John Berryman (1914-72) has one of the most idiosyncratic voices in American poetry. That voice, which is everywhere on display in a new Selected Poems, capably edited by Kevin Young, is by turns quirky and whimsical, brilliantly learned and painfully mannered, smart-alecky, anguished. Berryman combined a passionate, disruptive syntax with an irreverent blend of highbrow and lowbrow dictions -- part Shakespeare, part minstrel show, part baby talk. Who could have predicted such a salty, ostentatious and exaggerated comic style -- or known that it would come to seem so intensely literary and inevitably American? Imagine Emily Dickinson crossed with Bessie Smith and Groucho Marx. The results, to use one of Berryman's favorite words, are "delicious."
No significant American poet is funnier, though the comedy is nervous and limned with sadness. ("Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.") When I was in school my friends and I followed the antic doings of the ironic hero of The Dream Songs -- huffy, unappeasable Henry ("an old Pussycat," "a human American man") -- the way popular culture addicts followed the soaps, episode by episode. We were amazed by the way that "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet" created an imaginary dialogue between two poets across the centuries. Who else would have turned to a Puritan writer he was summoning out of the past and declared, "I want to take you for my lover"? We didn't yet recognize the dark truth of Berryman's underlying subject, which was, as he said, "the almost insuperable difficulty of writing high verse in a land that cared and cares so little for it."
We were stunned, too, by Berryman's Sonnets, which showed the poet under obsessive emotional pressure "crumpling a syntax with a sudden need." The critics pasted Love & Fame and Delusions, etc., but we regaled one another with "It is supernal what a youth can take" and "All the black same I dance my blue head off." We applauded when he fought back with "Defensio in Extremis":
I said: Mighty men have encamped against me,
and they have questioned not only the skill of my defences
but my sincerity.
Now, Father, let them have it.
In his last books Berryman spoke with unadorned directness and a certain exhibitionist glee in his wayward past. He wrote religious poems, such as "Eleven Addresses to the Lord" and "Opus Dei," in which he put himself "under new management" by embracing a "God of rescue." One felt him standing, guilt-ridden and amazed, before the eternal.
He also wrote needy, grief-stricken poems that one still returns to late at night. Such lyrics as "He Resigns," "Henry by Night," and "Henry's Understanding" have a terrifying clarity and simplicity. They have a dark vulnerability and honesty, a wounded splendor.
He was reading late, at Richard's, down in Maine,
aged 32? Richard & Helen long in bed,
my good wife long in bed.
All I had to do was strip & get into my bed,
putting the marker in the book, & sleep,
& wake to a hot breakfast.
Off the coast was an island, P'tit Manaan,
the bluff from Richard's lawn was almost sheer.
A chill at four o'clock.
It only takes a few minutes to make a man.
A concentration upon now & here.
Suddenly, unlike Bach,
& horribly, unlike Bach, it occurred to me
that one night, instead of warm pajamas,
I'd take off all my clothes
& cross the damp cold lawn & down the bluff
into the terrible water & walk forever
under it out toward the island.
(All quotations are from John Berryman, "Selected Poems," edited by Kevin Young. The Library of America. Copyright © 2004. The stanza from "Defensio in Extremis" and the poem "Henry's Understanding" first appeared in John Berryman, "Delusions, etc." Farrar Straus Giroux. Copyright © 1969, 1971 by John Berryman; copyright © 1972 by the Estate of John Berryman, renewed 2000 by Kate Berryman.)