I don’t usually share videos here anymore, but this is…remarkable. Someone took a public reading of Dream Song 14 and synched it with the beat from Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”. It brings out certain qualities in the poem that may not be obvious at a first reading.

Prevent my need, Someone

I have declaimed a few Berryman sonnets tonight, all from the delightful Sonnets to Chris. Below a particularly nice one, one of my favorites, for obvious reasons, a late one, too, Sonnet 115.


As usual I am up before the sun
begins to warm this intolerable place
and I have stared all night into your face
but am not wiser thereby. Everyone
rattles his weakness or his thing undone,
I shake you like a rat. Open disgrace
yawns all before me: have I left a trace,
a spoor? Clouding it over, I look for my gun.

She’s hidden it. I won’t sing on of that.
Whiskey is bracing. Failures are my speed,
I thrive on ends, the dog is at my door
in heat, the neighborhood is male except one cat
and they thresh on my stoop. Prevent my need,
Someone, and come & find me on the floor.

Berryman on Pound

If Browning makes the fastest verse in English, Pound makes the slowest, the most discrete and suave. He once said of a story in Dubliners that it was something better than a story, it was “a vivid waiting,” and the phrase yields much of his own quality. There is restlessness, but the art of the poet places itself, above all, immediately and mysteriously at the service of the passive and the elegiac, the nostalgic. The true ascendancy of this personality over any other is suggested by a singular fact: the degree in which the mantic character is absent from his poetry. He looks ahead indeed, looks ahead eagerly, but he does not feel ahead; he feels back. (…) It is the poetry of a late craftsman; of an expatriate of a failing culture

from John Berryman’s essay “The Poetry of Ezra Pound”, collected in Berryman’s indispensable The Freedom of the Poet.

I wondered ever too what my fate would be

John Berryman: The Search

I wondered ever too what my fate would be,
woman & after-fame become quite unavailable,
or at best unimportant. For a tooth-extraction
gassed once, by a Russian woman in Detroit,

I dreamed a dream to end dreams, even my dreams:
I had died – no problem: but a mighty hand
was after my works, too, feeling here & there,
& finding them, bit by bit.
At last he found the final of all one, & pulled it away, & said ‘There!’

I began the historical study of the Gospel
indebted above all to Guignebert
& Goguel & McNeile
& Bultmann even & later Archbishop Carrington.

The Miracles were a stumbling block;
until I read Karl Heim, trained in natural science;
until I had sufficiently attended to
The Transfiguration & The Ecstasy.

I was weak on the Fourth Gospel. I still am,
in places; I plan to amend that.
Wellisch on Isaac & Oedipus
supplements for me Kierkegaard.

Luther on Galatians (his grand joy)
I laid aside until I was older & wiser.
Bishop Andrewes’ account of the Resurrection-appearances
in 1609 seemed to me, seems to me, it.

I studied Titian’s remarks on The Tribute-Money.
Bishop Westcott’s analysis (it took him 25 years)
of the first eighteen verses of St. John
struck me as of a cunning like Odysseus’.

And other systems, high and primitive,
ancient & surviving, did I not neglect,
sky-gods & trickster-gods, gods impotent,
the malice & force of the dead.

When at twelve Einstein lost belief in God
he said to himself at once (as he put it later)
‘Similarly motivated men, both of the past & of the present,
together with their achieved insights,
waren die unverlierbaren Freunde’ – the unloseable friends.

Art & Entertainment

The differences between entertainment and art have less to do with the audience and the writer’s immediate intention than with his whole fundamental attitude toward doing what he does at all. Inverting the common notion, art for the artist we might oddly regard as a means, entertainment for the entertainer an end. (…) [T]he notion of art is “a self-discipline rather than a self-expression,” as Auden has put it.

from John Berryman’s essay “The Case of Ring Lardner”, collected in The Freedom of the Poet.

To slash me shocked

John Berryman: “I didn’t.”

