Friday, January 16, 2009

`He's a Bloody Genius and So On'

Two books in recent years -- Rachel Cohen’s A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists and Richard Lingeman’s Double Lives: American Writers’ Friendships – squandered the promising premise of tracking intersecting literary careers. Both books are dutifully written, at best (Cohen’s is pretentious, Lingeman’s plodding), and both foundered, in part, because of the artists they chose to examine. Who cares about James Baldwin, John Cage, Norman Mailer and Gertrude Stein (in Cohen’s case), and Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady (in Lingeman’s)? By choosing mediocre (albeit fashionable) writers, Cohen and Lingeman compromised their claims on the respect of readers. One of Lingeman’s subjects, Herman Melville, wrote “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,” and there’s nothing mighty above Baldwin, Cassady, etc.

Let me suggest an alternative set of writers whose relations are more worthy of study. Consider Yvor Winters -- an influential critic and poet, and a one-man social network. He and his students and other acquaintances, including Edgar Bowers, J.V. Cunningham, Thom Gunn, Donald Justice and Janet Lewis, would constitute a book unto themselves.

What I have in mind is not a dry, obligatory recitation of dates and tired anecdotes but a work in the spirit of Richard Holmes’ two-volume life of Coleridge, an act of sympathetic, imaginative re-creation, like superior fiction. See how Holmes describes the single meeting between Coleridge and Keats, all drawn from primary sources, corroborated by secondary sources, and as vivid and amusing as a good story. He quotes a letter Keats wrote to his brother George, saying Coleridge “broached a thousand things,” then renders a comic account of the older poet’s conversation: “-- let me see if I can give you a list. – Nightingales, Poetry – on Poetical sensation – Metaphysics – Different genera and species of Dreams – Nightmare – a dream accompanied by a sense of Touch – A dream related – First and Second Consciousness,” and so forth for another five lines.

Now consider how the preeminent American novelist and poet of the postwar era, Saul Bellow and John Berryman, were excellent, sustained friends. Their mutual respect and the love of each man for the other is a refreshing exception to the customary jealousies and backstabbing of the literary life. Bellow contributed an affectionate forward to Berryman’s posthumously published novel Recovery. Berryman had died a suicide on Jan. 7, 1972. Bellow begins:

“He wrote in one of his last letters to me, `Let's join forces, large and small, as in the winter beginning of 1953 in Princeton, with the Bradstreet blazing and Augie fleecing away. We're promising!’”

They enjoyed each other’s work and company immensely. Bellow agonized over Berryman’s alcoholism and general self-destructiveness:

“He knocked himself out to be like everybody else – he liked, he loved, he cared, but he was aware that there was something peculiarly comical in all this. And at last it must have seemed that he had used up all his resources. Faith against despair, love versus nihilism, had been the themes of his struggles and his poems. What he needed for his art had been supplied by his own person, by his mind, his wit. He drew it out of his vital organs, out of his very skin. At last there was no more. Reinforcements failed to arrive. Forces were not joined. The cycle of resolution, reform, and relapse had become a bad joke that could not continue.”

Berryman had read The Adventures of Augie March in manuscript, and when prominent reviewers were uncomprehending, Berryman published “A Note on Augie” in The New York Times Book Review on Dec. 6, 1953:

“I would guess that the effect of the sharpness and acrobatic freedom of Augie March ought to be salutary, as Crane’s naturalism was [Berryman had published Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography in 1950].”

In her memoir Poets in Their Youth, Berryman’s former wife, Eileen Simpson, recalls the arrival of Augie:

“A few days later John came home with the typescript of Saul's new novel and said, `I'm going to take the weekend off to read this.’ Seated in his red leather chair, immobile for hours except to light a cigarette, make a note on a small white pad, run the corkscrew he liked to toy with through his fingers, or let out a high-pitched `eeeeeeeeeeeee,’ which meant he was laughing so hard he couldn't get his breath, he trained his intelligence on The Adventures of Augie March, giving it the kind of reading every writer dreams of having. After the first chapter, he said, `It's damn good.’ When he finished, `Bellow is it. I'm going to have lunch with him and tell him he's a bloody genius and so on.’”

Most importantly, in the first volume of his master work, 77 Dream Songs, Berryman dedicated “Dream Song 75” to Bellow:

“Turning it over, considering, like a madman
Henry put forth a book.
No harm resulted from this.
Neither the menstruating stars (nor man) was moved
at once.
Bare dogs drew closer for a second look

“and performed their friendly operations there.
Refreshed, the bark rejoiced.
Seasons went and came.
Leaves fell, but only a few.
Something remarkable about this
unshedding bulky bole-proud blue-green moist

“thing made by savage & thoughtful
surviving Henry
began to strike the passers from despair
so that sore on their shoulders old men hoisted
six-foot sons and polished women called
small girls to dream awhile toward the flashing & bursting

What a year, 1964: 77 Dream Songs and Bellow’s Herzog.


D. G. Myers said...

Not Bellow and Berryman, but Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld. Patrick, you must put in a “pre-order” for Steven Zipperstein’s forthcoming book about Rosenfeld. It is no accident that I named two of my sons Saul and Isaac.

Art Durkee said...

Certainly not Yvor Winters. He did more to create the current horrid "workshop poetry" culture, and it's sinkhole of self-regard, than almost anyone.

Say what you like about Cage. One of the most original thinkers of the century. The fact that he's still vilified so often means folks still haven't caught up to him.

But that's just my opinion. Which doesn't mean it's any less valid than anyone else's, of course.

Anonymous said...

I do not want to start a dust-up, Mr. Durkee, but I respectfully disagree with your comment about Yvor Winters. (I have no opinion about John Cage.) Although Winters certainly influenced a great number of poets (who held him in high regard), he had nothing whatsoever to do with the creation and/or proliferation of the "horrid 'workshop poetry' culture" to which you refer. (By the way, I completely agree with you that such a culture does exist, and that it is indeed "horrid.")

First, given Winters's idiosyncrasies and strictness (in every sense of the term) it would have been impossible for him to create such a culture, even if he wanted to. Second, "workshop poetry" and "workshop poets" have nothing to do with traditional forms. For Winters, formality and tradition were all-important. Third, his era of influence came way before the workshop culture to which you refer. Fourth, having taken classes with Edgar Bowers and Alan Stephens (both of whom studied with Winters) at the University of California at Santa Barbara in the 1970s, I can assure you that they were every bit as idiosyncratic and strict (in their own unique ways) as Winters, and not "workshop poetry" types. (An aside: I am a retired lawyer, not a poet, and have never attended any poetry workshops.)

Finally, if you read any of the poets mentioned by Mr. Kurp (I would add Donald Stanford and Alan Stephens to the list), you certainly do not find "workshop poetry." For an interesting site on Winters, please see "The American Literary Rhadamanthus." (I have no personal connection with the site, but am recommending it because it is good.) Please take this response in good spirit: I was just taken aback at seeing Yvor Winters in any way associated with "workshop poetry", since (in my mind at least) he represents the furthest thing from it.

Anonymous said...

Richard Holmes widens the lens in his most recent book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. His goal was to bring a literary sensibility to the writing of science history, and he succeeds....wonderfully. I bought the book while on a business trip to the UK; it won't be availble from its American publisher until July. As a scientist who loves good writing, I recommend the book without reservation, even to those who normally flee from any book with "science" in the title. Like all great books, it's really a story about the mysteries of the human spirit.