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

  • From: "Steve Chilson" <stevechilson@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 10 Oct 2006 21:27:10 +0100

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

On Sat, 7 Oct 2006 18:15:25 -0700, "Lawrence Helm"
<lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx> said:
> 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
> other.  
> "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
> them."
> Lawrence
  Steve Chilson

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