I didn’t. And I didn’t. Sharp the Spanish blade
to gash my throat after I’d climbed across
the high railing of the bridge
to tilt out, with the knife in my right hand
to slash me knocked or fainting till I’d fall
unable to keep my skull down but fearless

unless my wife wouldn’t let me out of the house
unless the cops noticed me crossing the campus
up to the bridge
& clappt me in for observation, costing my job –
I’d be now in a cell, costing my job –
well, I missed that;

but here’s the terror of tomorrow’s lectures
bad in themselves, the students dropping the course,
and Administration hearing
& offering me either a medical leave of absence
or resignation – Kitticat, they can’t fire me –

This is an untitled poem by John Berryman, written on Jan 5, 1972. This version is from my copy of Henry’s Fate & Other Poems, 1967-1972. In Mariani’s biography (Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman), he also quotes the poem, but in Mariani’s version it says “shocked” instead of “knocked” in line 5

John, we used the language as if we made it

Robert Lowell: For John Berryman

I feel I know what you have worked through, you
know what I have worked through – these are words…
John, we used the language as if we made it.
Luck threw up the coin, and the plot swallowed,
monster yawning for its mess of pottage.
Ah privacy, as if you wished to mount
some rock by a mossy stream, and count the sheep –
fame that renews the soul, but not the heart.
The ebb tide flings up wonders: rivers, beer-cans,
linguini, bloodstreams; how merrily they gallop
to catch the ocean – Hopkins, Herbert, Thoreau,
born to die like the athletes at early forty –
Abraham lived with less expectancy,
heaven his friend, the earth his follower.

This is from Lowell’s enormous and perennially underrated long poem Notebook, more precisely, from the first permutation, Notebook 1967-68, which would morph into the 1970’s Notebook first and then split up into History and For Lizzie and Harriet. In the Collected Poems you’ll only find the latter two volumes. FSG has, however, just put out a new edition of Notebook 1967-68, with an introduction by Jonathan Galassi. Highly, highly recommended.

Real Poetry

A dream, a trick, a savage or imbecile attack: any account of his work which hopes for assent will have to try to reconcile these views with each other, and with still other views. All we need agree yet is that it seems to display an essential, obvious coherence, originality and authority, such as will justify any care we may take to appreciate it. (…) The poems have an enigmatic air and yet they are desperately personal. The absence of the panoply of the Poet is striking. We remember that their author did not like to be called a poet nor did he call them poetry himself. How unusual is this, my readers will recognize: most writers of verse are merely dying to be called poets, tremblingly hopeful that what they write is real “poetry.” There was no pose here in Crane. His reluctance was an inarticulate recognition of something strange in the pieces. They are not like literary compositions. They are like things just seen and said, said for use. (…) Crane was not only a man with truths to tell, but an interested listener to this man. His poetry has the inimitable sincerity of a frightened savage anxious to learn what his dream means.

This is from the revised edition of John Berryman’s stunning study of Stephen Crane. Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography (1950, revised edition 1962) is one of the best studies of that odd writer and as for Berryman, it’s quite surprising how little critical attention is paid to that aspect of his work.

To remind you of ‘ow us gaffers used to talk

Tony Harrison: The Queen’s English

Last meal together, Leeds, the Queen’s Hotel
that grandish pile of swank in City Square
Too posh for me, he said (even though he dressed well)
if you wern’t wi’ me ah’d nivver dare!

I knew that he’d decided to die
not by the way he lingered at the bar
not by the look he’d give me with one good-eye
nor by the firmer handshake and the gruff ta-ra
But when he browsed the station bookstall sales
he picked up ‘Poems from the Yorkshire Dales’

‘ere tek this un wi’ yer to New York
to remind you of ‘ow us gaffers used to talk.
It’s up your street in’t it? ‘ahh buy yer that!

The broken lines go through me speeding South –

As t’doctor stopped to oppen woodland yet…
wi’ skill they puttin wuds reet i’ his mouth

This poem is by a poet I’m just trying to discover and sort out in my head. It’s quoted from the Selected Poems (Penguin), and is from the sequence School of Eloquence. (Addendum: I’ve no idea how to do it with the wordpress interface, but the last line should be slightly indented!)

Harrison in general is fascinating, but the poems in School of Eloquence are nothing short of stunning. In them, Harrison shows himself to be one of the select groups of extraordinary poets who have written a sequence of sonnet or sonnet-like poems, which is grafted to the poet’s own unique voice. John Berryman’s Dreamsongs or Robert Lowell’s Notebook (including the stunning revisions in History and For Lizzie and Harriet),Edwin Morgan’s Sonnets from Scotland, Ted Berrigan’s melodious Sonnets or even Geoffrey Hill’s incredible Mercian Hymns (though these are different in significant ways). I think that McHale’s project of discovering the postmodern long poem failed because he didn’t see or care about this pattern of songs that arose at roughly the same time. These are all flabbergasting achievements, although I haven’t read enough of Tony Harrison’s work to properly read and assess his work. But even from the little I have read, I can’t but recommend this excellent poet.

