John Berryman: Hearing Voices


HEARING VOICES: John Berryman’s Translation of Private Vision into Public Song

in Recovering Berryman: Essays on a Poet, ed. Richard J. Kelly and Alan K. Lathrop,

University of Michigan Press, 1993

In his introduction to John Berryman’s Collected Poems, Charles Thornbury says that Whitman is the poet Berryman most resembles (CP, xix). But what I hear are echoes of and resemblances to Eliot, especially the Eliot of “Prufrock” and The Waste Land.

This comparison may seem to fly in the face of Berryman’s criticisms of Eliot’s poetics. In describing his work on Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, for example, Berryman says of its structure, “Let’s have narrative, and at least one dominant personality, and no fragmentation! In short, let us have something spectacularly not The Waste Land.” And in response to a query about why he referred to the Dream Songs as one poem rather than a series of lyrics, Berryman responded: “Ah—it’s personality, it’s Henry….The reason I call it one poem is the result of my strong disagreement with Eliot’s line—the impersonality of poetry…I’m very much against that; it seems to me on the contrary that poetry comes out of personality.”

I would take issue with this response on several grounds. For one thing, Eliot didn’t dispute that poetry comes out of personality, but argued that what comes out of that source must be transformed by the formal pressures of the poem. Second, Berryman fails to distinguish here between the author’s personality, which is extraliterary, and character, which is a literary construct. Third, just as negative space is defined by positive in a work of art, any of us are defined by and tied to whatever we rebel against, so Berryman’s poetry is deeply shaped by what he so passionately rejects. Fourth, the terms personality and impersonality seem far more muddying than illuminating. I would prefer to substitute temperament, as used by David Kalstone in his book Five Temperaments: “I intend the word ‘temperament,’ of course, in its nonpejorative sense, as Wallace Stevens used it when he remarked that ‘Temperament is a more explicit word than personality, and would no doubt be the exact word to use, since it emphasizes the manner of thinking and feeling.’ Stevens, as one of the least overtly autobiographical of poets, understood exactly what part the personal played: ‘It is often said of a man that his work is autobiographical in spite of every subterfuge. It cannot be otherwise…even though it may be totally without reference to himself.’”

The similarities I hear between Eliot and Berryman have to do with their use of a range of voices in their poems as a means to discover and construct their own poetic voices, and my sense that these similarities in poetic strategy arose in part from similarities in temperament. Both Eliot and Berryman were masters at creating a specific voice with a few words, and using that voice to summon an entire character. This enabled them to express strong emotions indirectly, through their characters; when an does speak, it is as one voice among many. It’s Prufrock, not Eliot, who says:

For I have known them all already, known them all—

Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.


I grow old…I grow old…

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

And in the “Game of Chess” section of The Waste Land, it’s an unidentified but specific character who thinks to himself, in response to the querulous woman who badgers him with, “’ What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?’”—“I think we are in rats’ alley/ Where the dead men lost their bones.” And who follows, a few lines later, with the scrap of song and dance: “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag–/ It’s so elegant/ So intelligent.”

David Perkins comments that the following lines from Berryman’s Love & Fame might have been one of the fragments quoted in The Waste Land: “I drink too much. My wife threatens separation./ She won’t ‘nurse’ me. She feels ‘inadequate.’/ We don’t mix together.”

Berryman, too, was able to achieve the music and intensity he strove for through the creation of individual voices, from the personas of “The Nervous Songs,” to the man addressing his lover in the Sonnets, to the two speakers in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. It’s almost as if Eliot and Berryman, both shy men in their different ways, are most comfortable and least tongue-tied in the company of imaginary friends. Even when Berryman and Eliot use an I that in some sense stands for the poet, it’s a specific character, not the billowing, boundless I of Whitman’s poems.

We speak of poets “finding” their own voices as if we knew what that meant, and I suppose that in a general way we do. But I’d like to define and explore that vocabulary in some detail as it applies to the procession of Berryman’s poems from the earliest, which are often characterized as “stiff” and “academic,” through the more distinctive Sonnets and Homage to the Dream Songs.

It’s obvious that the public voice a poet finds and that we hear as his or her own need not be first person or autobiographical, but I make the point because so many poets from Berryman’s generation—Lowell, Plath, Rich, James Wright, and so on—“found” their own poetic voices by moving from third person and relatively anonymous and general first person to a specific and autobiographical first person. This shared path had more to do with the literary climate of the time than with a similarity of temperaments. Poets who were writing their early poems when the influence of the New Criticism was at its height worked to keep the obviously personal out of the poems, to make the poem independent of its author, to erase or disguise ties between the work and the life. It’s no surprise that any element so thoroughly suppressed would eventually reappear with a vengeance.

