Lowell winks)

.       . “Cal…. your move.* What’s with the winking?” (Berryman, staring at Lowell)
.       .
It’s a tick, he’s not tabl-talking the bower.” (Pound)

“Henry…. pass me a pretzel with cheese on it. ” 
(Lowell leads the Jack of clubs)

.        . “Yes he is,  see —- exerting his power….
(Berryman passing the pretzel with a napkin, then picks up his cigarette, takes a long drag, exhaling a cloud Lowell’s way, muttering;)
It’s a damn shame, the state of the sonnet….”

(Lowell takes the trick and leads the Queen of clubs)

.       . “What’d you guys think, the attack in D. C.?
Ezra – yu’old fascist, what’s your report?” (Jarrell) 

“… Relieved… bar’s been raised for traitorous crazy.”
(Smiling as he lays the Jack of spades over top Lowell’s Queen and Berryman’s Ace and Jarrell’s sloughed off suit, taking the trick for the team.)

.      . “So am I!  It’s great to see such support
For mental illness among the masses.
It’s amazing, I tell you, aammaazzzing,
What these people pull out of their asses.”

* When Berryman jumped to his death in 1972, the only identification on his body recovered from the river was a pair of sunglasses with his name on it and a blank check.  Hamilton, in Lowell’s biography, claims Auden started a cruel rumor among the literati in New York City shortly thereafter that Berryman had in fact left a note, which read; “Cal, it’s your move.

I Feel I Know What You Have Worked Through

Robert Lowell

If youth is a defect, it is one we outgrow too soon.

Robert Lowell

For John Berryman I

by Robert Lowell

I feel I know what you have worked through, you
know what I have worked through – we are words,
John, we used the language as if we made it.
Luck threw up the coin, and the plot swallowed,
monster yawning for its mess of potage.
Ah privacy, as if we had preferred mounting
some rock by a mossy stream and counting the sheep
to fame that renews the soul but not the heart.
The out-tide flings up wonders: rivers, linguini,
beercans, mussels, bloodstreams; how gaily the gallop
to catch the ebb – Herbert, Thoreau, Pascal,
born to die with the enlarged hearts of athletes at forty –
Abraham sired with less expectancy,
heaven his friend, the earth his follower.

History, published in 1973, contains 360 separate 14 line poems. I don’t know what to make of them.  I have sat down and read them all, an accomplishment that likely puts me in rare company of poetry readers these days. There are some I found captivating in the way a car crash can be captivating and forced me to head to Goggle to investigate references and think about them a bit more.  Others appear to be no more than drafts of  unfinished poems.  There are tributes to all his friends, fellow writers and writers he admired throughout his lifetime along with postcards of poems on almost every topic imaginable, written for reasons only known to Lowell.  It is an odd assemblage of stuff, feeling more like a writer’s notebook than a book of poetry.  I question if Lowell was not the figure in American Lit that he was at the time, whether all but a handful of the 360 would have ever been published.  What’s fascinating is it’s History in many ways that is the foundation of Lowell’s reputation as a confessional poet.  Yet, as an assemblage of work, it creates more questions in my mind than answers in terms of Lowell’s talents and state of mind when they were written. It feels to me like Lowell is drawing on his reputation from the past in its publishing, and less pushing the envelope forward on his talent as a poet.  Hamilton notes in his biography, that by 1968, Lowell was writing three to four 14 line poems a week.   At that pace of writing, it is obvious that there is not the careful construction and word-smithing, repeated editing that was a feature of his earlier work.  Gone is the craftsmanship of being a poet and in its place is speed dating, energy in its wild exuberance, but it can be hit or miss in the end result. 

In History, one gets the impression that writing and confessional poetry has become less a calling or a passion and more a cross to bear for Lowell.  He appears to be  compelled to bare all his scars, all his good, all his failings and his families failings before all, for the poetry to speak his truth.  It is not a good look.  Most middle aged men look better keeping their clothes on, particularly if you can afford a tailored suit in New York. 

John Berryman won the Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1965 for Dream Songs.  As a work that is a complete poetic vision of a lifetime, Dream Songs is remarkable.  It is cohesive in the way Berryman evolved his poetic vision and has continuity in the narrative that the poems express in an arc of an interconnected story throughout the course of the book.  It is is both autobiographical and fictional in ways that offer a connection between writer and reader that in my mind is masterful.  And it has a sense of humor and a sense of purpose that appears to be completely lacking from Lowell’s History.   There is no comparison between the two books in my opinion. History feels to me like a bit of professional jealousy, where Lowell was trying to play catch up to Berryman.  There are poems in History I admire, but as a whole it is a hot mess in my opinion.   For that reason, it is impossible to only pick out two poems to share from it, out of the 360 poems in total, and pretend I am representing the breadth of the ideas contained within it. Good or bad, pick I have.  

