[lit-ideas] Re: American poetic scene at the beginning of 72

  • From: "Andy Amago" <aamago@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Wed, 11 Oct 2006 09:48:32 -0400

I don't know that Berryman intentionally gave up his life any more than someone 
in business intentionally gives up their life for their business.  Berryman 
drank for the same reason anyone drinks, to numb his pain.  His pain came out 
of childhood.  His multiple relationships were another way of filling the 
vacuum left by his parents.  He happened to have a talent for poetry and he 
used it and competed with it.  In the end, we're all dead and, eventually, with 
very very few mythologized exceptions, all forgotten.  15 minutes, 15 years, 
150 years, time marches on past everybody.  Berryman did well.  It's sad that 
he hurt so much that he killed himself, but ultimately he was like everybody 
else; he left a body of work that some will admire and others will scorn, and 
all will eventually forget.

----- Original Message ----- 
From: Lawrence Helm 
To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
Sent: 10/11/2006 1:13:38 AM 
Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: American poetic scene at the beginning of 72

Interesting idea Mike, but Dream Songs, Berryman?s magnum opus, was 
autobiographical.  Henry was a nickname one of his wives, Anne I think, had for 
him.  She called him Henry and he called her Mabel.  So if you read the Dream 
Songs, whatever your poetical philosophy, you?ll know how it ends.

Ages ago poets wrote poems that could be separated from their lives -- at least 
that is an idea it would be hard to disprove, Iliad, Odyssey, and Beowulf, for 
example, but consider The Divine Comedy.  If we didn?t know so much about Dante 
we might not have realized that some of those in Hell are there because Dante 
was interested in getting even with them.  He was a very vengeful fellow.  And 
of course there was a theory in the early 20th century to the effect that a 
poet?s life had nothing to do with his poetry, but that idea, I believe, has 
long since been abandoned.  Now, I believe, most critics think you need to 
understand a poet?s bio to understand his poetry.  For example, Hugh Kenner 
wrote The Pound Era and his insights reawakened an interest in Pound (very 
difficult to understand without biographical insights).  And then there is 
Stephen Burt?s Randall Jarrell and his Age.  Jarrell was considered a critic 
primarily except for a few anthologized poems, but Burt opened 
 up his poetry to general appreciation. 

However, I didn?t mean to imply that my opinion of Berryman?s poetry was 
affected by my poor opinion of him, if that?s what you were thinking.  What I 
meant to convey was that Berryman gave up his life, in a manner of speaking, 
for his poetry and when I first read it I thought it was marvelous -- in other 
words I tended to think it was (arguably) worthwhile to give up a life for such 
a body of great poetry.  When I reread it years later it didn?t have the same 
effect on me.  When I first read it I thought Berryman would go down as a major 
poet.  Now I think perhaps not; which, if I am right in my current opinion of 
him, means he gave up his life for something of minor value, so to speak.  So 
that?s one thing I thought.

Another is that they (Berryman and his competitors) may not have been in it for 
the absolute value of their poetry but for the fame.  They knew each other.  
Toward the end it was important to Berryman to be considered king of the poetic 
hill.  Was he king or was it Lowell?  Lowell seemed to give up toward the end.  
Lots of poets seemed to fall by the wayside, and they held grudges, Allen Tate 
for example.  They wanted the poetic prize but couldn?t compete, and they were 
bitter.  In other words they weren?t measuring themselves against any absolute 
idea of poetic value but against the relative idea of who was to be recognized 
as the top-dog poet.


From: lit-ideas-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx [mailto:lit-ideas-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx] On 
Behalf Of Mike Geary
Sent: Tuesday, October 10, 2006 8:28 PM
To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: American poetic scene at the beginning of 72

Thank you, Lawrence, for that post.  From my perspective a writer's personal 
life has nothing to do with his writings.  No more so than any of the equipment 
I fix everyday has anything to do with my personal life.  I learned how to do 
what I do through my personal life, of course, and maybe some bits of intuition 
help from time to time -- mechanical intuition, I've often found, is strongest 
in those more mechanically trained than I am.  But the point is that if the 
best AC man in the city kills himself tonight, it has no reflection on his work 
-- why then that of an artist?  An artist is no different than a mechanic.  An 
artist's work is his work, it's not him.  Artists work in paints or stone or 
words or body movements or sound.  AC artists work in metal wear.The 
inclination to identify an artist with her work is bullshit.  Artists are all 
merchants, don't forget that.  Just like preachers.   Only Academics are pure 
souls.  And Marines, of course.

