“The art of poetry,” I read, “is amply distinguished from the manufacture of verse by the animating presence in the poetry of a fresh idiom: language so twisted and posed in a form that it not only expresses the matter in hand but adds to the stock of available reality.” The poet and critic R. P. Blackmur wrote thatfor Poetry magazine in 1936, and it made such an impression on a twenty-two-year-old John Berryman that he’d quote it verbatim in a poem thirty-five years later, by which time he’d added to the stock of available reality some of the twentieth century’s most distinctive poetry, The Dream Songs, Homage to Miss Bradstreet, Sonnets to Chris. Such recurrences weren’t unusual for Berryman; from one perspective they were the defining feature of his life. He held on to things, or they just stuck, or they left for a while only to return in another form, called back by imperatives that remained forever hidden to him or else were revealed through dreams or psychoanalysis or alcohol. He wasn’t good at letting things go: he wanted too badly to make things matter.
I read the biography of the poet I’d barely read in a handful of long, uninterrupted stretches across what must have been three or four days. I read as I used to read legal thrillers as a preteen—headlong, totally absorbed in the story, almost afraid to close the book. I read for the richness of incident, the drama—the turmoil, the heartbreak, the love. My days were empty; Berryman’s were full; I filled my days with his. There were fistfights, affairs, family conflicts, divorces, drugs, alcohol, guns. There was war. I read in admiration and disgust, alternately attracted to and repulsed by this man who seemed to court suffering at every turn. And yet it may have also been true that I recognized something of myself in Berryman. I, too, had spent a good deal of my life engaged in the exhausting and mostly thankless battle of trying to make things matter. I, if only in my modest way, had added to the stock of available reality. Strange that the reality we’re given isn’t enough. Continents, oceans, antelopes, skyscrapers, neutrinos, Melville, sex, the Internet, our Chicago Bulls—not enough. For Berryman, in any case, nothing sufficed. There was a hole in the middle of his world.He wanted too badly to make things matter.
Easy enough to conclude—Berryman did—that the hole opened up outside an apartment complex in Tampa on the morning of June 26, 1926, when his father, cuckolded, out of work, far from home, shot himself in the chest. The boy was eleven. Ten weeks later, his mother married the man whose open involvement with her had precipitated the suicide; his name was John Berryman, and so his stepson, who’d been John Smith, became John Berryman, too. It wasn’t until 1947, when he began his regular visits to a psychoanalyst, Dr. James Shea, that the younger Berryman would start to seriously reckon with his father’s suicide. He blamed himself: “The Oedipus,” he wrote in his journal. “I realize suddenly—I never did before— that I may have wished Daddy’s death, and may feel permanent guilt for the satisfaction of my wish.” Dr. Shea was thrilled to find a case that fit so neatly into his theories. Berryman was grateful to find a template for his sadness and justification for his bad behavior. Their sessions opened up the world he would explore to its outer limits in the Dream Songs. His life from this point on would rarely be happy, but at least he would feel the intermittent satisfactions of being actively engaged in discovering or creating a self that could pass, at times, for authentic, if only in its constant unhappy passage from one form to another. At least since his father’s suicide, he had felt like a stranger to himself.
At prep school Berryman was gawky, sickly, small, ashamed of his intelligence and academic ability, shy, uncertain, superior, retreating, greedy for achievement and praise. He was frequently bullied. He had acne and dandruff and terrible eyesight and often worried his hair was falling out (an anxiety that would last his entire life, though he died with plenty of hair on his head). He read widely, but a preoccupation with grades seems to have outweighed any incipient literary passion. He wanted badly to excel at sports, but when he played hockey he could barely see the puck (his classmates made fun of him for the protective goggles he had to wear over his already thick glasses), and he couldn’t play football without getting hurt (gashed forehead, twisted knee, bruised and bloody nose). He was a fast runner, though, at least at short distances: at a track meet in June 1929 he came in third out of twenty-five in the fifty-yard dash. “This may not seem good to you,” he wrote his mother, “but I’m proud of it . . . Not a single one laughed at me when I ran yesterday.”
