John F Deane
This book by the Berryman scholar, Philip Coleman, is beautifully timed, both as a celebration of Berryman’s birth 100 years ago, and in its work to challenge assumptions about the poetry that have tended to diminish Berryman’s worth.
Assessment of a poet may change from generation to generation. So-called ‘confessional’ poets have been dismissed too fancifully over the past decades, poets like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Berryman and many others.
I see myself as a ‘confessional’ poet, yet a truly confessional poet is one whose actual engagement with the world outside the self is inevitably more considered and, as Rosenthal wrote of Lowell (quoted here by Coleman), the poems “carry the burden of the age within them”.
If Berryman was always conscious of suicide, this does not imply that his inward-looking sense of himself is exaggerated. Coleman succeeds in realigning the term ‘confessional’, and refocusing on other aspects of Berryman’s work; in both ways, a great service has been done by the publication of this book.
Coleman demonstrates throughout the work, and by a close examination of the poems themselves, how deeply committed to an awareness of the ‘outside world’ Berryman was. Poetry is, indeed, a way to work in the world, and to understand it. Berryman himself said that poetry was “one of the most useful tools we have for understanding reality”.
His poem Formal Elegy, on the death of John F. Kennedy, is, as Coleman suggests “a powerfully suggestive statement of Berryman’s public vision”, extending that individual death wider to a focus for touching on the larger contexts of the times. Coleman’s stirring and close examination of the language and of the work is wholly convincing, pointing to the relation between self and the ‘outside world’ at a vital moment in history.
Coleman also outlines the influence on Berryman’s early work of poets like WBYeats, and the communist poet Robert Bhain Campbell, one fine insight being Yeats’s use of mythology and how it helped Berryman to find a method of focusing on the ‘real’: Berryman’s famous character, not quite an alter ego, Henry of the Dream Songs, may well have come to Berryman’s mind from Yeats’s influence.
There is an exploration of Berryman’s work during the war years, from about 1938 to 1948, on Berryman’s meditations on nuclear warfare, the Cold War and the US atom bombs dropped on two cities of Japan. This was later followed, of course, by the Vietnam War, to which many poets were vocal in opposition.
Coleman concludes, rightly, from all of this that there is a profound political awareness undershooting Berryman’s confessional poetry, developing continuity in his public vision alongside his personal concerns. Coleman examines the Sonnets and Dream Songs with the same care, insight and careful quotations.
For readers of this newspaper, there may be added interest in Berryman’s thoughts on translating Paul Claudel’s Le chemin de la croix (The Way of the Cross) while he was working on Dream Songs, noting Berryman’s cautious, but anguished search for spiritual sustenance, and bewailing the modern ‘withdrawal’ from God.
Coleman defends the last poems, Love & Fame, of 1971 and 1972, that tended to be too easily dismissed. Berryman’s awareness of his life’s work in conjunction with his public concerns formed a tightly controlled sequence outlined here by Coleman.
Berryman’s concerns with faith, with poets like Henry Vaughan and many more modern European poets, broaden into concerns with wider metaphysical and religious questions:
“Master of beauty, craftsman of the snowflake,
endower of Earth so gorgeous & different from the boring Moon.”
Coleman allows Berryman his strained ambiguity in these areas, and acknowledges the catastrophes the poet witnessed in his lifetime. Berryman’s later years were darkened by depression and alcohol and he jumped, in January 1972, from a bridge in Minneapolis onto the west bank of the Mississippi River.
Coleman’s painstaking, well-argued book, is a fitting tribute to a great poet whose work must not be dismissed as ‘merely confessional’. This is an important contribution to the study of American poetry as well as to a proper understanding of the grounds and thrust of poetry through the ages.
*Poet John F Deane’s latest book is a collection of his stories The Whole World Over, available only as an ebook from Amazon and other sites.