Berryman, Unearthed

I have, on occasion posted videos and links to videos of readings (like this one) and talks (like this one) and of John Berryman. Berryman is, I think, currently my favorite American post-WWII poet. In my review of a critical study of Berryman you may find some reasons for this. Recently, another interview has been put on-line. It was recorded in 1970, two years before Berryman’s departure, the interviewers are William Heyen and Jerome Mazzaro (whose books on Lowell I enjoyed a great deal). It’s in six parts, below you’ll find part 1 and 2. Double-click on any of the videos to access youtube and the other parts.

Part 1 begins with a reading from his poem “The Song of a tortured Girl” (in: The Dispossessed (1948). Click here for the full text)

Softer than a moan

John Berryman: The Song of the Tortured Girl

After a little I could not have told –
But no one asked me this – why I was there.
I asked. The ceiling of that place was high
And there were sudden noises, which I made.
I must have stayed there a long time today:
My cup of soup was gone when they brought me back.

Often ‘Nothing worse now can come to us’
I thought, the winter the young men stayed away,
My uncle died, and mother broke her crutch.
And then the strange room where the brightest light
Does not shine on the strange men: shines on me.
I feel them stretch my youth and throw a switch.

Through leafless branches the sweet wind blows
Making a mild sound, softer than a moan;
High in a pass once where we put our tent,
Minutes I lay awake to hear my joy.
– I no longer remember what they want. –
Minutes I lie awake to hear my joy.

An early poem, from John Berryman’s first collection The Dispossessed (1948), which you can now find in the Collected Poems 1937-1971. Even if you already own one of the many editions of the Dream Songs, this volume, edited by Charles Thornbury, is an indispensable volume, if you’ve got any interest in modern American poetry. “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet”, one of the best American poems of the 20th century alone is worth the price of admission. Buy it. Read it.

Poem of the Day

Of Suicide
by John Berryman

Reflexions on suicide, & on my father, possess me.
I drink too much. My wife threatens separation.
She won’t ‘nurse’ me. She feels ‘inadequate.’
We don’t mix together.

It’s an hour later in the East.
I could call up Mother in Washington, D.C.
But could she help me?
And all this postal adulation & reproach?

A basis rock-like of love & friendship
for all this world-wide madness seems to be needed.
Epicetus is in some ways my favourite philosopher.
Happy men have died earlier.

I still plan to go to Mexico this summer.
The Olmec images! Chichèn Itzài!
D. H. Lawrence has a wild dream of it.
Malcolm Lowry’s book when it came out I taught to my precept at Princeton.

I don’t entirely resign. I may teach the Third Gospel
this afternoon. I haven’t made up my mind.
It seems to me sometimes that others have easier jobs
& do them worse.

Well, we must labour & dream. Gogol was impotent,
somebody in Pittsburgh told me.
I said: At what age? They couldn’t answer.
That is a damned serious matter.

Rembrandt was sober. There we differ. Sober.
Terrors came on him. To us too they come.
Of suicide I continually think.
Apparently he didn’t. I’ll teach Luke.

Samuel Fisher Dodson: Berryman’s Henry: Living at the Intersection of Need and Art

Dodson, Samuel Fisher (2006), Berryman’s Henry: living at the intersection of need and art, Rodopi
ISBN 9789042016897

For a poet as accomplished and unique and, ultimately, well-known as John Berryman, the field of scholarship focused on his work is remarkably small. Apart from a handful of monographs published in the 1970s and 1980s, Berryman’s work has largely been neglected although now and then a new work surfaced, such as Mariani’s biography Dream Song; The Life of John Berryman in 1990 and Recovering Berryman, edited by the invaluable Richard J. Kelly, in 1993. It is only during the past few years that we can witness something close to a renaissance of John Berryman. In short succession, books like After Thirty Falls: New Essays on John Berryman, edited by Philip Coleman and Philip McGowan, Philip Coleman’s own Berryman’s Fate (which I’ve not yet been able to procure) and Samuel Fisher Dodson’s Berryman’s Henry: Living at the Intersection of Need and Art were published and more are being prepared for publication. Much as I applaud this renascent interest in what must surely be one of the best and most significant American poets after the Second World War, the limited breadth of previous Berryman scholarship demands original readings, readings that draw more from Berryman’s own poetry and thinking than on previously published scholarship. Perceptive critics such as Tom Rogers, writing about “The Life of Berryman’s Christ” in After the Fall have achieved just that and a careful look at that collection and individual articles elsewhere reveals that there are more of those kinds of critics around. Sadly, Samuel Fisher Dodson isn’t one of them.

