Thursday, November 27, 2014

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer / Rhyme 21

Louise Brooks
by Grace Hamilton

Rhyme 21

By Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

"What's poetry?" You ask me as you lock
My pupil in your pupil of pure blue.
"What's poetry?" You're really asking me?
Poetry is just you. 

Louise Brooks
by Grace Hamilton

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer
Rima 21

¿Qué es poesía?, dices mientras clavas
en mi pupila tu pupila azul.
¡Qué es poesía! ¿Y tú me lo preguntas?
Poesía eres tú.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer / Rhyme II

Photo by Alessio Albi

Rhyme II
By Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

A headlong flying arrow
Fired by a random hand
Not knowing where its trembling
Steel tip shall pierce and land.

A leaf from a dry tree-branch
Ripped by a crazy gust:
Unknowable the furrow
Where it shall fall at last.

A huge wave that the ocean's
Winds pull and push and lash,
Rolling with no idea
What beach it means to splash.

Lights in a hallway's torches
Burn, destined to expire,
None caring which possesses
The longest-lasting fire.

These things am I who travel
This world, who do not know
Where I am from nor whither
My willful feet will go.

Photo by Alessio Albi

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer
Rima II

Saeta que voladora
Cruza, arrojada al azar,
Sin adivinarse dónde
Temblando se clavará;

Hoja del árbol seca
Arrebata el vendaval,
Sin que nadie acierte el surco
Donde a caer volverá;

Gigante ola que el viento
Riza y empuja en el mar,
Y rueda y pasa, y no sabe
Qué playa buscando va;

Luz que en los cercos temblorosos
Brilla, próxima a expirar,
Ignorándose cuál de ellos
El último brillará;

Eso soy yo, que al acaso
Cruzo el mundo, sin pensar
De dónde vengo, ni a dónde

Mis pasos me llevarán.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Tomas Tranströmer / Six Winters

Poem of the week: Six Winters by Tomas Tranströmer


This brief sequence of poems is a vivid illustration of the Nobel prize winner's singular gifts