Voice is what brings a poem to life, makes it audible even if we’re not saying it aloud. It is the opposite of awkward self-consciousness. A poem may succeed in other ways—vivid images, polished craft—but unless it finds its own voice, it will remain a beautiful corpse. Although a poet may find his or her voice in a variety of ways, choice of pronoun is crucial to locating it. As Berryman said, “A pronoun may seem a small matter, but she matters, he matters, it matters, they matter. Without this invention…I could not have written either of the two long poems that constitute the bulk of my work so far.” A distinctive voice is present in many of Berryman’s early poems, in individual lines and passages, and occasionally throughout a poem. It surfaces most often in persona poems, poems with a third-person narrator, poems using first-person plural, and poems in second person, addressed to a specific other. The early poems that use an I are among the stiffest and most awkward. “The Statue,” for example, never successfully meshes its third-person descriptive distance with the first-person speaker who puts in two brief appearances, one at the beginning of the second stanza: “Where I sit, near the entrance to the Park,/ The charming dangerous entrance to their need”; and one at the beginning of the third stanza: 

Fountains I hear behind me on the left,

See green, see natural life springing in May

To spend its summer sheltering our lovers,

Those walks so shortly to be over.

The first person here is more intrusive and distracting than unifying or illuminating.

Persona poems provide the valuable focus of first person, but declare themselves to be spoken by someone other than the author and so offer an escape—not from personality, but from self-consciousness. The shy actor can forget himself or herself and at the same time express powerful emotions by assuming a role. In “The Nervous Songs,” Berryman assumes a range of identities: a young woman, a priest, a young Hawaiian a bridegroom, a professor, among others. The most powerful is “The Song of the Tortured Girl,” in which Berryman completely submerges himself in the girl’s identity. Having summoned up her captivity in a few understated lines:

I must have stayed there a long time today:

My cup of soup was gone when they brought me back.

And then the strange room where the brightest light

Does not shine on the strange men: shines on me

I feel them stretch my youth and throw a switch.

The girl then escapes to the past:

Through the leafless branches the sweet wind blows 

Making a mild sound, softer than a moan;

High in a pass once where we put our tent,

Minutes I lay awake to hear my joy.

—I no longer remember what they want.—

Minutes I lay away to hear my joy.

Apart from persona poems, the poems in which the voice seems most natural, most compelling, and most fluid are those that include one or more other people in addition to the speaker—either as part of a general we, or a particular we, or as a you, a specific other the poem is addressed to. A specific and personal we appears in “Parting as Descent”:

The sun rushed up the sky; the taxi flew;

There was a kind of fever on the clock

That morning. We arrived at Waterloo

With time to spare and couldn’t find my track.

The bitter coffee in a small café

Gave us our conversation. When the train

Began to move, I saw you turn away

And vanish, and the vessels in my brain

Burst, the train roared, the other travellers

In flames leapt, burning on the tilted air

Che si cruccia, I hear the devils curse

And shriek with joy in the place beyond prayer.

The first two stanzas are wonderfully direct. Only in the third—when the we and the you fall away—does the poem stiffen into rhetoric.

Given these glimpses of some of the elements with which Berryman seemed most at ease in the early poems, it isn’t surprising that the sequence of love sonnets written in 1947 should have freed him into an extended expression of the tone, diction, and syntax that we’ve come to recognize as “Berryman’s voice.” We have the advantage of hindsight: we can read backwards from the Dream Songs looking and listening for earlier instances of their distinguishing characteristics their intimations of what was to come.

Poets don’t have that advantage as they’re working, of course, Berryman had been trained and trained himself to use a formal, distanced speaking voice, one addressed primarily to a faceless audience. Only gradually did he discover that the voice of his own best poems was to be a personal, autobiographical singing voice. In the Sonnets, that singing voice is as intimate as possible, addressed to one specific other. It seems likely that the emergence of that voice was made possible in part by the fact that the poems weren’t written for publication. I think the guilt that pervades the Sonnets may have almost as much to do with the break Berryman was making with his poetic models as with the adulterous affair the poems chronicle, and that this was a break he was able to make only in private. Sonnet number 3, for example, can be read as referring to both when it says:

We think our rents

Paid, and we nod. O but ghosts crown, dense,

Down in the dark shop bare stems with their Should

Not! Should Not sleepwalks where no clocks agree!

References to his literary masters appear throughout: Eliot, Yeats, and Dylan Thomas in number 5, Cummings, Propertius, and Pound in number 27, Marvell and Villon in number 32, and so on.

In addition, the sonnet form provides a container for powerful emotions and poses demanding technical problems that can offer a useful distraction from discomfort at revealing those emotions. This combination of intimacy and formality enabled Berryman to develop the voice that would, in one form or another, sustain his poetry from the Sonnets on. The language itself, especially in the early Sonnets, is not dramatically different from that in the earlier poems. It’s simply—if only it were ever that simple—that the voice here brings the various elements into a slightly—but crucially—different alignment, as if a small turn of the dial had brought a faint, fuzzed station in clearly:

I wished, all the mild days of middle March

This special year, your blond good-nature might

(Lady) admit—kicking abruptly tight

With will and affection down your breast like starch—

Me to your story, in Spring, and stretch, and arch.

