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Clare College, Cambridge, and John Berryman

Clare College bridgeTwice a day I crossed you. . .

John BerrymanAmong the Columbia College graduates who attended Clare College were John Berryman (left), Norman Podhoretz, Morris Dickstein, and David Shapiro.  Much of Berryman's Love & Fame addresses his time at Columbia and Clare. The late Clive James tells some of the facts in this wrongheaded 1972 review. Perhaps the most curious thing about James's comment is that it regards ambition as morally offensive.

<< The first half of the book, before the suicide-laden poems and the exhausted addresses to the Lord, is a portrait of the artist as a young man at school, Columbia and Cambridge. It bears a startling resemblance to Norman Podhoretz’s Making It, not just in its itinerary (Phi Beta Kappa, Clare New Court) but in its psychological outline. The relish for the literary horse-race is exactly the same, except that Berryman raises it from relish to positive mania. Throughout his work since the early Dream Songs, Berryman’s ambitions for major status have been nakedly confessed and played off against his equally intense ambitions to be the poet maudit, like Ginsberg or (more relevantly) like Tristan Corbière, to whose memory Love & Fame is dedicated. Corbière has been called une chienlit permanente, and Berryman for a long time sought the same title. But even in the Dream Songs, where the interplay of these two ambitions is at its most successfully complex, the determination to spill the beans about the dark side of his nature was compromised by unjustified readiness to forgive himself in the name of art. In this way his ambitions served each other to produce a self-serving poetry: he would complicate the account of his drive towards artistic greatness by revealing himself as a slob, and take the edge off that revelation by justifying his behaviour as the experience necessary to artistic greatness. Berryman was a highly introspective poet, alive to many things going in his own mind, but he was never aware of just how consistently he worked this trick. It is the reason why the Dream Songs, which at their best offer a convincing poetic recreation of the mind’s plurality, lapse finally from dialogue into monologue — the pride at the mind’s centre heaps humiliation on itself but remains obstinately intact. >>

On the other hand, this is how Stuart Davis summarized the poet's reputation in the Harvard Crimson in 1966:

Rarely anthologized, sympathetic to many literary camps, but with a foot in none of them, John Berryman is as close to being sui generis as anyone but Blake, Trotsky and Christopher Smart. New York has adopted him only since the mid-fifties, for although his poems appeared in the Nation and the New Republic since the thirties, much of his earlier work and most of its critical acknowledgment were published in Chicago's Poetry. Today he is regarded by many as one who threatens the language and endangers the conventions it clings to.

That very reputation has made him a poet's poet, "that forlorn phrase," in William Meredith's words. And his role as an innovator relates directly to his role as a teacher and scholar. For better or for worse, Berryman is an academic--that once-unpleasant label that generated such a fuss in the late fifties. Most of his life has been spent in colleges and universities. Born in Oklahoma, in 1914 he was educated at Columbia, Clare College and Cambridge; since then he has taught "just about everywhere but the South," including Grinnell, Wayne (Detroit), Princeton, Minnesota--where he is now Professor of Humanities, on a leave of absence--and Harvard, where he was for two years an Instructor in English, with a Warren House office and an Appian Way, later a Beacon Hill, address. A student in his Freshman Composition course in 1941 remembers him as a cold and vigorous teacher who invited his students to his apartment, gave them drinks, played music and told them what and what not to like. >>>

In 2004, the Library of America published John Berryman: Selected Poems, edited by the poet Kevin Young. In Poetry magazine

Here is the poet's "Dream Song" #13:

God bless Henry. He lived like a rat,
with a thatch of hair on his head
in the beginning.
Henry was not a coward.  Much.
He never deserted anything; instead
he stuck, when things like pity were thinning.

So may be Henry was a human being.
Let's investigate that.
… We did; okay.
He is a human American man.
That's true.  My lass is braking.
My brass is aching.  Come & diminish me, & map my way.

God's Henry's enemy. We're in business… Why,
what business must be clear.
A cornering.
I couldn't feel more like it. —Mr. Bones,
as I look on the saffron sky,
you strikes me as ornery.
And here is Dream Song 121:
Grief is fatiguing. He is out of it,
the whole humiliating Human round,
out of this & that.
He made a-many hearts go pit-a-pat
who now need never mind his nostril-hair
nor a critical error laid bare.

He endured fifty years. He was Randall Jarrell
and wrote a-many books & he wrote well.
Peace to the bearded corpse.
His last book was his best. His wives loved him.
He saw in the forest something coming, grim,
but did not change his purpose.

Honest & cruel, peace now to his soul.
He never loved his body, being full of dents.
A wrinkled peace to this good man.
Henry is half in love with one of his students
and the sad process continues to the whole
as it swarmed & began.

December 16, 2021

November 12, 2021

August 05, 2021

June 15, 2021

May 25, 2021

April 16, 2021

February 18, 2021

January 10, 2021

December 02, 2020

July 26, 2020

May 25, 2020

March 27, 2020

March 05, 2020

June 13, 2019

May 23, 2019

May 20, 2019

March 08, 2019

March 04, 2019

November 16, 2018

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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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