    • The Guardian, 
Tomas TranstömerTomas Transtömer. Photograph: Jessica Gow/AFP/Getty Images
Tomas Tranströmer, the 80-year-old Swedish poet deservedly honoured last October with the Nobel prize for literature, is the author of this week's poem-sequence, Six Winters, translated by Robin Fulton. It comes from his 1989 collection, För Levande och Döda (For Living and Dead) and is included in a highly recommended New Collected Poems, published recently in an expanded edition by Bloodaxe Books.
These six short imagist poems are rather like extended haiku, a form in which the poet has always excelled. They may centre on a single image, or use surreal combinations of imagery, as does the first, with its haunting triad of black hotel, sleeping child and dice. In this poem, even the proportions of the objects seem altered. The dice, having eyes, are larger and more menacing than real dice, for all that "wide-eyed", in English, has connotations of innocence. Perhaps these dice are being rolled by a vast, unseen, malevolent hand? The atmosphere is that of the child's nightmare, transposed into the winter night beyond the hotel's walls. Terse syntax heightens the strangeness, with the colon in the middle line acting as a kind of portal, similar in dramatic effect to the haiku's traditional "cutting word".
In the second poem, we're deep in the Kingdom of Winter. The concept of an "elite of the dead" is ironical and appalling. It prefigures the subsequent reference to wartime. That this is an elite of conquerors is reinforced by the entrance of the armoured wind. The dead may be reduced to emblems of grim and silent stone, but the wind from icy Svalbard "shakes" in its armour, suggesting not fear or even cold, but vigorous movement, the brandishing of noisy weapons, fresh savagery.
There's a more anecdotal tone to the next poem. "Neighbour and harpoon" are kept separate, but the imagination adds them up to the cartoonish figure of a harpoon-wielding neighbour. Perhaps the child had a half-delirious notion of the icicle as a whale, and the neighbour as a local Ahab. The poet sets these images squarely before us, not trying to make sense of them. They are simple there, elements of "unexplained memory".
The image of icicle as animal is pursued further in the next tercet. Here again we get a haunting juxtaposition – the architectural "upside-down Gothic" and the weird cow whose udders are made of icicles and resemble glass.
The fifth takes us farther beyond the window-frame. Trains are usually comforting sights, belonging to the pleasures of childhood. This one has become a wild beast, though a heraldic one, holding "the journey in its claws". As in the first terect, we sense that events have been set uncontrollably in motion. The shape of the child's unlived life is already decided by forces that cannot be checked or altered.
Of course, there is no obligation to imagine we are still in the child's world at this point. The six winters are not necessarily consecutive. They may have been picked at random from the poet's memory: some may have simply been assembled with no autobiographical intent. They could also be read as the entire life-story, moving swiftly on at the rate of one winter per decade. They might be the omniscient narrator's different views of a single winter. It's up to the reader to decide the chronology, if it exists.
An obvious reading of the sixth poem, nevertheless, would suggest a post-childhood, post-war setting, that of adolescence and first love, or even maturity and marriage. The "snow-haze" and "moonlight" are romantic images, contrasting with the earlier surreal nightmare and Gothic humour. But a characteristic flick of the wrist produces the unexpected jellyfish. "Jellyfish moonlight" packs two nouns together: although "moonlight" is a noun that may do duty as a modifier, the substantive adds more force to the image. Having seen large white jellyfish stranded on the sands at Portmeirion last summer, I find the metaphor of hazy, mis-shapen moonlight a brilliantly accurate one.
The menace of future journeys has now been left behind, and, for the first time, there is the collective pronoun, "our", providing reassurance. The isolating dread has diminished in the pleasure of a new and shared perspective. What lies ahead is only an avenue, a slender element in the journey, but a promising one. The word "bewitched" might have been ominous, but instead it seems to imply a benign and beautiful enchantment effected by snow, moonlight and companionship.
Dreams and the transitions between different levels of consciousness are suggested by the poet's very name. They are Tranströmer's territory. He worked as a psychologist for many years, and his poems seem to me to be extraordinarily honest elucidations of the "secret ministry" of the mind. From the fascinating childhood memoirs included in the Bloodaxe collection, one might guess that Tranströmer, like a number of poets, could suffer from Asperger's (see, particularly, "Museums"). How impressive it is that he has never compromised on his singular perceptions, and that the resulting poetry is so luminous, and has yielded so much meaning to his readers.

Six Winters
In the black hotel a child is asleep.
And outside: the winter night
where the wide-eyed dice roll.
An élite of the dead became stone
in Katarina Churchyard
where the wind shakes in its armour from Svalbard.
One wartime winter when I lay sick
a huge icicle grew outside the window.
Neighbour and harpoon, unexplained memory.
Ice hangs down from the roof edge.
Icicles: the upside-down Gothic.
Abstract cattle, udders of glass.
On a side-track, an empty railway-carriage.
Still. Heraldic.
With the journeys in its claws.
Tonight snow-haze, moonlight. The moonlight jellyfish itself
is floating before us. Our smiles
on the way home. Bewitched avenue.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The best poetry of 2013

Adam Martinakis
The best poetry of 2013
From Fleur Adcock's Glass Wings to Train Songs edited by Sean O'Brien and Don Paterson, Adam Newey rounds up the best poetry of the year
by Adam Newey
The Guardian, Saturday 7 December 2013

