Age, and the deaths, and his ghosts: On the lives of John Berryman

Miranda Popkey

In 1967, the poet John Berryman—already a Pulitzer Prize winner for his 77 Dream Songs—was interviewed by the English critic A. Alvarez. The interview, which ran over the course of three days, was filmed for the BBC at a pub, Ryan’s Beggars Bush, in Ballsbridge, Dublin, and it is from this footage that the clips of Berryman reading his Dream Songs—#14 and #29—which now circulate on YouTube are drawn.

Poets in Their Youth
Barnes and Noble

In so far as there is an image of Berryman that exists in the public imagination, these clips are its embodiment: the poet’s beard is fulsome and his spectacles are large, black, and thickly-framed; he is wearing what might be a shoulder-padded overcoat. Berryman’s delivery is stilted, almost unnervingly so: his speech is alternately halting and rushed; he gestures extravagantly; his head bobs and weaves. Berryman “was drunk during filming, as the attentive viewer may notice,” runs the quippy description under the video, and sure, he was probably that too. More than drunk, though, he looks pained. Each word seems to come from a great distance, to emerge only after a violent struggle.

The photo on the front of FSG’s reissue of Poets in Their Youth, Eileen Simpson’s memoir of her early marriage to Berryman, shows a younger, lighter man. Without the trademark beard, the heavy glasses, it’s hard to recognize the depressive poet who would, twenty-six years later, take his own life. Twice, when proofs of our new cover were routing, I was asked to confirm that the cheerful, smiling man to the left of Jean Stafford was indeed John Berryman. The first time, I did so unthinkingly; the second, I flipped through the book itself, to the page where the image originally appears and the figures are identified. The caption—“John, Jean, and Cal”—was reassuring. But staring at the figure in black and white induced a kind of vertigo: the yawning gap between Simpson’s Berryman and my Berryman seemed impossibly deep; unbridgeable.

• • •

I’ve loved John Berryman—his poetry and his beard—since I was introduced to his work at eighteen, but before reading Poets in Their Youth, I knew only Berryman the mad man. Simpson gives us Berryman the young man, and though you can see, by book’s end, the one converge with the other, that doesn’t make her generous portrait any less true.

Poets in Their Youth shows Berryman young and married, trudging back from a dinner party at Delmore and Gertrude Schwartz’s apartment with his wife on a frigid night. The ten minute walk up the hill from the subway station takes fifty, the couple feeling the whole time “as though we were wrapped in wet sheets . . . It seemed absurd,” Simpson writes, “to panic so close to home, but waves of panic were what passed between us, we admitted, when we were safely inside our icy but windless apartment, and could speak again.” In the morning, Delmore calls up to tell them that the temperature had dropped, during their walk, to fourteen below.

In that same icy apartment, which Berryman and Simpson occupied while the former was an instructor at Harvard, the young couple sleep in a single bed (“I suppose,” Simpson remembers Berryman remarking, “when we have some money we should buy a larger one, but since we’re both slim . . .” This single bed will come as a shock to one of the faculty wives they later invite to tea: “John predicted that by the time this news hit Harvard yard, Cambridge gossip being what it was, we could probably be said to have a mirror on the ceiling.”) The single bed is indicative of their penury: the bedroom is additionally furnished with a “straight-backed chair”; otherwise, it is “bare as a monk’s cell.” What’s more, “Because it was on a courtyard and had no lighting fixture, day and night it was as dark as a cave.”

Berryman is a neurotic sort, but his anxiety manifests itself, at least early in their marriage, in the usual, funny ways: he worries about getting a Guggenheim grant, yes, but he also worries about losing his hair. “If I tried to reassure him by pointing out he had a long way to go before being bald,” Simpson remembers, “he’d say, ‘You refuse to see it.’” (Simpson gets the last word in this particular argument, adding, parenthetically: “Thirty years later when he died he was still not bald.”)

