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