    Don Paterson
Don Paterson is co-editor of Train Songs. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian
The poetic year was sharply punctuated by the death of Seamus Heaney at the end of August. It's hard to think of any poet more determined to stay true to the topologies of language, culture and identity, and in particular to the bogs, mists and mizzling rain of the land that grew him, and his loss is incalculable. The coming years, no doubt, will see the publication of unfinished work, along with the scholarly editions, biographies and academic tomes that inevitably mark the translation from living poet to canonical great.
From last words to first books. The wellspring of poetry doesn't run dry, and two debuts in particular bear this out. Emily Berry's Dear Boy (Faber) fizzes with verbal inventiveness and fantastical, darkly comic storytelling; while Fiona Moore's pamphlet The Only Reason for Time(HappenStance Press) is full of elegant, gently piercing observations that build to a compelling portrait of love and loss and the overcoming of grief.
Dear World & Everyone in It: New Poetry in the UK edited by Nathan Hamilton
Still with new voices, Dear World & Everyone in It: New Poetry in the UK edited by Nathan Hamilton (Bloodaxe) is an excellent anthology of work by 60 young poets, some already very familiar names, some less so. Refusing to adopt the traditional role of editor as de haut en bas authority, Hamilton has achieved something that feels not unlike a crowdsourced anthology. Quality, inevitably, varies, but so, thankfully, do the themes, concerns and poetic strategies employed. There is much terrific work here and, as a snapshot of young, contemporary poetry in Britain, there's nothing better.
Somewhat further up the age range, three of my own favourite poets published collections this year. I love Robin Robertson's work for its austere beauty and the seriousness and intensity with which he realises his vision. Hill of Doors (Picador) is a companion piece to his superbThe Wrecking Light (2010): it portrays human conciousness caught between animal impulse and divine aspiration, trapped in a thuggishly material world that is oblivious to higher concerns.
Christopher Reid's Six Bad Poets
Christopher Reid's work, by contrast, I love for its wry and always well-mannered outsider's take on contemporary mores. With Six Bad Poets (Faber), he has produced another narrative sequence, along the lines of 2009'sThe Song of Lunch, and one that allows him to indulge his ventriloquistic panache. He clearly has great fun satirising the casually cruel, pettily incestuous world of poetry in which self-absorption is the keynote.
And a new volume from Maurice Riordan is always an occasion for celebration. The Water Stealer (Faber), published in the year he turns 60, is only Riordan's fourth full-length collection – this is a poet who refuses to over-publish – and the care and dedication he devotes to his craft pay off here. Inventive and mischievous as ever, and with a real assuredness of tone, The Water Stealer must be a strong contender for this year's TS Eliot prize.
Dannie Abse's Speak, Old Parrot
As, no doubt, will be Dannie Abse's Speak, Old Parrot (Hutchinson), a spirited collection published as the poet turns 90. Inevitably, old age and an acute awareness of the passing of time and growing bodily infirmity make up a large part of it. But his humour most certainly isn't dimmed, with some boisterously bawdy versions of the 14th-century Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym. Sinéad Morrissey is another TS Eliot shortlistee with Parallax (Carcanet), which fascinates with its interest in the processes of art, in what the artwork conceals as much as what it reveals. As the title suggests, this is a book about perception as deception.
Train Songs, edited by Sean O'Brien and Don Paterson
Two further collections and an anthology are particularly deserving of note. Sleeping Keys by Jean Sprackland (Jonathan Cape) deals in the flux of life, in change, decay and rebirth for a book of elegant poems of domestic life. In Glass Wings (Bloodaxe), Fleur Adcock is as clear-eyed as always in a collection that ranges widely over lost worlds, family histories and memories of childhood, but always maintains the art of seemingly artless observation. And Train Songs, edited by Sean O'Brien and Don Paterson (Faber), is a joy. The reader might take issue with the editors' claim that the railway is "as  close as earthly things get to perfection" – as indeed do many of the poets and songwriters on board – but there are plenty of nostalgic pleasures to be had here.
Finally, a thoughtful and thought-provoking book about how we read and project our own concerns, especially political ones, on to texts. Poetry and Privacy: Questioning Public Interpretations of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry by John Redmond (Seren) is a salubrious corrective to those critics and academics for whom over-interpretation is a way of life. At which point, it seems best to say no more.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Winston Morales Chavarro

by Winston Morales Chavarro

Translated by Alaric Gutiérrez

My whole life is in the leaf of a tree
Through her my sap flows
Blood apexes of what I am
And what I lose when autumn comes.
In that leaf,
In any of a fir tree,
It is my song of wounded bird,
The pirouettes I stopped
As I grew older.
That leaf witness it all;
Of the winds I gave up
As I was putting down roots. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

