Spring 2001


John Berryman:

"Off Away Somewhere Once"

A talk given by William Heyen on the poet at the University of Minnesota, Oct 1990

This context: during the short years since John Berryman's death in the winter of 1972, what was a vaguely disturbing dream for mankind has assumed body and will never allow us back into a night that balances and restores. Our ecological situation now is grave, is unprecedented, and, it seems to me, has not yet struck most contemporary American poets as real (as it must, as perhaps by way of poetryit must). We have not realized, made real for ourselves, the chaos and death into which we are drifting. It seems to me that even though we speak the faces and "know" them, we have not imagined. Our life remains a blur and a daze as we lose our hold on the planet.

By general scientific consensus, we now understand that global temperature has risen about one degree Fahrenheit since the Industrial Revolution. By about 2030 we are "committed" - a word the EPA uses in a report to Congress - to a rise of two more degrees because of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Nothing we can do about this. This is in the pipeline for us. Three degrees. This in itself is a frightening increase. Berryman's phrase "irreversible loss" becomes prophecy. Listen to Bill McKibben in The End Of Nature (1989): "That is to say, if all the liberals and all the conservatives in all the countries of the world had gotten together a decade ago and done all the most dramatic things they could think of, it wouldn't have been enough to prevent terrible, terrible changes."

A likely scenario of these terrible changes is outlined in a chapter entitled "The End" in the extremely important book - "Required reading for responsible citizenship" says Thomas O. Lovejoy - Dead Heat (1990) by Michael Oppenheimer and Robert H. Boyle. "Imagine - the year is 2050," the chapter begins. What follows is the breakdown of ecological systems, the vitrual end of the world as we know it, place by place. And this is not wild speculation or science fiction. Just the three degree rise in temperature to which we are committed is already, Oppenheimer and Boyle say, "a point which marks the boundary of a climatic no man's land." Says McKibben bluntly, "a few more decades of ungoverned fossil fuel use, and we burn up."

We will, you know, continue these next decades with our fossil fuel economies. All gains in energy efficiency or alternative energy are being more than offset by increasing populations of fuel burners - China, Russia, India, the new Germany, want cars, cars. Oppenheimer and Boyle say, "Should individual gasoline cars come to dominate the rest of the world as well, the greenhouse problem will become intractable." Another unprecedented way of considering a human problem: "intractable." It is likely that from 2030-2050 on, the temperature will rise one degree a decade. A seven degree rise would probably mean an 18-foot rise in ocean levels - nightmare. Many serious thinkers believe that only a tremendous catastrophe that wakes us up can save us, and the sooner the better.

This catastrophe may be very close. We are losing, according to Lester Brown of Worldwatch, 24 billion tons of topsoil a year - an amount equal to the topsoil of all Australia's wheat fields. We are on the verge of a food emergency - US dollars will likely be competing with Japanese yen for US food. With increasing loss of topsoil, desertification, swelling population, the environmental support systems on which the global fossil-fuel economy depends is deteriorating at an accelerating pace.

I could go on with the likley loops of heat and storm and flood and forest dieback and disease ahead of us on our collision course with the end. I'll strike to the root of this in a hurry. From my intuition, from my experience with ponds and meadows and with fields of asphalt, from my book knowledge, I believe what Kurt Vonnegut has said: "I would say 100 years is a long time for us to last." Despite my desire for a contrary "supreme fiction," I believe we are going to die out, and die out fast, once we pass certain limits, and we are speeding toward those limits. When I think deeply about this for only the few seconds a month I am able to, when I imagine extinction, I almost extinguish myself.

This is central to our plight: we may be physiologically unable to imagine what is happening to us. In the second of his "Eleven Addresses to the Lord," Berryman says, "Man is ruining the pleasant earth & man./ What at last, my Lord, will you allow?/ Postpone till after my children's death your doom/ if it be thy ineffable, inevitable will." An abject recognition and resignation here.