Yet even though the Sonnets were written in private, and kept private for almost twenty years, they were formally public from the outset: that is, they are carefully crafted poems in a form that has a long-standing tradition, and they allude frequently to literary history. If the fiction of privacy was crucial to their writing, it is hard to imagine that Berryman believed they would never be read. They are spoken to be heard directly by one person but also to be overheard by others. It was this voice, and this device of speaking to be overheard, that enabled Berryman to find the right balance between private and public—private dream and public song.

Berryman began Homage to Mistress Bradstreet the following year, 1948, and even though it wasn’t finished until 1953, it seems in several ways a direct outgrowth of the Sonnets. It begins as an address to one other, a woman—but in this case a public and historical figure, the poet Anne Bradstreet:

The Governor your husband lived so long

moved you not, restless, waiting for him? Still,

you were a patient woman.

Early on, in the third stanza, the speaker addresses her intimately, as he might any absent lover:

Out of maize & air

your body’s made and moves. I summon, see,

from the centuries it.

I think you won’t stay. How do we

linger, diminished, in our lovers’ air.

And by the last line of stanza 4, the voice passes from his lips to hers, Anne begins to speak, the poem becomes a dialogue:

Pockmarkt & westward staring on a haggard deck

it seems I find you, young. I come to check,

I come to stay with you,

and the Governor, & Father, & Simon & the huddled men.

Now the poem incorporates a pesona, one of the most successful techniques from the earlier poems, and combines that with the wrenched syntax and public intimacy of the Sonnets, as in stanza 9, for example:

Winter than summer worse, that first, like a file

on a quick or the poison suck of a thrilled tooth:

and still we may unpack.

Wolves & storms among, uncouth

board-pieces, boxes, barrels vanish, grow

houses, rise. Motes that hop in sunlight slow

indoors, and I am Ruth

away: open my mouth, my eyes wet: I would smile:

The first speaker interrupts briefly in stanzas 12-13 to ask Anne if her poems are written “To please your wintery father? all this bald/ abstract didactic rime I read appalled,” and then returns again, more intimately, in stanzas 25 and following:

–I miss you, Anne,

day or night weak as a child,

tender & empty, doomed, quick to no tryst.

And she replies:

–I hear you. Be kind, you who leaguer

my image in the mist.

And he:

–Be kind you, to one unchained eager far & wild

and if, O my love, my heart is breaking, please

neglect my cries and I will spare you. Deep

in Time’s grave, Love’s, you lie still.

From here on it continues as a dialogue, a duet of seduction and acquiescence that we as readers are allowed to overhear. It continues through her life, returning to her voice alone in stanza 9 and continuing in that until she dies, when the first speaker returns in stanza 54:

–You are not ready? You are ready. Pass,

as shadow gathers shadow in the welling night.

And says, in stanza 56:

I must pretend to leave you. Only you draw off

a benevolent phantom.

Homage can be read in part as a public version of the Sonnets, drawing on the Voice Berryman had developed there and combining it with what he already knew of writing persona poems. He is able to sustain the intimacy of the Sonnet voice but turn it to a more public subject. I couldn’t disagree more with J. M. Linebarger, who says of Homage: “The poem risks nothing of the poet’s self….Hiding behind the mask of Anne Bradstreet, Berryman tells us almost nothing about himself. Homage represents, in my view, the dead-end of purely Academic verse for Berryman.” I have no idea why Berryman should tell us anything about himself, or what that has to do with how good and powerful a poem it is. It seems to me that the voice that addresses Anne Bradstreet implies a great deal about the passions of Berryman the poet.

This process continues in the Dream Songs, where Berryman extends and broadens the he had developed as part of a we, and sustains it without addressing himself to a specific other. We can read these as if they’re addressed to a wider audience, as a turning outward. Or—which is closer to the way I hear them—as if the speaker is talking to himself, to Henry and Mr. Bones, and we are allowed to overhear that conversation. They are in that sense both more private and lonelier than any of the earlier poems. Perhaps that was more than he could bear: the last poems, those in Love & Fame and Delusions, Etc., are often addressed directly to the reader.

In his biography of Berryman, Paul Mariani describes the teenage Berryman’s efforts to turn himself from the boy nicknamed “Blears” because of his thick glasses into someone “more acceptable to his peers. He smoked Lucky Strikes and collected pictures of movie stars,” and taught himself popular songs and how to dance. In the Dream Songs, and in later poems, Berryman was still dancing, but alone, and in the dark.

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