John Berryman / Happy 100 th birthday

Happy 100th birthday, John Berryman

Despite a lifetime of chaos and alcoholism, John Berryman’s poetry is brilliantly funny. Sam Leith toasts his ‘pal’, whose work he has adored since he was a teenager
    • The Guardian, 

John Berryman
‘Life, friends, is boring’ … John Berryman. Photograph: Terrence Spencer/Getty
The great American poet John Berryman would have been 100 today, had he lived. One of the things most people know about him is that he did not. He killed himself at 57 – after a lifetime of chaos, alcoholism, mental illness and extremely hard work.
During his lifetime he was competitive. One of his late collections was called Love & Fame, and he was very interested in both. When Robert Frost died in 1963, Berryman’s reaction was: “It’s scarey [sic]. Who’s number one? Who’s number one? Cal is number one, isn’t he?” Cal was Robert Lowell.
That was probably right. Since then, Berryman’s reputation has held up – though he has never quite been number one. He is, if this makes sense, a major cult poet – or a cult major poet; feted in part for the manner of his death or his association with a generation of poets who liked to think of themselves as maudits. But he is famous, and he is loved. I think he deserves to be more of both.
What he is most remembered for, though there are glories in his other work, is The Dream Songs, which you could think of as a poème-fleuve: he found (and there is an American tradition of this stuff going back to Whitman) an expansive, accretive, flexible open form that allowed him to somehow drift net the jetsam of a life and the flotsam of his place in the century.
Berryman set out the situation of the poem in an introduction to the 1969 edition (the first part of the poem had appeared as 77 Dream Songs five years previously):
The poem then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr Bones and variants thereof. Requiescant in pace.
After prentice work that saw him labour in the shadows of (among others)Yeats, Berryman found the form: a sort of broken sonnet in three stanzas. Lowell – under Berryman’s influence, it’s fair to assume – tried something similar with his big, open, much-revised sonnet-sequenceNotebook and History. But Berryman’s sequence was neither notebook nor history – it was a fantasia, wild, spiky, self-teasing, exuberantly free in tone. It evidences deep reading – Berryman was a scholar-poet and most of his life was spent in institutions, usually academic ones – but slaloms around literary decorum. “Rilke was a jerk,” he exclaims at one point. His protagonist Henry – “huffy”, in the first word of the poem – isn’t allowed the dignity of classical verse; and nor, for that matter, is classical verse. Henry’s “plights and gripes” are “bad as Achilles”.
Berryman, along with Lowell, was identified with the movement known as “Confessional Poetry” – and, like every poet ever identified with a movement, rejected the label. His life informed his poetry. And he did, notoriously, say: “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.” But it’s the art, not the suffering, that matters: as the title suggests, the material went through what Freud called the “dream-work”. The art redeems the suffering elsewhere.
Still, here is poetry that for all its eccentricities of diction and action, is close to life: “Henry, to some extent, was in the situation that we are all in in actual life,” Berryman said, “namely, he didn’t know, and I didn’t know, what the bloody fucking hell was going to happen next. Whatever it was, he had to confront it and get through.”
