Berryman and Schwartz

Judging from his book’s dedication to Delmore Schwartz and from the sheer number of poems where he’s mentioned, Delmore’s death must have been devastating to Berryman. Perhaps that’s merely because Schwartz was once his teacher. If so, Schwartz must have had a powerful influence on him.

Interestingly, a Berryman interview from the the Paris Review touches both on Berryman’s view of fame, another major theme, and his relationship to Schwartz — not to mention a million other things.

As the interviewer points out, this one sounds a little Shakesperian:


Henry’s mind grew blacker the more he thought.
He looked onto the world like the act of an aged whore.
Delmore, Delmore.
He flung to pieces and they hit the floor.
Nothing was true but what Marcus Aurelius taught,
‘All that is foul smell and blood in a bag.’

He lookt on the world like the leavings of a hag.
Almost his love died from him, any more.
His mother & William
were vivid in the same mail Delmore died.
The world is lunatic. This is the last ride.
Delmore, Delmore.

High in the summer branches the poet sang.
His throat ached, and he could sing no more.
All ears closed
across the heights where Delmore and Gertrude sprang
so long ago, in the goodness of which it was composed.
Delmore, Delmore!

There’s certainly a point at which thinking becomes counterproductive, where one needs to just experience life directly if one is to function, as most of us have probably experienced at one point or another. Which is not to say that it is possible to quit thinking once you’ve reached that point.

The Marcus Aurelius quotation comes from this section of his meditations:

“Does Panthea or Pergamus now sit by the tomb of Verus? Does Chaurias or Diotimus sit by the tomb of Hadrianus? That would be ridiculous. Well, suppose they did sit there, would the dead be conscious of it? and if the dead were conscious, would they be pleased? and if they were pleased, would that make them immortal? Was it not in the order of destiny that these persons too should first become old women and old men and then die? What then would those do after these were dead? All this is foul smell and blood in a bag.”

I wonder if Berryman purposely drew a quotation from a section that begins:

THIS reflection also tends to the removal of the desire of empty fame, that it is no longer in thy power to have lived the whole of thy life, or at least thy life from thy youth upwards, like a philosopher; but both to many others and to thyself it is plain that thou art far from philosophy. Thou hast fallen into disorder then, so that it is no longer easy for thee to get the reputation of a philosopher; and thy plan of life also opposes it

Some have argued that tragedy is no longer possible in the 20th Century, but it certainly seems tragic to me when a poet with a beautiful voice descends into madness, “flung to pieces and they hit the floor.”

This poems suggests that Schwartz played a much more powerful role than merely teacher for Berryman, Henry:


This world is gradually becoming a place
where I do not care to be any more. Can Delmore die?
I don’t suppose
in all them years a day went ever by
without a loving thought for him. Welladay.
In the brightness of his promise,

unstained, I saw him thro’ the mist of the actual
blazing with insight, warm with gossip
thro’ all our Harvard years
when both of us were just becoming known
I got him out of a police-station once, in Washington, the world is tref
and grief too astray for tears.

I imagine you have heard the terrible news,
that Delmore Schwartz is dead, miserably & alone,
in New York: he sang me a song
‘I am the Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz
Harms & the child I sing, two parents’ torts’
when he was young & gift-strong.

I really don’t know why Schwartz was so important to him, but it’s clear that his loss affected “Henry” in the same way that the father’s suicide haunts these poems.

Perhaps it’s the “miserably” and “alone,” despite his fame and talent, that so terrifies Henry.

Berryman’s Dream Song 133

As Theresa noted, fame, or at least the need for fame, is a recurring theme in The Dream Songs. I like this one because it looks at fame from a different perspective:


As he grew famous-ah, but what is fame? –
he lost his old obsession with his name,
things seemed to matter less,
including the fame-a television team came
from another country to make a film of him
which did not him distress:

he enjoyed the hard work & he was good at that,
so they all said-the charming Englishmen
among the camera & the lights
mathematically wandered in his pub & livingroom
doing their duty, as too he did it,
but where are the delights

of long-for fame, unless fame makes him feel easy?
am cold & weary, said Henry, fame makes me feel lazy,
yet I must do my best.
t doesn’t matter, truly. It doesn’t matter truly.
It seems to be solely a matter of continuing Henry
voicing & obsessed.

Having gained fame, not surprisingly he finds fame does not bring what he thought it would bring, does not make “him feel easy.”

He may no longer obsess about his lack of fame, but neither does he find what he’s looking for in it.

Fame does not resolve the issues that made him seek fame in the first place for there is still something inside making Henry obsess. This doesn’t come as any great surprise, of course, because we see this in far too many stars who gain fame only to spiral into a meteoric tailspin, perhaps because they realize what they’ve devoted their whole life to attaining isn’t really what they wanted, or need, after all.

Berryman’s Dream Song 66

Though I find myself much more drawn to Berryman’s writing style than to his vision of life, it’s impossible to ignore his insights into life (even if he seemed totally unable to apply any of those insights to himself).

