POETS Day! John Berryman

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

I can’t believe it’s POETS Day already. These interminable workdays with their drudgery and stench of responsibility really seem to be zipping by. It feels like just yesterday I was lamenting that due to the holiday there was no work to get out of or early weekend hours to be seized, but here we are and the world is back to its pre-Thanksgiving normal. It’s Friday and you’re stuck at work with visions of the fun you could be up to if only you could slip the sultry bonds of employment and embrace the ethos of the day: Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday. Disassemble, obfuscate, fudge the truth, and gleefully trespass the norms and delicate pieties that preserve our hopefully durable civilization. Nearly all means are justified by the urge to prematurely escape the confines of labor and settle in at a friendly neighborhood joint a few hours before even happy hour begins, lay comfortably in the grass at a local park, go for a swim, or God forbid, go for a light jog. It’s your weekend. Do with it as you will, but in homage to the mighty acronym may I suggest setting aside a moment for a little verse? It’s a particularly good way to pass time waiting on friends who may not run as roughshod over the delicate pieties and were not as successful as you were in engineering an early exit.

This week we feature a poem by John Berryman, or “Burremun” as some of his friends called him (he spent some time in England and came back accented.) He was among those known as the Confessional Poets – a group that included Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Lowell – for the semi to fully autobiographical feel of many of their works. The poets were not amused by the name at all. In his book The Wounded Surgeon, Adam Kirsch writes that “Plath scorned the notion of poetry as “some kind of therapeutic public purge or excretion,’” and that Bishop “deplored the trend toward ‘more and more anguish and less and less poetry.’” Berryman, he wrote, “insisted that ‘the speaker [of a poem] can never be the actual writer,’ that there is always “an abyss between [the poet’s] person and his persona.’” Oh, well. You don’t get to pick your nickname.

For a guy that was so insistent that it be understood that he is separate from his poetic voices, Berryman sure did dare readers to ask, “What about in this poem when…?” In the collection 77 Dream Songs, which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1965, he introduces the character Henry. He would later write that the collection “is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry.” You aren’t supposed to notice the many similarities between Henry and Berryman, especially that both the real and imagined man’s father died by suicide; a gunshot to the head when his son (you can pick either) was a boy.

In the introduction to the John Berryman collection The Heart Is Strange – New Selected Poems, editor Daniel Swift mentions the idea of being in a single instant in two places at the same time. To illustrate, he references one of Berryman’s sonnets (infuriatingly from a different collection and without referencing the title – I would appreciate a heads up if anyone is familiar with the work) about a couple separated by distance who agree to go to different bars and toast each other at six o’clock. The lovers in the sonnet are kept apart by geography. In other poems the simulacrum Henry is inserted between the poet and his experiences. Should there be a suspicion that Henry’s conversant but unnamed literary companion might be the poet, the companion is occasionally in blackface. Layers are interposed. Barriers are held up. There is always “an abyss.”

This week’s poem is “The Minnesota 8 and the Letter-Writers.” I wouldn’t claim that it’s John Berryman at his best*, even of the portion of his works I’ve read. It’s good, but not Earth shattering. I chose it for reasons other than its quality.

His 1970 collection Love & Fame wasn’t terribly well received by reviewers. It appears Berryman took the criticism to heart as he asked his editor to remove six poems from all future editions, which his editor did. Three were, per Daniel Swift, “in sexually explicit detail,” and the other three involved current politics. Among the excised was our featured poem.

In the late evening of July 10th or early morning of the 11th teams of protesters turned vandals broke into to Selective Service Offices simultaneously in various Minnesota cities. The plan was to destroy files starting with those of Americans on deck to be called to service. The FBI was waiting and arrested eight of the perpetrators prompting Berryman to write “The Minnesota 8 and the Letter-Writers.” Again, per Daniel Swift: “Berryman’s poem was first published in the local newspaper later that month, and it shows – unusually and revealingly – the poet as a direct commentator on his political moment.”

I’ve read the poem repeatedly and can’t say what it was that caused him to pull it. I don’t believe it’s the fifth stanza. That’s an accusatory summary of the views he ascribes to others. Sorry. No answers from me. He seems on later consideration to realize that with no veil in place he let slip something he could not deny was his but what that was… It may be that he saw something that he wanted to have identified with him; something he was proud of that he didn’t want to surrender to his detached poetic persona who “can never be the actual writer.” I’m fascinated. I hope you enjoy this one as much as I do.

Thanks to Saul Degraw for suggesting this week’s poet. As a Berryman fan, Saul, you are free to ravage my hasty hobbyist immersion takes on the poet as you see fit.

The Minnesota 8 and the Letter-Writers

John Berryman (1914 – 1972)

Here’s one who wants them hanged. A poor sick mind,
signing itself & saying where it’s from:
St Louis Park. Out of the woodwork vermin come.

To crisis rise our worst, and (some) our best
to dare illegal deeds in an unpopular cause
defying prison because they feel they ought, because

the sanity & honour seem endangered,
or seem convulsed, of their own country, and
a flaccid people can’t be got to understand

its state without some violence undertaken,
by somebody without a thing to gain,
to shock it into resisting, – one program pain

of treatment back to the health of the body politic:
to stop napalming pint-sized yellow men
& their slant-eyed children, and ground arms & come home again.

O the Signers broke the law, and deserved hanging,
by the weird light of the sage of St Louis Park,
who probably admires themThese bear their rare mark.


*His work is worth a delve. The earlier stuff is a fun ride. He’s trying on so many voices – he’ll write like Yeats, then Eliot, then Hopkins, then Harris, then… – in search of his own. Once he does decide on his own you can see the influences (I need them pointed out to me by people with actual erudition rather than my hobbyist’s interest, but they are there) but recognize them as just that.

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