Henry is in a state of perpetual transformation. Now he’s a cat, now he’s a yogi, now he’s a motorboat. Now he’s a crazed veteran holed up, First Blood style, in the mountains. He takes LSD. He meditates. He drinks. He gets on the wagon (“Sober as a man can get, no girls, no telephones”) and falls off it. He suffers hangovers (“Sick at 6 & sick again at 9 / was Henry’s gloomy Monday morning oh”) and gastric discomfort. Berryman was an alcoholic, and the poem does not leave that out: it is sometimes jokily evasive (“Man, I been thirsty”); sometimes full of shame; sometimes mired in horror, as in Henry’s recurring dream of having killed someone (“He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing. / Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up. Nobody is ever missing”). At one point, in a sequence of Songs called Op Posth, he dies; and that by no means shuts him up. Henry moans and mourns, he flashes and yearns, he rails against the Almighty (“God’s Henry’s enemy”), he clowns and sulks. And he lusts – oh boy does he lust. “Love her he doesn’t but the thought he puts / into that young woman / would launch a national product / complete with TV spots & skywriting … Vouchsafe me, O sleepless one, / a personal experience of the body of Mrs Boogry / before I pass from lust!” For Henry, “the sweet switch of the body” is an urgent call: he is “tasting all the secret bits of life”.
Berryman is (relatively) unusual among poets because he’s funny. Daniel Swift, who has edited some handsome centenary reissues of Berryman’s work for Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US (Faber, feebly, isn’t marking the occasion in the UK), suggests that his status as a minor major poet – his not quite getting his due – is in part down to this. People still don’t think funny poets are as important as the non-funny kind. But Berryman is the proper sort of funny: the funny that is involved with heartbreak. His friend Lowell called him a “great Pierrot … poignant, abrasive, anguished, humorous” – and that seems to me an unimprovable description of the mix. The Dream Songs is a slapstick Book of Job. Most of what you might call the Greatest Hits – the lines and poem chunks most quoted in isolation – are funny. “Life, friends, is boring …”; “Bats have no bankers and they do not drink / and cannot be arrested and pay no tax / and, in general, bats have it made”; “Bright-eyed & bushy-tailed woke not Henry up”; “If I had to do the whole thing over again / I wouldn’t.”
One of his lines – even though I have no idea to what it refers – makes me laugh every time I think of it.
– Are you radioactive, pal?
– Pal, radioactive.
– Has you the night sweats & the daysweats, pal?
– Pal, I do.
– Did your gal leave you?
– What do you think, pal?
– Is that thing on the front of yourhead what it seems to be, pal?
– Yes, pal.
But funny as Berryman is, he’s a poet of mourning. The Songs circle around and fret, as Berryman said, at “an irreversible loss”. The primary loss is Henry’s father, who like Berryman’s own biological father, John Allyn Smith, took his own life when Henry was a child (christened John Allyn Smith, Jr, the poet took his stepfather’s name). But grief, in The Dream Songs, is more general. Sunt lacrimae rerum. There is the grief of deep time: “a grave Sienese face a thousand years / would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of”. There is the anguish of losing contemporaries (“I’m cross with god who has wrecked this generation”). There is the bewildering childlike fear of watching the older generation go (“The high ones die, die. They die. You look up and who’s there?”). And there is a primal sense of an irreparable “departure” – Berryman wouldn’t have been crude enough to identify it as birth-trauma or Man’s fallen condition – that afflicts not just Henry but all of us. As he puts it in the closing lines of the first Song: “Once in a sycamore I was glad / all at the top, and I sang. / Hard on the land wears the strong sea / and empty grows every bed.”
I have loved Berryman’s work since I was a teenager. And the species of love I have for it is quite different from that I have for almost any other poet. For several years I toted around a stained and wracked paperback of 77 Dream Songs in whatever passed for my satchel or hand luggage. My valediction and thanks to my favourite teacher at school was a hardback copy of Faber’s big blue edition of The Dream Songs. I spent a good chunk of the (small) advance on my first book on a US first edition of the 77. Before YouTube came along, I was searching sound archives and poetry libraries for recordings of him reading (there’s a great one from the Academy of American Poets, in which he tells a joke about a kid trick-or-treating and completely screws up the punchline). When my wife wants to give me a serious present, it’s a Berryman first edition. My cat, for Pete’s sake, is called “Henry” because of Berryman (Henry, in the poems, is frequently a cat: “I am Henry Pussy-cat! My whiskers fly!”).