His mother: a radiant, youthful, vain woman who loved her son too strongly and perhaps in the wrong ways. Late in his life he wondered to himself: “Have I been wrong all these years, and it was not Daddy’s death that blocked my development for so long? . . . Maybe my long self-pity has been based on an error, and there has been no (hero-)villain (Father) ruling my life, but only an unspeakably powerful possessive adoring MOTHER, whose life at 75 is still centered wholly on me.” Berryman never stopped needing to please her; when, as a graduate student, he won two scholarships, he wrote in his journal: “I vow to achieve her happiness in all ways open to me. May these prizes give me a start.”
As a young adult he came to realize with wonder that he was in possession of certain qualities many women found attractive. He was tall and slender, an ardent dancer, an intense listener, and, according to one of his lovers, “capable of prolonging the ecstatic moment almost indefinitely.” He pursued the ecstatic moment with purpose. By his sophomore year of college he’d had romantic encounters with seventeen Barnard girls. He made a list. He put check marks next to names of women he’d dated and dashes next to those he’d “necked”: Garnette Snedeker, Betty Bolton, Louise Harris, Louise Pearse, Kay Owens, Agnes Leckie, Bobbie Suckle, Barbara White, Vivian White, Bobbie White, Irene Pacey, Peggy Wadsworth, Peggy Vollman, Peggy Howland, Mary Roohan, Yolanda Krajewski. “Man is nothing but an ambulatory penis,” he wrote in a letter to a friend. He may have gotten briefly engaged to a woman named Jane or possibly Jean. A breakup caused him such distress he had to drop out of school for a while. When he returned, fortified by his mother’s warnings, he rededicated himself to his studies, especially literature. He fell in love with Yeats, Auden, Eliot, Stevens, Hart Crane. He took classes from the poet and critic Mark Van Doren and under his influence began writing poems. One was a forty-two-liner in blank verse whose subject was “that gnarled fantastic lava-land of love.”
He won a graduate scholarship to Cambridge, where he read the English canon and got engaged to an actress and brooded and dreamed of becoming a great poet. Two years later he returned to New York in debt and burdened by an affected British accent, “a disagreeable compound of arrogance, selfishness, and impatience,” by his own accounting, “scarcely relieved by some dashes of courtesy and honesty and a certain amount of industry.” He lived with his mother until he started having “hysterical,” probably psychosomatic, fits, then went to Detroit to teach literature at Wayne University. His first semester he taught 131 students divided among four classes, which left him almost no time to work on his poetry. Then his best friend died of cancer and his fiancée broke off their engagement. “Error and waste,” he wrote, “betrayal, loneliness, disease, war, failure.” More temporary university teaching appointments, more student papers, more rejection, more debt. He got engaged to a woman named Eileen Mulligan. He married her. Two years later he turned thirty, certain he would never accomplish anything noteworthy. As a student he’d “wept blindly” over Lear’s last lines (No, no, no life! / Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never!) and he’d recently begun work on a new scholarly edition of Lear, a project he would toil at for years without completing. His nephew drowned in a bathtub. His grandmother was dying. “This happens,” he concluded a letter to his mother: “what should be normal life comes to have, transient & tolerable, the air of a vacation, unreal interim. The nightmare shows as real.”
Then, in 1947, he had an affair. The woman was the twenty-seven-year-old wife of a friend, a lively, ironic woman named Chris. They met at a lecture by the historian Arnold Toynbee. For her, the affair was a fun diversion; for Berryman, the latest wrenching descent into the gnarled fantastic lava-land of love. He chronicled his deepening obsession in a series of letters, apparently never sent. “After breakfast at Sidney’s going off at nine, I came up here to the office and just sat at the desk seeing nothing, wanting you.” “You were the whole sky and the whole sea in that one moment, Chris.” “The sun makes happy the bloody birds—what’s that to me who remembers you and have you not.” His love was “a giant band locked about my chest, every breath every moment is difficult, each taken in your relation, I move with weights on me or underwater, so all things are distorted. What can I do for this hopeless longing but be with you?” “It is all but inevitable, but nothing in it is easy, loving another separate all-distinct human being until the separateness and the distinctions dissolve, and we can be together.”