In his book, Dodson attempts to write a comprehensive study of the Dream Songs. Not a definitive study, mind you, but one which discusses the whole of the Dream Songs, pointing out how they cohere as a whole, what individual motifs are and how they resurface throughout the Songs. As far as I know, as a book-length study devoted exclusively to the Dream Songs, Dodson’s book is rare (the ubiquitous Gary Q. Arpin has written the only other one); I assume you would also be hard pressed to find another book (apart from Haffenden’s Commentary perhaps) that discusses the same amount of Songs. Clocking in at about 170 pages, it’s only to be expected that most of the songs mentioned only get a brief treatment, usually by having a verse or two quoted in defense or support of one of Dodson’s arguments. Dodson also provides rather sweeping accounts of the genre of the epic and the elegy, quoting copiously from a handful of books on the subject, such as Peter Sacks’ The English Elegy. He tries to make a case for Berryman as one of the greats by placing him in the tradition of Homer, Virgil and Dante, an attempt that, while interesting, even intriguing in concept, is executed in a confused and confusing manner. Dodson’s wild mixture of names, of major and minor characters, is less a sustained and reasoned argument and more a riff on books and ideas. It is quite fitting that this is part of the “Prologue” (Dodson’s book has both a “Preface” and a “Prologue”), since the flawed methodological thinking it betrays informs much of the rest of the book as well. Nevertheless, Dodson’s book is comprehensive and it is one of the most extensive studies of the Dream Songs, so far, even though I found it of little use as a work of Berryman scholarship.

Dodson’s book focuses on four major areas, which correspond to his four chapters: Berryman’s language, Berryman’s father, Berryman’s elegies and Berryman’s answers to the existential questions. Although this structure makes sense, Dodson makes very little use of the possibilities of building one chapter upon the results of another. Indeed, the reader is frequently led to wonder whether Dodson suffered a mild kind of amnesia while writing his study. To pick, almost at random, one example out of many: in the first of these chapters, he remarks upon Berryman’s use of the pronoun and discusses “the freedom [Berryman] discovered when he allowed his narrating persona to refer to himself in first, second and third person”, explaining lucidly enough how this mechanism works in Berryman’s poetry and to what ends Berryman uses it. Two chapters later, however, as he discusses different drafts of a dream song and notes that a first person reference has been replaced by a third person reference, these insights are all out the window. Instead, it now turned into a personal choice to better hide grief and feelings. At no point in the book are changes like this ever explained. A similarly baffling case is presented by Dodson’s shuffling about of Berryman and the persona (personas?) of his poems. At no point in the book does Dodson take some time to elaborate upon the relationship between Henry and Berryman; make no mistake, he frequently remarks upon it, but the conclusions he draws from these remarks vary from chapter to chapter. Dodson is content to let the rhetoric of his chapters form the methodology of his book, whereas I hoped to see the reverse taking place, especially with a complex poet like Berryman.

The complexity of Berryman’s work is nevertheless well served by that first chapter, which does a good job of explaining some important aspects of Berryman’s language and form. The fact that a closer look frequently reveals flaws, mistakes or superficial readings doesn’t change that. The chapter is most valuable in its discussion of the poetic form of the dream songs, providing a very good overview of the variations and the constants in Berryman’s use of the form he invented. In other areas, however, Dodson’s performance is less than satisfactory. In his discussion, for example, of Berryman’s use of blackface, Berryman’s source on blackface, Carl Wittke’s Tambo and Bones: A History of the American Minstrel Stage, from which one of the epigraphs to the dream songs is taken, is not mentioned (it doesn’t surface in the bibliography either); a theory, however, which isn’t uncontroversial, from what I gather, that reads minstrel shows as white parodies of black parodies of whites, which is a concept with interesting but difficult implications, this theory is nonchalantly introduced in a footnote, while the main body of the text is kept surprisingly free from any trace of other research. In writing about as brilliant a scholar as Berryman, who drew from multiple sources and who could be relied on to provide a complex and glitteringly ambiguous statement on many topics in his work, this is almost insulting. Dodson proceeds to elaborate on the way that the Dream Songs attack racism, but his failure to include research into blackface causes him to miss a few central points, two of which are these: One, Wittke’s book is very interesting. It’s not reprinted today because, from what I read of it so far, it’s faintly racist, Wittke writes approvingly of blackface, he invokes the burnt cork circle with longing. Since Dodson correctly points out Berryman’s concerns with racism, this is an interesting tangent worth pursuing. Another tangent can be derived from the confluence of Berryman’s use of blackface and of his complex evocation and identification with Jews (“The Imaginary Jew” is not just an early story of his, the phrase also resurfaces in the Dream Songs). Even a cursory research into blackface and minstrelsy would have uncovered the intriguing relationship between the Jewish experience in America and blackface (as discussed, for example, in Michael Rogin’s helpful study Blackface, White Noise). None of this is part of Berryman’s Henry and economy does not appear to be the probable reason for that absence.