Poem 66 seems to be trying to make a statement about the relationship between fame and virture, as suggested by the lines “How feel a fellow then when he arrive/ in fame but lost?”


‘All virtues enter into this world:’)
A Buddhist, doused in the street, serenely burned.
The Secretary of State for War,
winking it over, screwed a redhaired whore.
Monsignor Capovilla mourned. What a week.
A journalism doggy took a leak

against absconding coon (‘but take one virtue,
without which a man can hardly hold his own’)
the sun in the willow
shivers itself & shakes itself green-yellow
(Abba Pimen groaned, over the telephone,
when asked what that was:)

How feel a fellow then when he arrive
in fame but lost? but affable, top-shelf.
Quelle sad semaine.
He hardly know his selving. (‘that a man’)
Henry grew hot, got laid, felt bad, survived
(‘should always reproach himself’.

Lines two through four offer an interesting contrast between two “famous” people, the Buddhist priest who made headlines all over the world when he burned himself to death to protest the Vietnam War. The equally famous “Secretary of State for War” (would that be McNamara?) winked at the monk’s act while making love to a redhaired whore. It’s pretty clear who has the moral high ground here, but I’m betting given those choices most people would choose not to be the monk. I know the only matches I was lighting about then were igniting the cigarettes I used to calm my nerves and stay awake while on guard duty.

Part of what haunts the narrator, and all of us, is the moral ambiguity of life. This ambiguity pervades the poem but is suggested strongly by this quotation from St. Pimen the Great:

A brother asked Abba Pimen: “What constitutes repentance of sin?” The elder replied: “Never to commit this sin again. The sinless and the righteous are so called because they have rejected their sins and have become righteous.”

Abba Pimen said: “Man has constant need of humility, spiritual wisdom and the fear of God, just as he needs the air that he breathes through his nostrils.”
Abba Pimen said: “If man reaches the state of which the Apostle said: for the pure one everything is pure, he will see himself the worst of all creation.” A brother said to him: “How can I consider myself to be worse than murderers?” The elder replied: “If a man reaches the spiritual state indicated by the Apostle, and sees another man who had committed murder, he will say to himself: that man committed the sin only once, while I kill myself and others with my sins daily!”

I would assume that the narrator himself had come under criticism for “absconding,” or for his lack of virtue. He goes so far as to suggest that he handled that criticism by getting laid — and feeling bad. Though, of course, the tone of these poems seem to indicate that he didn’t get off quite that easily.

Berryman’s The Dream Songs

John Berryman’s The Dreamworks has been sitting on my shelf since the early 70’s, and, though I’ve tried to start it a few times, I think Theresa William’s
recent announcement that she was going to use it in a new course she is teaching inspired me to finally start reading the book.

There’s little doubt that the poems are hard to understand, reminding me in several ways of Roethke’s “The Lost Son,” particularly in its personal obscurity. One is required to read multiple poems in order to truly understand any single poem, much in the same way that we must learn about another person’s personal life before we can truly understand some of their actions. (Of course, it also helps if you spend a little time on the internet (or in the library) reading about the author’s life.

Several critics note that Berryman is linked not only to the “Confessional Poets,” but also to the Beats, and though the subject matter certainly seems confessional in the same sense that much of Roehtke’s poetry was, his style, particularly its use of informal language does remind me of the best Beat poets.

One of my favorites is the number 1, perhaps because I could hear Berryman read it here


Huffy Henry hid the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point, a trying to put things over.
It was the thought that they thought
they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
But he should have come out and talked.

All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry’s side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don’t see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.

What he has now to say is a long
wonder the world can bear & be.
Once in a sycamore I was glad
all at the top, and I sang.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.

This poem serves rather well as an introduction to the collection, at least to the first fifty poems that I’ve finished so far. A central event in Berryman’s life was his father’s suicide when he was a young boy. Naturally enough, that event haunted him throughout the rest of his life, or at least it seems so if we are to judge his life by his poems.

There’s considerable argument whether Henry is or is not Berrryman, but if it is, no wonder he wonders how Henry can survive, “pried open for all the world to see.”

Unlike many people, Berryman does not seem able to find comfort in the idea that his father has found a happier place in heaven:


He yelled at me in Greek,
my God! It’s not his language
and I’m no good at his is Aramaic,
was I am a monoglot of English
(American version) and, say pieces from
a baker’s dozen others: where’s the bread?

but rising in the Second Gospel, pal:
The seed goes down, god dies,
a rising happens,
some crust, and then occurs an eating. He said so,
a Greek idea,
troublesome to imaginary Jews,

like bitter Henry, full of the death of love,
Cawdor uneasy, disambitious, mourning
the whole implausible necessary thing.
He dropped his voice & sybilled of
the death of the death of love.
I ought to get going.

Instead of his father’s death bringing the narrator closer to Jesus, and that’s obviously who this poem is about, the narrator sees Jesus’ death as the foreshadowing of the “death of the death of love.” From the opening “my God!” which to me suggests Jesus’ words on the Cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” this death doesn’t seem to offer redemption, but, rather, leaves him abandoned, forsaken, incapable of love.