If it sounds as if he was rehearsing for poems, that’s because he was: as the affair wore on he wrote sonnets about it—the poems in which Berryman starts to sound like Berryman (prickly, ecstatic, erudite, mournful, oscillating violently between irony and candor), and which in 1966, post–Dream Songs, at perhaps the height of his fame, would be published as Sonnets to Chris. “We are made wrong,” he observed in his journal. “Either love should not come, or it should stay.”If it sounds as if he was rehearsing for poems, that’s because he was.
The last twenty-five years of Berryman’s life were a fury of liquor, women, poetry, prizes, lectures, readings, friends’ deaths, small acts of grace, books, changes of address, hospitalizations, half-recoveries, resolutions for self-improvement, aborted projects, repetitions, departures, and returns. He wrote in his journal, “I live entirely in the Past (loss, regret, guilt—distance!) and the Future (fear, Death). Naturally I am miserable and drink.” He divorced, remarried, smoked three packs a day. He put his hand up Philip Levine’s wife’s skirt, twice, in full view of Philip Levine, who punched and then forgave him and ten days later found himself hungover with Berryman in Berryman’s bed. A fight with Dwight Macdonald at a cocktail party caused Berryman to walk into the ocean with his clothes on. He slipped on a rug and hurt his back. He fell down a staircase and crashed into a glass door. “It was because you did and do not love me that you accuse me of not loving you,” wrote his mother. Berryman was the first person in the hospital to notice that Dylan Thomas was dead. He decided the postwar years were the Years of Mud. He analyzed and catalogued 154 dreams and talked about them with Dr. Shea. In Iowa City, he got very drunk and locked himself out of his apartment, and when his landlord refused to let him in he shat on the front porch and was arrested. (At the jail, the policemen pulled down their pants and pointed at him and laughed.) He decided the time had come to quit drinking. He needed to drink to write the Dream Songs. “Have not really slept for four nights,” he wrote. He partied with his students, then slept by the pond. He fell in love with Harriet Rosenzweig, Ann Levine, Kate Donahue. On a Monday he gave a lecture on Don Quixote. That Wednesday he gave the same lecture, to the same class. He gestured wildly when he talked, he compulsively pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. He bought a blue raw-silk jacket that made him feel “three percent more normal.” His beard, already long, grew longer. He massaged the feet of a friend’s wife while reciting poetry. He wet his bed and watched Bergman films. He won a $4,000 grant. He had a daughter. When a cab rolled over his leg, he wrote, “I feel like a minor character in a bad F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.” The “actual world” had become “unreal.” He moved into the Chelsea Hotel with his family. He smoked four packs a day. “Dexedrine morning and afternoon,” he wrote; “martinis before dinner; nembutal and sherry after midnight.” He drank for two days and woke up in the hospital. In Dublin he didn’t make a single friend. He made pilgrimages to Yeats’s grave, Dante’s tomb. He gave a reading with shoe prints on his jacket, probably his own. He won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, a $10,000 grant. “Try not to be so fucking self-important,” he wrote. He fell in the bathtub and twisted his arm. One semester, he taught two seminars, “The American Character” and “The Meaning of Life.” He said, “It’s terrible to give half your life over to someone else, but it’s worse not to . . . You’ve got to try!” Back in the hospital, he quoted Greek poets and sang Bessie Smith songs poorly. He found God. He saw himself not as an actor in an amphitheater but as the amphitheater itself. He taught a class called “The American Nightmare.” A bottle of bourbon smiled at him from the counter. “He looked decayed,” said Saul Bellow. He’d published thirteen books and wanted thirteen more. He would start by finishing his novel and his Shakespeare book and his book of essays and his new book of poetry. Also a biography of Christ for children. He figured he had ten more years to live. “Nouns, verbs, do not exist for what I feel.”