That was slightly insulting to Berryman, since it ignored the intellectual wealth and strength of his mind, but a different aspect, Dodson’s discussion of Henry’s obsession with sex is problematic in a different way because it ignores a direct reference by Berryman himself. Now, I am not yet sure about the extent to which different parts of Berryman’s work can be connected and whether the author’s intention should carry any weight at all in a work of literary criticism, but since Dodson clearly has no comparable qualms, he must be judged by his own standards. Upon mentioning sexuality, Dodson tells us that Henry “uses sex as a way to feel both alive and needed” and maintains that “Henry’s clouded view that sex will reinforce his ego is revealed for its hollow premise”. I suggest that this reading tells us more about Dodson’s prejudice and boudoir morals than about Berryman’s attitude as expressed in his work. I’m referring, of course, to a rather famous passage in Berryman’s unfinished and only novel Recovery. Berryman describes the protagonist Alan Severance (who, according to Dodson, is Berryman’s “most thinly veiled” persona) as having been “a rigid Freudian for thirty years, with heavy admixture however from Reich’s early work”. It’s easy to see that a consideration of Reichian psychology would shed much light on the issue of sexuality, especially on the scholarly foundations of the aforementioned “hollow premise”. This is not to say that, overall, Dodson may not be right, but that claim, without recourse to Berryman’s sources and his frame of reference, is just utterly baseless. These two instances are not the only ones where Dodson treats Berryman like a hysterical woman instead of a serious scholar, but, apart from the last chapter, where religion gets the exact same treatment, these two are the most blatant and bothersome cases.

The next two chapters are less problematic overall but also less interesting. In the first of these chapters Samuel Fisher Dodson sketches Berryman’s relationship to his father, not failing to mention Paul Mariani’s Courtney Love-esque theory about John Smith’s apparent suicide. This biographical knowledge is then tied into a reading of the Dream Songs as a continuous conflict with paternal figures, a continuous attempt to provide an elegy to his father and the struggle with his own role as a father. While one may take issue with the nonchalant mixing of biographic and literary fact, doing so is pretty orthodox in the realm of Berryman scholarship, so Dodson is hardly to blame. In fact, this chapter is neatly done, with discussions of letters, older drafts of dreams songs. There is little here that exceeds previous scholarship but since the book attempts to provide an introduction of sorts to the Dream Songs, there doesn’t need to be. The only bigger flaw that becomes more obvious in a chapter that is less fraught with other problems, is Dodson’s use of sources, especially those sources that do not talk about Berryman or the Dream Songs. Throughout the book, Dodson quotes extensively from books on the form of the elegy, for example or on the predicament of modern American poetry, at the beginning of the fourth chapter he even spends half a page retelling Pär Lagerkvist’s Barnabas (which is not a book on Berryman nor does Berryman ever refer to it in any way), but he makes no actual use of these quotes. Frequently there are stunning insights or interesting ideas in these quotes but Dodson is apparently content handing them to us. It would make next to no difference to the rest of the text of you were to cut these quotes from it, so little use does Dodson make of it. Each and every one of these quotes feels like an afterthought, added moments before the deadline, not disturbing yet also not enhancing Dodson’s thinking.