History, is but one of three volumes of poetry, Lowell published in 1973.   To say one comes before the other would be inaccurate, as the writing contained in all three were interconnected.  Over the next several days, I’ll touch on the other two (For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin), and summarize the events in Lowell’s life during the 1970s. 

Two Walls

(1968, Martin Luther King’s Murder)

by Robert Lowell

Somewhere a white wall faces a white wall,
one wakes the other, the other wakes the first,
each burning with the other’s borrowed splendor –
the walls, awake, are forced to go on talking,
their color looks much alike, two shadings of white,
each living in the shadow of the other.
How fine our distinctions when we cannot choose!
Don Giovanni can’t stick his sword through stone,
two contracting, white stone walls – their pursuit
of happiness and his, coincident. . . .
At this point of civilization, this point of the world,
the only satisfactory companion we
can imagine is death – this morning, skin lumping in my throat,
I lie here, heavily breathing, the soul of New York.

I Don’t Know, Mr Bones, You Ask Too Much

This post marks the four hundredth blog entry on Fourteen lines.

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 are merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that’s always easiest.

John Berryman

The Dream Songs – 177

by John Berryman

Am tame now.  You may touch me, who had thrilled
(before) your tips, twitcht from your breast your heart;
& burst your willing brain.
I am tame now.  Undead, I was not killed
by Henry’s viewers but maimed.  It is my art
to buzz the spotlight in vain,
flighting ‘at random’ while Addison wins.
I would not want war with Addison.  I love him
and Addison so loves me back
me backsides, I may perish in his grins
& grip. I would he liked me less, less grim.
but he has helpt me, slack

& sick & hopeful, anew to know what man –
scrubbing the multiverse with dazzled tonight –
still has in store for man:
a doghouse or a cave, is all we could,
according to my dreams. I stand in doubt,
surrounded by holy wood.

This post marks the four hundredth blog of fourteen lines, forty percent to my goal of one thousand blog entries.  I thank all of you who visit this space, whether a single time, once in a while or regularly.  I hope our shared experience of reading and enjoying poetry connects us in some way to a global thread of shared humanity.

I find Berryman an inspiration on persistence.  That may be an odd thing to say about a man who jumped off a bridge, but he had harbored that longing to end things on his terms for a long, long time before he finally acted on it. He did the best he could and continued his voyage as an artist for nearly 8 decades, no small accomplishment given his tendency towards self destruction.  There is nothing at all to do with this Mr. Bones and that Mr. Bones.  Or is there?

I recently attended a retreat where I was not allowed to talk, use a cell phone, computer or technology of any kind for 3.5 days.   It was a very rewarding experience, something I would eagerly do again.  It was good to reacquaint myself with the silence of my own mind, to retreat back to my childhood tech-less self. What a terrible curse we have placed on the generations that will know only screens, smart phones and blinking flashing things, all commanding our constant attention.  The curse of 24 hour news cycle and the constant barrage of information.  I promptly went out and bought a singing bowl, to make a deeper commitment to daily meditation and silence.

The experience also made me ponder the words “retreat”, “recollected”, and “reparations.” It also made think deeply about the word play of “spouse” and “espouse.” Is this what poets do?  Geek out on words bumping around in our skulls when we are told we can only use our inside voices and not our speaking voices.  When was the last time you couldn’t or didn’t speak to another human being for a whole day?  Did it invigorate you or did it test you?  Did you want to scream, tell a joke or sing or remain silent when it was over?

The Dream Songs – 223

by John Berryman

It’s wonderful the way cats bound about,
it’s wonderful how men are not found out
so far.
It’s miserable how many      miserable are
over the spread world at this tick of time.
These mysteries that I’m

rehearsing in the dark did brighter minds
much bother through them ages, whom who finds
guilty for failure?
Up all we rose with dawn, springy for pride,
trying all morning.  Dazzled, I subside
at noon, noon be my gaoler

and afternoon the deepening of the task
poor Henry set himself long since to ask:
Why? Who? When?
— I don’t know, Mr. Bones. You asks too much
of such as you & me & such
fast cats, worse men.