Homage to Mister Berryman

Few poets of note have a Minnesota connection. Once upon a time, however, Minnesotan Robert Bly was a respectable poet. Politics — specifically the Vietnam war — seem to have driven him nuts by 1967, at least insofar as his aesthetic judgment is concerned. That year Bly published The Light Around the Body, his second book of poetry.
The book is full of dated antiwar polemics that sealed his reputation among the literary elite; the book was crowned with the 1968 National Book Award for Poetry. The recognition provided encouragement that has permanently derailed Bly’s sensibility. Below is a photograph of Bly at an antiwar poetry reading in 1970.
The descent in Bly’s poetry from 1967 has been continuous and steep. Thus the drivel that Bly produced for the Minneapolis Star Tribune in August 2003, about which Rocket Man posed the query “Worst poem ever written?” The poem is titled “Eight Lines on the Bush administration,” explaining the reason for the Star Tribune’s willingness to pay for the privilege of publishing it:

People vote for their own destruction; everywhere
Borks and thieves, bushes hung with union men.
Some bad-smelling, money-mad, worm-headed,
Deep-reaching greediness rules the countryside.
The greedy soul begins to eat shellfish,
The Caribbean Islands, the rain forests, the Amazon.
What will you say now to the God of Love?
The muddy river of Jefferson thickens into Empire.

Rocket Man commented:

Well, I get the general drift of it–it has some familiar themes–but some references are puzzling. “Borks” refers I suppose to Robert, but what does he have to do with the Bush administration? Nothing, unfortunately. As for the “bushes hung with union men,” here in Minnesota, executives of the teachers’ and government workers’ unions are frequently lynched. You can hardly walk under a bush without bumping into one.
The rain forests are a familiar reference, although what they have to do with the Bush administration I don’t know. But “the Caribbean Islands”? Beats me. But I do understand the references to “greediness”–that’s not, as you might think, when someone wants to steal 50% of your money; it’s when you think you ought to be able to keep more than half of what you earn. How greedy can you get? And Empire–we all understand that. That’s when America tries to defend itself.
If it’s not the worst poem ever written, it will do until someone suggests a worse one.

Unlike Bly, John Berryman was a poet of genuine distinction. Though not a native Minnesotan, he had a substantial connection to Minnesota. Berryman was a member of the University of Minnesota faculty from 1955 until he died by his own hand in Minneapolis in 1972.
Berryman’s major work is a series of what he called Dream Songs, narrated by his alter ego Henry. Above is a photograph of the famously alcolohic Berryman at work on the Dream Songs in a Dublin pub in 1967. Dream Song 324, “An Elegy for W.C.W. [William Carlos Williams, physician and poet], the lovely man,” is an elegy that both powerfully pays tribute to Williams and intimates Berryman’s own sad end:

Henry in Ireland to Bill underground:
Rest well, who worked so hard, who made a good sound
constantly, for so many years:
your high-jinks delighted the continents & our ears:
you had so many girls your life was a triumph
and you loved your one wife.
At dawn you rose & wrote–the books poured forth–
you delivered infinite babies, in one great birth–
and your generosity
to juniors made you deeply loved, deeply:
if envy was a Henry trademark, he would envy you,
especially the being through.
Too many journeys lie for him ahead,
too many galleys & page-proofs to be read,
he would like to lie down
in your sweet silence, to whom was not denied
the mysterious late excellence which is the crown
of our trials & our last bride.

This seems to me an elegy that can stand among the greatest of the twentieth century, Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” and Roethke’s “Elegy to Jane” included.
Thoughts of Berryman are prompted by word that the Library of America has recognized Berryman with a volume devoted to his poetic work, Selected Poems. Tomorrow’s Washington Post Book World reviews Berryman’s career in connection with the publication of the book in its “Poet’s choice” column by Edward Hirsch.


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