What I said about the second chapter, “I repeat that & increase it” (to quote John Allyn) in respect to the third chapter, which is the most stringent, well-constructed and, at the same time, dull of Berryman’s Henry‘s chapters. Here Dodson carefully, slowly and scrupulously recounts Berryman’s elegies, showing how mourning and Berryman’s oft-quoted “epistemology of loss” have as much a part in their construction, as Berryman’s self-image as a writer, and Berryman’s grappling with death. Again, he doesn’t expand the field of Berryman scholarship in any significant way, and again, he is upstaged by the people he quotes, such as Albert Gelpi. Where Gelpi interestingly claims Berryman as a “Neoromantic” who believes “that the word can effect personal and social change” (quoted by Dodson!) Dodson seamlessly goes on to tell us that Berryman “used the elegy to isolate his grief in a world that wants him to move on”, a much less interesting, much less trenchant observation, an observation, indeed, that’s barely worth making, especially since it’s not the first time in the book he’s made a comparable claim. However, it is this chapter’s function to prepare the ground for the last chapter, which is about belief, doubt and death.

Dodson has correctly assumed that question of salvation, of belief, of religious doubt, questions that border on theodicy are most central to Berryman’s literary work. I share that opinion. Berryman’s poetry is deeply invested in theological thinking, as “The Search” from the collection Love & Fame demonstrates, which recounts a lifetime of research. Now, I am aware of the fact that Berryman’s religiosity has frequently been badly served by his scholars, even as insightful and valuable a critic as John Haffenden insists upon all religious reference to be largely personal, secular in nature, leaning towards disbelief; how skewed his opinion in this respect is becomes clear when he reads the Karl Heim reference in “The Search” as proof of Berryman’s need to disbelief, that Berryman “allows that Jesus is an enthusiast”, when that exact reference, if anything, is proof of the opposite, as Tom Rogers in his aforementioned essay pointed out. Dodson, like Haffenden and many others (including historians such as Jennifer Michael Hecht in her study Doubt: A History) confuses doubt with disbelief. Earlier I mentioned the disregard that some critics have for Berryman as a thinker; this disregard is most blatant in this area. Although numerous allusions to Pascal and Kierkegaard should clarify the role of doubt as religious doubt, as part of a religiously informed thinking and search that takes place within the bounds of Christian lore and thinking, although, as Haffenden, in his “Appendix 2” to his Commentary points out, there is a good deal of thinking about Buddhism (similarities with the work of American Catholic Thomas Merton, author of The Seven Storey Mountain are undeniable, though his Asian Journal was published a year after Berryman’s death) in the songs as well. Dodson is similarly wrong and unfaithful to Berryman when he maintains that “Henry rejects God because he sees suffering in the lives of so many”, instead of raising both the question of theodicy and drawing a connection to the Dream Songs’ epigraphs, among which, as he mentions himself, is a quote from the Lamentations. The role of the lamentations has, I think, been severely underestimated, mostly due to the disregard for the complexity of Berryman’s thinking. His reference to Celan in Dream gives his game away. Both the lamentations, as well as the Book of Job, which Haffenden correctly recognizes as another of the poems’ Biblical sources, are, in turn, connected to the death of Henry’s father, mourning and the genre of the elegy. It all ties in with the blackface and Jews and modern horrors as well and is, indeed, the best and most fruitful angle from which to do Berryman scholarship.

None of this, which is in plain sight, is taken up by Dodson, although he prepared the ground for it. One reason may simply be sloppy research. Not only does he not use a good deal of existing Berryman scholarship, he’s also not thorough in his own. This is the only explanation for his reading, in the conclusion of his book, of a stanza in the “11th Adress to the Lord” as containing “praise toward an early Christian Martyr, Germanicus and a loyal servant, ‘Polycarp (…)’”. In fact, the stanza contains a direct quote (minus an ‘and’) from Kirsopp Lake’s translation of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, who is a servant to the Lord. Now, Dodson’s formulation is ambiguous, it could refer to both, but it’s likely he did not understand or research the allusion. However, Dodson’s resistance here is understandable, if not excusable. He needs to create a secular Henry, a modern, disbelieving protagonist who wants to believe but can’t, in order to sustain his thesis which is that Henry is a modern Everyman. This is where he finds Berryman’s significance and it is not a bad place for his study to end up. This study that I have been so dissatisfied with might be palatable or even enjoyable to a novice of Berryman’s work. It’s not a bad work, as introduction; the task has been daunting enough and kudos to Dodson for taking it on. What is a problem is his riding all over the poet he’s so centrally concerned with. He is a thrifty scholar, giving Berryman only as much space as his skewered methodology allows him. He needs Berryman to be a sufferer, a pained secular Christ figure, almost, and the way he pounces on those instances where that aspect of Berryman/Henry becomes clearer is almost distasteful. John Berryman is an exquisite poet and a complex thinker, who thinks through his poetry, frequently, and he deserves a critic who reads him on his own terms, who takes him seriously.