Mike Geary
----- Original Message ----- 
From: Lawrence Helm 
To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx 
Sent: Tuesday, October 10, 2006 9:46 PM
Subject: [lit-ideas] American poetic scene at the beginning of 72

-----Original Message-----
From: Steve Chilson
Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: American poetic scene at the end of 52

thanks for this, Lawrence.  I wouldn't mind reading more excerpts of it
if you're so inclined...


I finished Berryman?s biography yesterday.  Berryman became a great success.  
He won all the prizes, got all the recognition, had women falling all over 
themselves for him (and he really liked women -- lots of them) and he was 
famous.  Everyone knew who he was.  So here he is for us, we poetasters, we who 
fall short of the real thing.  Here is what it would be like to move from 
amateur to professional:  No more money worries, no more worries about having 
to teach classes he didn?t want to.  It is all his.  He is there.  It is 
January 1972 and he is at the pinnacle of his success:

?Friday morning, January 7, after another restless night, Berryman told Kate he 
was going to his office to put his things in order.  Kate sent Martha to 
school, then bundled Sarah to do the shopping.  ?You won?t have to worry about 
me anymore,? he told her as she went out.  But she?d heard that one before too. 
 At half past eight he put on his coat and scarf and walked down to University 
Avenue.  There he caught the shuttle bus heading west toward campus.  He passed 
the stores along the avenue, then got off with the morning crowd at Ford Hall.  
But instead of going to his office, he walked out onto the upper level of 
Washington Avenue Bridge.  It was bitterly cold, but, rather than use the 
glass-enclosed walkway, he began waling along the north side of the bridge 
toward the west-bank campus.  Three quarters of the way across, he stopped and 
stared down.

?A hundred feet below and to his right rode the river: narrow, gray, and half 
frozen.  In front of him were the snow-covered coal-storage docks, and directly 
below the winter trees and a slight knoll rising like a grave.  So it was still 
there, waiting.  He climbed onto the chest-high metal railing and balanced 
himself.  Several students inside the walkway stopped what they were doing when 
they saw him and stared in disbelief.  He made a gesture as if waving, but he 
did not look back.  From this height, he must have figured, the blade did seem 
redundant after all.  Then he tilted out and let go.

?Three seconds later his body exploded against the knoll, recoiled from the 
earth, then rolled gently down the incline.  The campus police were the first 
to arrive and found a package of Tereytons, some change, and a blank check with 
the name Berryman on it.  Inside the left temple of his shattered horn-rimmed 
glasses they found the name a second time.  An ambulance took the body to the 
Hennepin County Morgue, where Berryman was officially pronounced dead.?

So, some on Lit-Ideas might ask, ?what was his problem??  Well, we would have 
to define ?problem.?  He could only write well if he was drinking heavily.  Not 
while he was drunk of course but maybe during the first few, and then 
afterwards when he sobered up and someone told him what he had done the night 
before and he felt remorse.  Remorse is another good subject for poetry.  Then 
too there are the deep psychological problems.  His father committed suicide or 
his mother murdered him, but he mostly thought the former.  He always kept 
going back to that, his father?s suicide, so obviously that was one of his 
psychological problems.  Then there was his mother.  She was a dominant lady 
and when he was losing an argument with her he discovered as a child that 
passing out always ended the argument so he did that a lot.  His wives weren?t 
as impressed with that procedure as his mother was.  

Then too there was his philandering, usually done while drunk.  None of his 
wives appreciated that as much as he did.  Perhaps the last wife, Kate, telling 
him that if he didn?t quite drinking and philandering she was really, really, 
really going to leave him and this time she really, really meant it tipped him 
over the edge, so to speak.  Maybe at his age, 58, he didn?t think he had 
enough energy left to acquire another wife.  He was a really, really, really 
old 58.  

I?ve been rereading the Dream Songs and discover that I?m not nearly as 
impressed with them as when I first read them years ago, when they were first 


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