Given all this, then, in government or industry or education or at conferences devoted to beloved poets, business as usual will become increasingly irrelevant, silly, trivial, suspect. In modern and in post-modern poetry, anything has gone, even the attempt to free art from memory, as John Cage has described his own desire. Wallace Stevens' 1940 lyric "Of Modern Poetry" recognizes that script and theatre have changed, but within its esthetic of meditative play argues for a poetry which "In the delicatest ear of the mind" speaks those exact words that it and we want to hear. Stevens says that the new poem "must/ Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may/ Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman/ Combing." Maybe once upon a time, but we no longer have time. Recent poetry especially has flourished on subtlety, evasion, indirection, silence. In his two volumes of essays, Preoccupations (1980) and The Government of the Tongue (1988), Seamus Heaney has argued in various eloquent ways that poetry operates under a special dispensation to be inefficacious. But this too is a traditional argument and, as Erich Harth says in Dawn of a Millennium: Beyond Evolution and CUlture (1990), another unsettling deliberation on our chances for survival, "So far, our minds are still tradition bound and barely aware of where we are heading." Now the stakes being what they are, the facts being what they are, it seems to me logical and urgent to argue that poetry must find ways, direct ways, to help effect a change in consciousness and behavior, or it must cease distracting us from the crucial work at hand.

From being the skinny four-eyed kid "Blears" to being a distinguised Regents' Professor o humanities here at the University of Minnesota and one of America's most famous poets, John Berryman fought all his life for a sense of self-worth. He found both his defensive and offensive strength not in people or in nature but in books, in literature. In "Friendless," remembering his student days at Cambridge, Berryman says "I don't do a damned thing but read & write" - this could serve as a basic description of his works and days. His style, as it evolved from academic "period style" to his distinctive barbed-wire torque of jittery syntax and excited darting rhythmic phrasings and leaps, forged his focus as he circled from outer political world to his pizzicato self.

In "Matins" of Delusions Etc. he writes "past forty years/ ...I strayed abhorrent, blazing with my Self." If Berryman's self was abhorrent to him, Walt Whitman's of course tells us that he felt his self to be luscious and luminous, even if deceitfulness and craftiness and sly words were not lacking in him. This is one reason why Berryman's essay on Whitman's "Song of Myself" is such uncomfortable reading for me. "I was not fortunate enough, as were Philip Levine and others, to hear Berryman in classic excstatic with Whitman.) In this essay, Berryman seems to will himself to try to pin down this elemental force of nature who is, or who has convinced himself that he is, beyond linguists and contenders, at ease with himself and his sure knowledge of the beauty and deliverance of death, of his mentor Emerson's various apprehensions of nature's ministry and circular power. All his writing life Berryman was both amazed and troubled by the aboriginal Walt. How could he not be? In the Paris Reviewinterview conudcted by Peter Stitt in 1970, Berryman remarks, "Take observation of nature, of which I have absolutely none." Then he says something that Walt would find extremely "curious": "It (the observation of nature) makes possible a world of moral observation for Frost, or Hopkins. So scholarship and teaching are directly usefl to my activity as a writer." The observation of nature made possible any world at all for Walt. He, Thoreau, Emerson, all begin with the something we have, the only given, nature. How could Berryman possibly read "Song of Myself" without being shaken to the bone? He was much more comfortable with Stephen Crane. "Work and grief made up the context," said Berryman of Crane. Throughout Crane, throughout the Naturalists, nature is abstracted, allegorical sign, it may be, rather than symbol.

Berryman often felt abhorrent not only to this God being addressed in the late books, but to his inner-self. When I was young I suffered not just feelings of inferiority, but an inferiority complex, and whenever I read Berryman it is jarring for me to sense, beneath his whine and bluster and compassion, beneath the idiosyncratic music he hears with the ear in his brain, his casting about, his lostness, his recognition that he has not yet found the ground of his being or whatever it is, if anything, that can nurture and sustain him. espeically in dream songs, it seems to me, his subject matteris his differentiated personality's search for lost meaning, for unity with something that will give him peace. His contemporary Theodore Roethke always, at heart, knew that in the end only one thing could save the individual or the race, the "eye quiet on the growing rose." There is little or no observation of nature in Robert Lowell, either, or in Delmore Schwartz. Even Schwartz' dreams, as recorded in his journals, are usually about conversations with poets about poetry - I think I'd rather go sleepless! At the end of his life in some of the most beautiful and moving writing of the generation, "North American Sequence" - I've seen the manuscripts of these poems, by the way: they came to him quickly, he has won through to a sense of oneness with te natural essence of being, can remind himself "not to fear infinity." In the late poetry, deepening what we sense since the greenhouse poems, Roethke experiences "a steady storm of correspondences! Death of the self in a long, tearless night" ("In a Dark Time"). This is enough for Roethke, the essential Romantic reciprocity which demands that the world of reptiles and of roses rooted in rock be there. "By all the things that are,/ I;ve come to be," he says in "The Changeling" He doesn't even exist except by way of a long-staring at and an immersion in the natural world. Is this what we have to know, is this what we have to worship and preserve to stave off insanity and death? - these are the questions throbbing in Roethke.

