Sadder for a reader than the death of a beloved writer is the protracted waning of the enthusiasm one felt for a former favorite. I’m not referring to the inevitable losses that accompany growing up. As adults, if we enjoy Edgar Rice Burroughs with the intensity of our ten-year-old selves, we haven’t put away childish things and our judgment is judged dubious. Rather, I refer to strong time-tested devotion to a writer and his work, probably formed when we were young but no longer children.
I first read John Berryman’s poetry around 1968, the year I turned sixteen and he published His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, the second volume of The Dream Songs. He and his friend Saul Bellow were the first contemporary writers whose work infatuated me, whose new books I awaited with excitement and bought as they were published. My feelings about Bellow’s fiction have only grown stronger.
Berryman’s excesses of style and self were precisely what attracted me when I was young. Later, my devotion remained in spite of the excesses, which amounts to a definition of sentimentality. Finally, I've concluded the excesses too often eclipse the poetic accomplishment. Berryman’s appeal at first was essentially romantic. He made self-destruction look ennobling, and without realizing it I sought a way to soft-sell suicide. The alcoholic coupling of braggadocio and self-pity too often blot out Berryman’s genuine gifts. The baby talk and blackface, reductive Freudianism and willful obscurity – in a word, the self-indulgence -- remind me vividly of my earlier selves. Not only could Berryman not stop drinking; he couldn’t grow up, and so he jumped from a bridge at age fifty-seven.
He was that baffling creature, an alcoholic, with all the attendant defects of character. Alcoholism fueled and corroded his gift, and became the self-consuming subject of his poetry. His gift was real, probably the most generous allotted his doomed generation. Elizabeth Bishop wrote Robert Lowell in 1962: “One has the feeling 100 years from now that he may be all the rage—or a `discovery’—hasn’t one?”
One of his poems from 1945, “Canto Amor,” is included in books of wedding readings. Berryman, married three times, would have been delighted. He composed twenty-two stanzas in terza rima, and the poem ranks among his best work. Near the end he writes:
“New musics! One the music that we hear,
this is the music which the masters make
out of their minds, profound solemn & clear.
“And then the other music, in whose sake
all men perceive a gladness but we are drawn
less for that joy than utterly to take
“our trial, naked in the music’s vision,
the flowing ceremony of trouble and light,
all Loves becoming, none to flag upon.”
Berryman composed a new music. Lowell called it “poignant, abrasive, anguished, humorous,” all true, but the dissonances of Berryman’s life drowned out the voice, leaving a great sadness and now a second sadness. In “Canto Amor” he writes: “Love is multiform.” Berryman was born on this day in 1914 and died Jan. 7, 1972.