I’m trying to get at something about his particular appeal. People who like Berryman really like him. When Berryman fans identify one another in, say, a crowded party it tends to end in a quote-off and a fast friendship. There are 20th-century poets most of us will acknowledge as better, but there are few with whom one so strongly feels one has found, in Berryman’s preferred epithet, a pal. You find in him remarkable technical command, deep and riddling allusiveness, killer gags and an antic harlequinade of aspects and personae that recalls Looney Toons as much as it does The Waste Land. But you also find a voice: this character Henry, who is half Berryman and half not, and who lives on the page and speaks to you. The voice looks easy to imitate or parody – with its fractured syntax, its tics and ampersands – but, as many who have tried discover, it isn’t.
Is there another poet in the language who can be said to be so companionable? Berryman, and he was pretty plain about it, rejected TS Eliot’s idea of the impersonality of poetry: he talked about personality as an organising principle of the Songs. Berryman’s pre-Dream Songsbreakthrough, “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet”, is half seance, half love-affair: the poet’s voice entwines with that of the 17th-century poet Anne Bradstreet whom he conjures up, and they flirt. Another key to the directness of his appeal is the way in which he flouts John Stuart Mill’s old idea of poetry as being not heard, but overheard. Here is poetry that is not only heard: it buttonholes you.
About that blackface. I think it is fair to acknowledge that the racial politics of The Dream Songs are what academics like to call problematic. But it’s fair, too, to make clear that “problematic” in this case means complexly troubling rather than being a crude euphemism for “racist”. Henry is sometimes in blackface. The dynamic of his relationship with his unnamed friend is shaped by the call-and-response of minstrel patter. “Mr Bones” is a stock end-man (the clownish figure at either end of the semicircle in which minstrel performers traditionally sat), and the Songsare littered with “darky” patois. But we have to remember that as Berryman cautioned, “many opinions and errors in the Songs are to be referred not to the character Henry, still less to the author, but to the title of the work”.
I remember having a long argument, years ago, with a friend brought up in Washington who regarded any tinge of minstrelsy as anathema. The position I took was that this was a work of self-laceration and self-reproach – that here was a poet determined to put this character, halfway a portrait of himself, messily in the wrong and that blackface was a way of doing so; that her offence, directed at Henry and through him at Berryman, was in other words an intended effect. Not sure I quite buy that, now: it’s to under-read the poem, to ignore that, at the time of its writing, blackface was not as taboo as it is now, and not to acknowledge the prankish energy that the minstrel material gives it.
But I think it can be said with confidence that racial mockery is not the point of the blackface in the Songs, nor even a point of it. It is doing something different there, and such offence as it gives, well …
Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry
– Mr Bones: there is.
Berryman’s only novel was about an alcoholic drying out. It was calledRecovery, and it wasn’t finished because he didn’t. On 7 January 1977 Berryman walked along the outside of the covered Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, climbed on the railing, leaned out and let go. Some accounts had it that he made a gesture something like waving goodbye.
Requiescat in pace. And happy birthday, pal.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