And in the anecdotes she tells about their circle of friends—poets, critics and writers, famous, or about to be so—they, too, emerge (at least at first) more as eccentric, as vividly human, than insane. Richard Blackmur is an enthusiastic, even vicious dancer: “Pouncing, he would grab his victim in a viselike grip, then push, pull, twist, jerk and spin her around, grunting and grimacing like a samurai, while his partner made frantic gestures behind his back, begging for release. If no one intervened quickly enough, it was only a matter of time before the two of them, locked in combat, fell to the floor.” Robert Lowell is an indifferent dishwasher: “If he washed, there would be soapsuds and water all over, down his trousers and on the floor, as he gestured during one of his imitations—he was a wicked mimic—of Randall [Jarrell] or Allen [Tate]. If I washed, he played the boss of the job, handing me back a pot and saying, ‘Ah leen, Ah do believe you could put a little more elbow grease on this.’”

The descent from these harmless high-jinks into drunkenness, into depression, into madness, can seem, in hindsight, inevitable; but not in Poets. In a remarkable passage, Simpson remembers the first time she saw her soon-to-be husband drunk, after an engagement party given by Russian friends of her family. Forced to drink his glass of vodka “piei do dna—to the bottom,” he ends the evening singing “‘Piei do dna’ in full voice and slightly off key. He was, as he said, high as a kite. Never having seen him either high or boisterous before, I was amused.” The next morning, his hangover is tremendous: “he wondered aloud why drinkers drank if the following day they felt the way he had been feeling.”

Five years later, Berryman’s drunken antics seem less amusing. Simpson tells of a party, held after Lowell had been awarded the Pulitzer, during which Lowell “drank quarts of beer, took off his shoes and tossed them up in the air, while John, who had drunk an equal amount and had climbed a sycamore tree, tried to catch them. The sight of poets disporting themselves in this way may have entertained the other guests, but I was feeling that excess of alcohol made even these brilliant and attractive men tiresome.” The scene will be a familiar one to readers of Dream Song #1.

“Tiresome,” is not quite the harshest criticism Simpson offers—but it comes close. Reviewers at the time marveled at Simpson’s generosity, the genuine sympathy she still seemed to feel for a husband one could charitably term “difficult,” and that certainly struck me on my first reading. She is endlessly understanding. Berryman’s affair with the women he called “Lise” in Berryman’s Sonnets (which FSG is also reissuing) is chalked up to the poet’s loneliness. Simpson, at the time, was studying for a PhD in psychology, and was away a few nights a week; she spent her weekends reading and writing papers. “While he was a man who took no great pride in being rational,” she recalls, “he would have thought it absurd to complain that he felt abandoned; yet that was how he felt.” One senses, throughout, the love and affection that bound Simpson to Berryman and that—decades later, after divorce, after Berryman’s own death—bound her to him still. In her afterward, Simpson writes of bittersweet meetings, and letters exchanged after their separation.

• • •

I was first introduced to Berryman my freshman year of college, during a fight with a boy I was seeing. At some point, he interrupted our argument to recite a bit of poetry: it was Berryman’s “He Resigns,” from Delusions Etc., published the year he committed suicide. Simpson reproduces this poem in her preface to the 1990 edition of Poets, recalling a symposium during which Galway Kinnell told of meeting a woman who carried a copy of the poem around in her wallet. “When Kinnell asked why she carried around such a desolate poem,” Simpson writes (and it is desolate; its opening lines are “Age, and the death, and the ghosts. / Her having gone away / in spirit from me.”) “she said that when she was on the verge of suicide she had chanced upon it. The realization that another human being had felt exactly as she was feeling had saved her life.”

John Berryman did not save my life. He did, in a way, begin a relationship, a lasting one: though I am no longer romantically entangled with the boy who recited “He Resigns,” we have remained friends. For his birthday, last year, I gave him a hardcover edition of Poets in Their Youth.

“It pleased me greatly,” Simpson writes, near the end of her preface, “to be told by those who wrote me about my memoir that the book had sent them back to the poetry.” Simpson’s memoir is one of many excuses I have taken to go running back to the poetry. May this reissue send many more readers chasing the various Berrymans we still have—in this book, and in his own.

Miranda Popkey has been on the editorial staff of Farrar, Straus and Giroux since 2011.