Almost as soon as I finished the biography I put down some of my feelings about it—no doubt refracted through their imagined reception—in a handwritten note to Maria that I enclosed with the stolen book. I was touched by Berryman’s devotion to literature, I wrote, or something along these lines, but couldn’t help feeling it was a relic of another age, an age when literary heroism still seemed possible and all the old distinctions and hierarchies still held, when T. S. Eliot was a sort of god and Robert Frost probably could’ve been president if he wanted; pre-postmodernism, pre-MFA, pre-Amazon, pre-reality TV, when literature could still be a kind of religion or at least the best replacement for it. I could almost miss this age, I wrote, though it ended before I was born. Irony had yet to give way to sarcasm, tragedy to nihilism. Newspapers still had book review sections, people read, books mattered. (That many had been lamenting along the same lines for decades—that Berryman and his cohort made the same lament—should amplify, not mitigate, our sense of loss, I added.) It was an age, maybe the last, of geniuses and masterpieces and the shared felt presence of an unshakable pantheon of greats to which you might, if you were chosen, gain admittance.
Yes, and also an age of drunks and bloated failures and terminal self-promotion, I continued (starting to get worked up by my own rhetoric), and young men in small rooms all across the country trying in total earnest to write the Great American Novel, guided only by the failed efforts of their forebears and the throbbing of their perennially unrelieved erections. That was the problem with postwar American literature: it inspired idol worship, a slavish allegiance to the canon, a chilly obsession with ranking the top writers (Berryman’s response to the news of Frost’s death: “Who’s number one? Lowell is number one, isn’t he?”); it was obscurely or not-so-obscurely allied to racism and classism and imperialism and misogyny (Berryman also liked to rank the “lady poets”—Bishop, Moore, and Rich, one-two-three), and a blind and crusty and ugly and above all male lust for fame. “Resolution,” Berryman wrote in an early journal: “to scorn or ignore any honour, any fame, my poems may get in my life. Expect nothing, distrust what comes, work.” He had to make such resolutions, I argued, because his desire for fame was so present, so implacable, he had to push against it to be able to write at all; but he could never push it all the way out of the picture, and then when he actually did get famous—stories about him in Time and Life; TV interviews; “fan mail from foreign countries,” to quote a Dream Song—he found out firsthand what we all know by now fame does the second it descends on you: it kills you. Strips you of your soul, a living death. Berryman’s fame lust was also a death wish, suicide in slow motion, an almost imperceptible dissolution aided by affairs and drugs and liquor and escape into music and literature. What I felt above all toward Berryman, I wrote Maria, was pity—pity mixed with anger. The implication, impossible to miss, was that I was above Berryman’s base desires, and as I prepared the package for Maria I was almost convinced it was true.
That evening, though, as I drifted toward sleep, safe in my mother’s friend’s conjugal bed, I both saw and was myself at eleven, shooting free throws in my driveway on a summer evening, and I was also Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, John Paxson, and many other Bulls and even some non-Bulls, Kevin Johnson, Gary Payton, Jeff Hornacek, Reggie Miller. I made ten in a row, twenty-seven, forty. I shot twenty-five without my guide hand, made twenty. I switched to the two-ball dribbling drills I’d learned earlier that summer at Hawkeye basketball camp, then moved into midrange jumpers, three-pointers—first off the self-pass, then off the dribble, then with a pump fake, then pump fake/dribble, making sixteen shots in each category before moving on to the next. I ended my session with ten more made free throws as the sky’s blue darkened and seemed to solidify, then went inside and informed my mother that one day I’d play in the NBA, and my mother looked up from the book she’d been reading and said, It’s good to have dreams.
From the book THE BACHELOR by Andrew Palmer. Copyright © 2021 by Andrew Palmer. Published by Hogarth, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.