Friday, January 07, 2022

'This Work of Almost Despair'

I learned of John Berryman’s death from my Victorian poetry professor. Classes had just resumed after the Christmas break and I seldom followed the news. Before beginning his Browning lecture, the professor, whose name I no longer remember, announced the Dream Songs poet had committed suicide. I was obsessed with Berryman’s work, as only a nineteen-year-old littĂ©rateur-nerd can be obsessed. The attraction was literary and alcoholic. I admired Berryman’s raffish way with language, his erudition, humor and tortured religious sense and, without quite realizing it, his damn-the-torpedoes drinking. Like most drunks, he was more than half in love with death, easeful or otherwise, though an alcoholic death is seldom easeful. 

No reevaluation of a writer’s work in my life has been so radical. Over the decade or so after Berryman’s death on January 7, 1972, I incrementally lost interest in his poetry. More than that, I came to view much of his work as little more than evidence of pathology. An alcoholic, by definition, is morbidly self-centered. Alcoholism is more than habitual drunkenness. It’s about personalities dedicated exclusively to self. By that definition, there are alcoholics walking around who have never taken a drink.


I resent artists of any sort being romanticized for their self-destructiveness, whether the result of alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness or some combination of the three. This seems especially common among poets and jazz musicians. And this is precisely what I was doing half a century ago. That Berryman supposedly waved to a passerby before jumping off the bridge in Minneapolis is not “jaunty,” I don’t reject Berryman’s work wholesale. Scraps of the Dream Songs are still moving and I appreciate “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” from Love & Fame (1970), including this stanza from the ninth section:


“Surprise me on some ordinary day

with a blessing gratuitous. Even I’ve done good

beyond their expectations. What count we then

upon Your bounty?”


Four months after Berryman’s death, in the May 20, 1972, issue of the Saturday Review, William Meredith published his elegy for Berryman, “In Loving Memory of the Late Author of the Dream Songs.” Meredith questions the romanticizing of Berryman's suicide that was already in place – “Did you wave jauntily, like the German ace / in a silent film, to a passer-by, as the paper said?” – and writes:


“For all your indignation, your voice

was half howl only, half of it was caress.

Adorable was a word you threw around,

fastidious John of the gross disguises,

and despair was another: ‘this work of almost despair.’”


Edward Bauer said...

I discovered Berryman at approximately the same age and still like him very much. It may be my prejudice, but I enjoy the capital C catholic sensibility here and there throughout his work. And I've read the Meredith elegy -- is there a sideswipe at Ginsberg in the second line you quote? And if so, is it to praise Berryman for not going too far, or criticize him for sometimes leaning that way? And I find his Miss Bradstreet stuff tedious (and her stuff too).

Thomas Parker said...

I remember Chesterton somewhere asserting that the greatest artists are the sanest, least self-destructive ones. (I think Shakespeare and Robert Browning were examples.)

Run that up the flagpole these days and see if anyone salutes.

Baceseras said...

The best thing I ever read about Berryman and alcohol was an essay, I forget by whom, in APR a few years after the death. I've tried without success to find it. The author's account of the use of booze and drugs (by creative writers generally, not just B.), in a hunger for changed perception, was given in uncommonly sane and level terms, avoiding both extremes of intolerance and indulgence.