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

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Wed, 11 Oct 2006 08:03:26 -0700



I told you why Berryman drank based upon the two biographies I read.  They
were written by people who had access to information that none of the rest
of us on Lit-Ideas has -- at least that's what I thought.   But you in
effect declare those biographers wrong and make your own pronouncement.
Tell me please that you have all Berryman's secret letters, and if not that
you were one of Berryman's secret lovers.  


Assuming just for the sake of discussion that you haven't the foggiest
justification for what you are talking about, perhaps you weren't aware that
it was commonly believed among poets, painters, and novelists that drinking
enhanced one's talent.  One could more readily reach one's muse under the
influence.  In the early days of my poetic considerations I was taught that
very thing and tried it out.  I have fri3nds who assumed it true.  I lost
touch with them because they pursued their muses more enthusiastically than
I did and lost their jobs.  I discovered that I was an aberration, that is,
I could write better sober.  But none of drank to "numb his pain."  We would
have laughed at such an idea.  Drinking was fun and it enabled one to write
better.  That's why we drank.    


But now there is Irene's "one-size-fits-all" reason for why anyone drinks.
Gosh, what a bland world you live in.





From: lit-ideas-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx [mailto:lit-ideas-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx]
On Behalf Of Andy Amago
Sent: Wednesday, October 11, 2006 6:49 AM
To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: American poetic scene at the beginning of 72


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 <mailto:lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx>  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, Berrymans 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, youll 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 didnt 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 poets 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 poets bio to understand his poetry.
For example, Hugh Ken ner wrote The Pound Era and his insights reawakened an
interest in Pound (very difficult to understand without biographical
insights).  And then there is Stephen Burts 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 didnt mean to imply that my opinion of Berrymans poetry was
affected by my poor opinion of him, if thats 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
didnt 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 thats 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 couldnt
compete, and they were bitter.  In other words they werent 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 <mailto:lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx>  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 Berrymans 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 didnt 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 wont have to worry
about me anymore, he told her as she went out.  But shed 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


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 fathers 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 werent 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 didnt 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
didnt think he had enough energy left to acquire another wife.  He was a
really, really, really old 58.  


Ive been rereading the Dream Songs and discover that Im not nearly as
impressed with them as when I first read them years ago, when they were
first published.






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