FEATURE

Heavy Heart, Empty Heart

Remembering the poet John Berryman in his centennial year.

by James McGirk ’07GS, ’11SOA Published Fall 2014
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Illustrations by Gary Kelley

In 1963, back when it was still acceptable for poets to be openly, ferociously competitive, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s whorled Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan was still new and aesthetically suspect, the greatest poet of his day mounted the stage under Wright’s spiral ramp and inaugurated a reading series sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. Robert Lowell, a tall, elegant man of letters from an old New England family, read his own work to the crowd and then introduced a friend, “an underground poet still digging.” On cue, a stooped, heavily bearded, intoxicated man approached the lectern, and, in a peculiar, strangled voice, explained why it was proper for a trick-or-treating tot to use an expletive to curse the chairman of the First National Bank who’d dropped a polished apple into his sack and broke his cookie.

The crowd laughed nervously. Berryman’s description of the way that different levels of diction could modulate poetry would serve as the prologue to the first public performance of a new cycle of poems the poet was calling “Dream Songs.” The words came out quaking with a voracious carnality: 

Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken páprika, she glanced at me
twice. 
Fainting with interest, I hungered back 
and only the fact of her husband & four other people 
kept me from springing on her 

(“Dream Song 4”)

Carnal lust was one element of these strange semi-sonnets. A self-pitying sorrow was another: 

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

(“Dream Song 29”)

Here was a sorrow so profound that the narrator could only console himself with the thought that at least he had never actually killed anyone: 

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.

(“Dream Song 29”)

The drunken, bearded author was John Berryman ’36CC. Born in McAlester, Oklahoma, in 1914, Berryman had become, by the age of forty-nine, a world-class Shakespeare scholar. But he was primarily a poet, one who fancied himself on par with Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, even if readers had yet to catch on. 

The Dream Songs would change that. This “Henry” was an impish creation, like a Shakespearean fool or a truth-telling country yokel. At a reading at the University of Iowa in 1968, Berryman said of Henry: “He is a white, middle-aged man who has suffered an irreversible loss, and who is also spoken to in a Negro dialect by a white friend wearing blackface who calls him at times ‘Mr. Bones.’” 

“Henry is accused of being me and I am accused of being Henry and I deny it and nobody believes me,” Berryman told the Paris Review in an interview published in 1972. He got the name from his second wife, Elizabeth Ann — they’d asked each other what names they most despised. He said, “Mabel.” She said, “Henry.” 

To complicate this matter of names, Berryman wasn’t born Berryman. He was John Allyn Smith Jr. until John Allyn Smith Sr., a banker, died of a gunshot to the heart by the steps of the family apartment in Tampa, Florida, in 1926. It was written up as a suicide, although Berryman’s classmate, the publisher Robert Giroux ’36CC, would later speculate that Berryman’s mother, Martha, may have murdered him. 

Paul Mariani, in his 1990 biography of Berryman, Dream Song, notes that the characteristic powder burn of a self-inflicted wound was missing from Smith Sr.’s shirt. Moreover, Martha had motive: she wanted to divorce Smith and marry their landlord, John Berryman, and Smith was making things difficult. But the Tampa police department barely looked at the case. Florida was in the middle of a real estate bust in 1926, and many ruined businessmen were killing themselves. 

Such personal themes as loss, infatuations, and hangovers, which occur throughout The Dream Songs, typify what is known as the confessional style, though this was a label Berryman rejected (he rejected all labels, wanting simply to be known as a great poet).Up until the early twentieth century, poetry — at least poetry written in English — was supposed to be about lofty themes like love and war and nature and religion and beauty; writing about familiar, intimate things like shoes and boredom and money and anxiety was taboo. As Columbia poetry professor William Wadsworth points out, Theodore Roethke’s 1942 poem “My Papa’s Waltz” was the first to focus wholly on a poet’s parents.

 For Berryman, “papa” is at the center of things. Alan Gilbert, a poet and critic who teaches a seminar at Columbia called Postwar American Poetry: The 1950s and 1960s, says his favorite lines of Berryman are in “Dream Song 241”:

Father being the loneliest word in the one language
and a word only, a fraction of sun & guns 

“Dream Song 384” refers to his father’s suicide more directly: 

I spit upon this dreadful banker’s grave
who shot his heart out in a Florida dawn

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