Books: The Metropolitan Critic — John Berryman: On <i>Love & Fame</i> |
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John Berryman: On Love & Fame

Berryman’s self-inflicted extinction has probably already lent Love & Fame the status of a portentous technical collapse, but in the short interval between its publication and his death it looked more like a sport — an amiable, shambling bout of touch football before once again donning full armour and tucking his tail down on the grid-iron. Admittedly some of the poems set in the present or near-present employ material even more doom-laden than the average run of hospital poems in the Dream Songs, but there are few in-built guarantees against our assuming that he isn’t just piling up effects as of old: the drawback of high-intensity accumulation is that it cries Wolf.

          Nights of witches: I dreamt a headless child.
          Sobbings, a scream, a slam.
          Will day glow again to these tossers, and to me?
          I am staying days.

There is a lot of that, principally and intelligibly about himself, secondarily and tendentiously about death-bound fellow inmates barely out of their teens who are glibly paraded as being natural communicants in a holy sacrament of hopelessness.

Heroin & the cops were Tyson’s bit
I don’t know just what Jo’s was, ah but it
was more self-destructive still.
She tried to tear a window & screen out.

One doesn’t doubt the fact of this; one merely worries at the neatness with which the fact suits Berryman’s book. Expert beyond experience, these fearsome children are granted the transcendental nimbus of Seymour Glass — and never a qualification expressed.

The charismatic quality of these charming & sensitive girls
smiled thro’ their vices, all were fond of them
& wished them well.
They sneered: ‘We prefer Hell.’

What will their fates be, Put their heads together,
in their present mental weather,
no power can prevent their dying. That is so. Only, Jo & Tyson, Tyson & Jo,

take up, outside your blocked selves, some small thing
that is moving
& wants to keep on moving
& needs therefore, Tyson, Jo, your loving.

With Love & Fame the tortured flux of the Dream Songs breaks out into clear country, spreading shallow and perspicuous: in the elementary sense it’s his most readable volume by a mile, and makes very obvious his place in the modern tradition of poets who worked by accretion. Unguarded by tangled nets of Dream Song syntax, a strophe like the following demonstrates his reliance on the hallowed Poundian conviction that all the object needs is presentation: with the explanatory held to a minimum, the sententious should emerge at its maximum — but unfortunately the unargued claim to significance turns out to be an extension of rhetoric by other means.

And Bertrand Russell’s little improbable son
said to his teacher, a friend of ours at Princeton,
when they came to ‘two plus two equals four’
piped up `My father isn’t sure of that’.

In the Dream Songs the story of this wee weisenheimer would have been told with greater compression and the gesture towards revelation would have seemed less automatic. Here, forced into Berryman’s line-up of teenage suicides, the boy radiates symbolic significance on the open band. He’s like those embarrassing moments in the Cantos when Pound quotes some gnarled old salt’s salty old saying and ticks it with that Chinese ideograph that’s supposed to mean ‘precision’. No argument given or received.

The first half of the book, before the suicide-laden poems and the exhausted addresses to the Lord, is a portrait of the artist as a young man at school, Columbia and Cambridge. It bears a startling resemblance to Norman Podhoretz’s Making It, not just in its itinerary (Phi Beta Kappa, Clare New Court) but in its psychological outline. The relish for the literary horse-race is exactly the same, except that Berryman raises it from relish to positive mania. Throughout his work since the early Dream Songs, Berryman’s ambitions for major status have been nakedly confessed and played off against his equally intense ambitions to be the poet maudit, like Ginsberg or (more relevantly) like Tristan Corbière, to whose memory Love & Fame is dedicated. Corbière has been called une chienlit permanente, and Berryman for a long time sought the same title. But even in the Dream Songs, where the interplay of these two ambitions is at its most successfully complex, the determination to spill the beans about the dark side of his nature was compromised by unjustified readiness to forgive himself in the name of art. In this way his ambitions served each other to produce a self-serving poetry: he would complicate the account of his drive towards artistic greatness by revealing himself as a slob, and take the edge off that revelation by justifying his behaviour as the experience necessary to artistic greatness. Berryman was a highly introspective poet, alive to many things going in his own mind, but he was never aware of just how consistently he worked this trick. It is the reason why the Dream Songs, which at their best offer a convincing poetic recreation of the mind’s plurality, lapse finally from dialogue into monologue — the pride at the mind’s centre heaps humiliation on itself but remains obstinately intact.

In all the looseness and plainness of Love & Fame there is not much successful intensity, but the anecdotes and reminiscences draw you forward at a great clip, keen to see how it all comes out. Well, now we know: and reading this book after his death we can even convince ourselves that we saw it coming.

(Listener, 1972)