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John Berryman

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:

147

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:

149

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.

Categories
John Berryman

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:

133

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.