In the early "At Chinese Checkers" of The Dispossessed Berryman says "The fox-like child I was or assume I was/ I lose, the abstract remember only," and in his first books nature is primarily cipher and tonal decor, a kind of sign language. When a firefly or a dandelion or a whip o'will or a sea-shell or a nest shows up in The Dispossessed, or a rose or a gale or a tulip or a wasp or a daisy or a brook or a loon or a sheep in Sonnets to Chris, it seems reference by habit. Maybe Berryman will mention "oak" or "sycamore," but it's usually just "tree" or "trees," and in any case the tree never seems to be in a particular place, or to have been stared at intently until it has yielded itself to him in a flow of inward and outward tendings. The most telling and touching and bereft nature image in The Dispossessed occurs at the end of the title poem, which concludes the volume: "The race/ is done. Drifts through, between the cold black trunks,/ the peachblow glory of the perishing sun// in empty houses where old things take place." We have lost something that was once aura, Berryman feels and dramatizes. The moon is his central nature image in the early books - "the moon in the breast of man is cold," he says in "The Moon and the Night and the Moon" - and we notice that he does keep his eye on the skies and on corresponding weather beneath the breastbone throughout his poetr.

I once said to him that I was smitten by Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. I said that the 31st stanza especially sang to me:
--It is Spring's New England. Pussy willows wedge
up in the wet. Milky crestings, fringed
Yellow, in heaven, eyed
by the melting hand-in-hand or mere
desirers single, heavy-footed, rapt,
make surge poor hyuman hearts. Venus is trapt -
the hefty pike shifts, sheer -
in Orion blazing. Warblings, odours, nudge to an edge -

He replied that this was the best stanza of the poem. Here, I know, he imagined, and his own heart surged with the presence of nature in Anne's New England. Twenty years later the mature poet knew he's gotten something down there that he'd gotten down almost nowhere else, and there are instances in Berryman of intense yearning for the Source itself. In "Note to Wang Wei of His thought Made Podckets & the Plane Buckt 1958) he wonders how the poet, "now some thousand years/ disheveled," could still be so happy. It teases him to the "verge of tears," he says. "It makes me long for mountains & blue waters." In "Compline" of Delusions, Etc. he senses
a rapture, though, of the Kingdom here here now
in the heart of a child - not far, not hard to come by,
but natural as water falling, cupped
& lapped & slaking the child's dustry thirst!

But maybe the most striking instance in Berryman of his abiding sense of loss and indirection occurs in "Dream Song #265." In this direct introspective song Berryman lays bare his abiding intimations of the wrong-turning of his life. "I don't know one damned butterfly from another," he blurts out to open, but it is too late for him, too late to change, he feels - it seems always too late for so much in Berryman, while in Whitman, of course, it is never too late for anything, all is always the flux of inception - so he mumbles a prayer for reincarnation in two words, "many returns," and swars that "next time it will be nature & Thoreau." This song at this late time is about all that he can allow to surface to acknowledge one undercurrent of irreversible loss that we've heard in bits and snatches: "Once in a sycamore I was glad,/ all at the top, and I sang" (#1); "The glories of the world struck me, made me aria, once: (#26). In the end, in the last song, he can't sense the middle ground between things and the soul, which is the ground where Walt's child goes forth. As the leaves fly, he wonders whether turkeys every "greatly flew," or wished to. He says, in that voice that keeps breaking through, "off away somewhere once I knew/ such things." Where is that place? we wonder. It is as though he refers to a childhood, or pre-childhood, or pre-incarnation where he was instinct with nature. Questioning his bookish life to the end, he feels he has to scold the present book, his "heavy daughter."

Here in Minneapolis Lea Baechler has reminded us of the 1957 short story "Wash Far Away" in which Berryman's professor-protagonist tells his poetry class, "but if the flowers are nothing more than words for us, we miss a good deal." This understated moment wells up from a life, from beneath critical theory, and is too deep for tears. Kate Berryman mentioned to me near the end, between episodes, John bought a telescope. I think of him studying the star-glitter of the out-there, balancing himself, readying himself for whatever would come next. For me, the essential Berryman, the necessary Berryman exists in this poignant tension between the life as he and almost all of us have lived it, and that other life - could it still? - could save us.



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