John Berryman in Dublin


Minneapolis poet John Berryman is most famous for his epic volume Dream Songs, an obtuse collection of poems that seem to draw as much from Whitman as they do from Joyce. Filled with allusions and unreliable narrators, Dream Songs is an at times impenetrable and mystifying meditation on life, death and the in-between. He killed himself in 1972, jumping into the Mississippi River from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis.

These photographs, taken from the LIFE archive, show the poet on vacation in Dublin in 1965.


Monday, November 3, 2014

John Berryman / A short letter

by John Berryman

New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, (1964). First Edition Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. 

INSCRIBED and SIGNED by Berryman with what amounts to a short letter: 

"To Anne/and to Chis--if, as Kate & I/hope without knowing anything really/about it, you have got together/again. We were bitterly sorry to/hear--from William, not in the least/as gossip--of your separation./Whatever is happening or does,let/me wish you a restoration of the/happiness I so admired in you on/Mr. Frost's last summer./Affectionately/John/The Abbott Hospital/Minneapolis 3,Minn./22 April '64." 

The book was published in April 1964 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in May 1965. The recipients--Anne and Chis--are both referred to in Dream Song 38, contained in this volume, a poem about Robert Frost's death. The Abbott Hospital was a place of refuge for Berryman when overwhelmed by his alcoholism. "In hospitals he found his society," Saul Bellow wrote in his introduction to RECOVERY, Berryman's only novel. "University colleagues were often more philistine, less tolerant of poets than were alcoholics or suicidal girls." Cloth a bit faded and lightly spotted. Dustwrapper soiled with small chips at the spine tips. Very Good in a Very Good dustwrapper .

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Jay Martin / Berryman´s last student writes a letter

Jay Martin, JOHN BERRYMAN, original woodcut



by Jay Martin

Dear Dr. Martin, you, I see, have caught
the Berryman bug.  Many another one
has come to me with questions.  Most pretend
some scholarly purpose, but I waive
pretense aside and ask directly:
‘Which Berryman do you want to know?’
I’m like a food machine.  You press
a button and I’ll deliver your selection—
John’s psychic stresses?  His abuse of drugs?
The thousand litres of alcohol he drank?
His violence toward himself and others?
His constant travels and his restlessness?
His yet more constant dream of death?
His breakdowns, deep depressions, manic flights?
His wild religious visions and revisions?
His love of women and his hate toward them?
His conquests and his losses?—All of these
were Berryman.  Which would you have?
Which of these sweet confections will you eat?
I could serve any of these dishes up to you.
But … if you asked me, if you asked me
what I think was at the center of John’s heart. . .
I’d tell you this: he was a dancer at his core.
He swayed with rhythms, and the dance steps came.
This elf, this druid, this grand roustabout
knew all the moves, the rhumba, tango,
waltz, cha-cha, samba, East Coast swing,
the Tiger Rag, Black Bottom, even the Beguine,
but best of all the lazy foxtrot
danced so slow that you could “hold a girl real tight.”
That’s the advice he always gave his pals.
At afternoon tea dances, late nights at Roseland,
in all the hip Mocambos of the world,
he always held them tight,  but not so tight
his dread of loss would ever dance away.
He could have been a Harvest Moon Ball champ,
and that way might have danced through life,
except he fell from dance to poetry.
He had a paltry fifty women in his bed,
but on the dance floor, countless thousands.
Oh, his poems were fine, his Shakespeare studies too,
but there he never could be No. 1.
That’s what he always yearned for, to reach the heights
of undisputed fame.  But there were
Frost and Lowell, Jarrell, and Schwartz, still living.
He always feared he might be No. 5.
Damn that Van Doren who made him turn to verse.
That did him in.  He should have stuck to dancing.
He had the moves, he had the rhythm there
and could have shown Astaire and Valentino steps
worth fortunes.  Only by jumping off a Minnesota bridge
in Winter could he free himself from poetry
inviting himself to dance.
On iron-cold Minnesota nights,
when the moon hangs like a spangled globe
above a ballroom floor, dispensing diamonds,
I think I see John dance across the moon
in endless marathon, holding a girl there, tight,
so tight.  The Duke and Count and Bix were swell
but now he hears the band play “Goodnight Sweetheart”
to the music of the spheres.
Goodnight sweetheart.  Dying to verse,
rising to dance, he knows, I hope, he’s
JAY MARTIN is the author, among other books, of Harvests of Change: American Literature 1865-1914, and Who Am I This Time?: Uncovering the Fictive Personality.  He is Professor of Government and Edward S. Gould Professor of Humanities at Claremont-McKenna College.  He is also a practicing psychoanalyst.  See: