[lit-ideas] American poetic scene at the end of 52

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sat, 7 Oct 2006 18:15:25 -0700

I've been reading Dream Song, The Life of John Berryman, by Paul Mariani.
Here is an excerpt about the end of 1952:


"At least culture hummed at Princeton.  That fall Edmund Wilson gave his
Christian Gauss Lectures on the literature of the Civil War, to which
Berryman was invited, frequently engaging in cross-examining Wilson during
the question period.  Robert Fitzgerald, the poet and translator, who was
then teaching at Princeton, noted Berryman's thin, 'scowling, nervously
intense . . . acidulous and combative' posture, ready at the slightest
provocation to pounce on Wilson.  Once he even attacked Wilson for
resurrecting Grant's memoirs as literature.  Why, Berryman demanded, read
the memoirs of a monster whose war policies had led to the needless deaths
of thousands?  Wilson, whose critical eminence normally kept him above such
treatment, was startled by Berryman's vehemence.  But because Wilson respect
Berryman's keen mind, the two managed to remain friends.


"Delmore Schwartz was also at Princeton that fall, as a replacement for
Blackmur, and had come down to Princeton with his second wife, Elizabeth
Pollett.  Instead of moving into an apartment near the university, however,
Delmore bought a farm in Baptistown, miles from everyone.  Already, as
Eileen [Berryman's psychiatrist wife] later remembered, there was a darting,
haunting look in Delmore's eyes, something deeper than insomnia or liquor or
drugs: the beginnings of paranoia.  Moreover, between Berryman working on
his Shakespeare and Delmore acting the recluse, the two seldom saw each


"Delmore had brought Saul Bellow with him from New York to act as his
assistant, and one night in mid-December Bellow had a party to which he
invited the Berrymans.  They arrived late, having come from another party,
and as they walked up to the house, they heard the jazz growl of a sax on
the record player.  When they went to put their coats down in the bedroom,
they found Delmore there with his wife in the middle of a fight.  Convinced
that Delmore was about to hurt Elizabeth, Berryman pushed himself between
them.  Delmore was upset because he'd seen his wife accept a light from the
novelist, Ralph Ellison, and had pulled her into the bedroom, accusing her
of flirting with him.  With Berryman now standing between him and his wife,
Delmore backed off, but Berryman was so upset by what was happening to his
friend that he took Eileen and left the party.


"It turned out to be the winter of the Walpurgisnacht.  When Bellow left
Princeton for the Christmas holidays, Roethke came down from New York and
borrowed his apartment, anxious to meet Wilson.  Soon Wilson was asking
Berryman what he thought of Roethke's poetry.  He had yet to meet the man,
Berryman told him, but he had only praise for his poems.  On the strength of
that recommendation, Wilson invited Roethke to a party Christmas night.
That afternoon three dozen anemones arrived from an exclusive florist's in
New York, a gift from Roethke to Mrs. Wilson.  Then, at nine o'clock that
evening, Roethke's large 'aggressively sober' frame appeared in the doorway
with several of his friends.  When Wilson introduced Roethke to Berryman,
Roethke acted as if he'd never heard the name.  


"Roethke began by swilling tomato juice and flirting with the female guests.
But when he saw Wilson sitting on the couch, he plopped down next to him,
demanding that Wilson 'blow' the party and come upstairs so he could show
him his poems.  Wilson explained that as host he couldn't very well be
expected to abandon his guests.  Then Roethke was grabbing at Wilson's jowls
and telling one of America's most powerful critics he was 'all blubber.'
Wilson countered by calling Roethke a half-baked Bacchus and ordering him to
leave.  As he stormed toward the door, Roethke ran into Allen Tate's
daughter, Nancy, and her husband, Dr. Wood.  Mrs. Wilson, trying to make
some introductions, awkward at best since Roethke was being thrown out,
explained that Dr. Wood was a psychiatrist.  Then, when Wood reached out to
shake Roethke's hand, Roethke, thinking he was about to be restrained,
lashed out and hit him.  Roethke's friends hastily tried to explain that it
was all a misunderstanding, that Roethke had never hit anyone before, even
as they rushed him out the door and the tired year slammed shut behind



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