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“This is not a cultural event. This is entertainment!”

You remember I posted two videos of Berryman reading? Well, aparently there’s more where that came from. I found more stuff online today. It’s a reading that a youtube user has put online in six parts. Below is the video to the first part, below that I added the links to the other parts. Berryman is an incredible poet, he soars, crawls, shouts, whispers, cries, beseeches, and all this with an amazing control of language and form. One of the greatest poets of the 20th century. These readings are highly enjoyable.

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

Poem of the Day

Dreamsong 28 by John Berryman

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
sats heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.

On Delmore Schwartz

Schwartz, “the genius of the old partisan group” (Atlas 378) left his mark on a whole generation of poets and it is sad that this aspect of his is even less recognized than his poetic prowess (He has at least a Bollingen Prize to show for that, which makes it somehow hard to deny altogether). Lowell, whom we pegged earlier as one of the pioneers of Postmodernism, observed in interviews that he had “never met anyone who has somehow as much seeped into me”, Berryman revealed in similar interviews that he thought Schwartz was “the most underrated poet of the twentieth century” (both quotations: Atlas 378). Also, “[m]any of the new writers looked back to Delmore Schwartz [who] was known […] as a writer’s writer” (Ruland and Bradbury 336). Kenneth Koch went to Princeton in order to become a student of Schwartz’s (cf. Atlas 268) and John Ashbery notes that

of all the […] poets who have influenced me […] Schwartz is the one whose work is least known today and therefore the one most in need of elucidating for the benefit of anyone […] who might be interested in my work. (Ashbery 3)

Indeed, many elements of Ashbery’s poetry can surely be found in Schwartz’s work, but the most influential aspect of Schwartz’s poetry might well be his unconcern with dogma, without being downright rebellious in the way that Ginsberg was. Early Ashbery poems such as “Glazunoviana” or “The Grapevine” sound so Schwartzian in their structure and (postmodern) form that its easy to see the correspondence.

The poet who was most influenced by Schwartz was John Berryman, whose Dream Songs are a landmark of postmodern literature. “[T]he gullible Berryman” (Atlas 209) so admired Schwartz that he “became inarticulated in his presence and […] relied on Delmore’s advice in literary matters” (209); Schwartz was probably the first one who saw in Berryman’s early derivative poetry the promise of considerable talent, as he “did everything he could to promote [Berryman’s] reputation” (210). Additionally, the influence of Schwartz on individual poems “crucial to [Berryman’s] development” (Matterson 1) has been demonstrated satisfactorily (cf. Matterson 1ff.).

This takes us to the point where we have to consider the reasons for Delmore Schwartz’s bad standing today. If he was as influential and innovative as I claim, why is he not more famous today? Why do critics claim that “his best poetry was behind him after 1939” (Bauer, “The Figure of the Film Critic as Virile Poet”, 118), when Genesis was unwritten, as was most of the brilliant later poetry? There are several reasons for this. A particularly simple explanation might be that the rejection of Schwartz’s later poetry might be due to a reactionary strain in post-war criticism which had also tried to muffle or outright silence the poetry of the Beat poets (cf. Thurley 210f.); this reactionary strain represents a continuity of New Criticism. But Schwartz was also rejected by his friends and even by his admirers. Even as perceptive a critic as Jarrell denied the worth of Schwartz’s post-1939 poetry (cf. Travisano 20). This cannot be explained away with snobbishness.

The real problem was twofold. At first, Schwartz’s postmodernism was not a case of slight or subtle variation, it was a full shift. For this shift, however, “the taste and critical vocabulary […] had not yet been invented” (Kirsch 223) when Schwartz initiated the demise of his reputation with Genesis in 1943. The literary system had not changed with him, and the function of his post-modern aestetic was not able to unfold properly (cf. Tynjanov 439ff.), as it would’ve had twenty years later. Elizabeth Bishop could not help but call the late poetry of Schwartz “really bad” (Travisano 19). New Critical ideals even noticeably influenced the negative attitude towards the late poetry by Schwartz’s own biographer, James Atlas (cf. Bawer 147). Certainly, there are poets who made their way despite being marginalized by the literay world. These are those poets who establish alternative canons, such as Olson and the Black Mountain poets or the budding New York School of poets, which stared to form in the 1940’s, whereas Schwartz was not able to detach himself from mainstream criticism.

