William Meredith, who died last May at age 88, was a fine poet who counted John Berryman among his closest friends. About a year after Berryman’s death by suicide in January 1972, I remember reading Meredith’s poem about his friend, “In Loving Memory of the Late Author of Dream Songs,” in the Saturday Review. I was 19 when Berryman died and his was probably the first public death I took personally, as though I had known him. Meredith’s poem expressed some of the hurt and incomprehension I felt, but also my gratitude for the work Berryman left us, especially The Dream Songs. That’s the spirit in which Meredith ends his elegy:
“I do what's in character, I look for things
To praise on the riverbanks and I praise them.
We are all relicts, of some great joy, wearing black,
But this book is full of marvelous songs.
Don't let us contract your dread recidivism
And start falling from our own iron railings.
Wave from the fat book again, make us wave back.”
I’ve been skimming Poems Are Hard to Read, a collection of Meredith’s essays and reviews published in 1991. Three pieces are devoted to Berryman – a review of 77 Dream Songs and two elegiac memoirs – but his traces are everywhere. Meredith met him shortly after World War II, at Princeton, but their friendship blossomed in 1962 at Bread Loaf. Berryman was burning with Dream Songs, which wouldn’t be published in book form until 1964. In a piece titled almost identically to the poem mentioned above, “In Loving Memory of the Late Author of the Dream Songs,” Meredith writes:
“That evening was the first time I heard “Dream Songs” read, though I was to hear them at all hours for the next several weeks. Once he came to my room at 4 a.m. for what was supposed to be a private reading of a song just finished. The acoustics of the big wooden house made it an unpopular public event. When John read aloud, the etymology of the word aloud was brought forcibly home.”
Meredith moves on to their final visit, in May 1971. Without denying or excusing Berryman’s alcoholic self-centeredness and histrionics, he writes with love and tenderness of his friend, of their temperamental affinities despite Meredith’s reticence and seemingly good-natured sense of moderation. They shared “a yearning for decorum, even for old-fashioned manners. I’m not speaking about our social behavior, which is dubious in both cases, but about a social ideal. At heart, Berryman was a courtly man, though usually (like most of us) he could act out only a parody of that. The forms of behavior that attracted him were as traditional as the forms of prosody.”
Meredith wrote about Berryman directly in at least two other poems, besides the one cited above. “John and Anne” is preceded by an excerpt from Berryman’s “The Development of Anne Frank,” an essay collected in The Freedom of the Poet:
“I would call the subject of Anne Frank’s Diary even more mysterious than St. Augustine’s, and describe it as: the conversion of a child into a person …. It took place under very special circumstances which – let us now conclude as she concluded – though superficially unfavorable, were in fact highly favorable to it; she was forced to mature, in order to survive; the hardest challenge, let’s say, that a person can face without defeat is the best for him.”
In light of Berryman’s own compromised maturity, self-sabotaging and ultimately his suicide, these words are heartbreaking. He must have been an impossible human being, as drunks are, yet Meredith, Saul Bellow, Donald Justice, Edward Hoagland and Robert Lowell, among many others, loved him and have attested to his charm, generosity, brilliance and humor. Meredith recalls that on the night before their final meeting, Berryman had “endured a crisis” in his hotel room in Hartford, Conn. The experience is described in a poem, “The Facts & Issues,” published in Berryman’s posthumous collection, Delusions, Etc. In Berryman’s telling, the crisis sounds more spiritual than merely emotional or biochemical. The poem begins:
“I really believe He’s here all over this room
In a motor hotel in Wallace Stevens’ town.”
Meredith says of this great, wracked poem: “It ends with the baffling spectacle of a man fending off torrents of a grace that has become unbearable. It is an heroic response to that crisis, as I think his death was too.”
Obviously, like Meredith, I judge Berryman a major poet, probably the major poet of their embattled generation, which included Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke and Delmore Schwartz. Earlier in the same essay, Meredith puts Berryman in an interesting poetic context, one that seems self-evident to me but will irk some readers:
“It is a curious fact about modern poetry that many of its large figures have been men of enormous intelligence (we couldn’t have made good use of Tennyson) supported by enormous reading, and that they want to restore rather than overthrow traditions. With our lesser poets, it has mostly been the other way around – average intelligence, average or below-average literacy, and enormous radicalism. The radicalism often seems, by comparison with Pound or Auden or Berryman or Lowell, naïve.”
He might be describing most of American poetry today. All of the poets cited by Meredith were scholars of various sorts, brilliant men for whom literature was a matter of blood and conviction. With few exceptions – Geoffrey Hill comes to mind -- their species appears to be almost extinct.