After the Middle Generation poets on the one hand, and experimental postmodernists on the other hand, had established themselves during the 1970’s in academic discourse, the way for a reevaluation of Schwartz was clear, but it never happened. When his new style finally fitted the literary system, it was too late. The trias of Berryman, Bellow and Atlas had already destroyed the basis for an unbiased evaluation of Schwartz’s poetry. The emerging canon of postmodern literature was partly dominated by confessional poetry (Which was and is easier palatable than Schwartz’s pioneering efforts in the 1940’s, as his poetry of that time is burdened by a grave, complicated language, whereas the easy, flowing lines of the late Lowell or Sexton can be understood easier and faster), and partly by experimental poetry, as we saw earlier. Schwartz’s poetry fits neither category. When, finally, in the 1980’s (cf. Huyssen 17f.) political aspects were becoming important factors for inclusion into the canon, Schwartz’s way into the canon was closed once and for all, on account of his blatant ignorance of all things political.
All of this meant that he had never a chance to be recognized as a poet of Postmodernism.

The themes of Schwartz’s poetry “are chiefly […] awe and abyss” (Ozick 12; italics hers). He writes with an intensity which became rare in modern poetry since Swinburne had lost his spark. ‘Awe’ and ‘abyss’ are fine descriptions of his work, they show why he was exceptional. He was filled with ‘awe’ of his literary forebears. Ford in particular has meticulously shown how indebted Schwartz was to the French modernist poets and Schwartz’s correspondence with the great modernist poets such as Pound, Stevens, Eliot and Auden showcases his deep admiration of their faculties (cf. Atlas 178 and elsewhere). Yet he evinced the abyss, too, in his work, the pessimism, the doubt that what he believed to be true was really right. He was one of the first to explore the possibilities of a poetry that breaks with modernist ideals. His courage to write the kind of revolutionary poetry he wrote, should be admired. But he failed, and the body of verse he left us is contradictory and uneven. It is hard to come to terms with this poet.

There are more problems than simply prevailing critical opinion. There is also the confusion about a definition of Postmodernism, which seems to change every time someone writes a book about it. In postmodernist poetry, the case is even more complicated, as even McHale, the author of one of the clearest and finest definitions of postmodern novels, surrendered to the difficulties of such a definition,. He conceded that he had not “been able to identify any ‘umbrella’-model capable of accomodating the full range of postmodernist features” (McHale, The Obligation Toward the Difficult Whole, 251). The best accounts of postmodern poetry similarly shy away of ‘umbrella’-models, such as Lynn Kellers brilliant study. But this retreat into particulars just postpones the problem, in my understanding. However, the seeds of a theory of postmodern poetry have been planted in McHale’s approach to postmodern novels, where he uses a term of Jakobson, the change of dominant (cf. McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, 6ff.). It seems to me that this is a direction worth pursuing. A fellow Russian Formalist, Jurij Tynjanov, has proposed a theory of literary evolution, where the text, its elements and the literary system surrounding it form a cohesive unit. The question of how to evaluate literary evolution becomes a question of relation between the elements of the literary system.

To explain the changes from one set of relations in the literary system to another, you have to take into account not only stylistic changes, McHale’s échec demonstrated this sufficiently. You have to also take literary evaluations into account, not only criticism, but also the different types of canons and their functions within the system. You will have to be prepared to suspend the kind of schematic chronology inherent in the term ‘tradition’, so you can find changes and influences (See for instance Wilson’s account of the difficult relation between the work of Yeats and Delmore Schwartz, which defies critical wisdom on how tradition worked within Modernism) where you might not have expected them, for instance the autobiographically tinged poem of Schwartz’s in his first collection of poems. In such an approach one might demonstrate how the poetry of Wilbur, Olson or Creeley is, for all intents and porposes, modernist and the poetry of Schwartz postmodernist.

Thus, the gift of Delmore Schwartz to literature is threefold. One aspect are the texts themselves. The second aspect is the influence on many poets of Postmodernism, whereby he might have shaped the literary style we call postmodern. The third and last aspect is the potential gift of clarity: we might arrive at a better understanding of postmodernism and modernism if we try to understand Delmore Schwartz.

Do you hear, do you see? Do you understand me now, and how
The words for what is my heart do not exist? (Schwartz, Summer Knowledge, 228)