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John Berryman: Poems Selected by Michael Hofmann: A Word-Hoard

I tend to be skeptical whenever somebody recommends a writer to me, especially, for some reason, when it’s a poet being recommended; and it’s usually a contemporary, or near-one, that I am usually having foisted upon me—my perception of the dynamic here duly noted—so when a friend, who hardly reads much literature of any kind recommended I read John Berryman, I had my guards up. Unfortunately, Berryman’s reputation, that is, of his alcoholism and mental instability, nay, volatility; of his suicide, preceded him; and the cover of the book—a photograph of a virtual tottering Tower of Pisa of double-shot glasses, a worm of whisky still waiting in most of them—hardly endeared me as a potential reader.

Reading John Berryman: Poems Selected by Michael Hofmann, though, I found myself enjoying a number of poems, including some I’d read before, like the Stevensian “Old Man Goes South Again Alone”.

O parakeets & avocets, O immortelles
& ibis, scarlet under that stunning sun,
deliciously & tired I come
toward you in orbit, Trinidad!—albeit without the one

I would bring with me to those isles & seas,
leaving her airborne westward thro’ great snows
whilst I lapse on your beaches
sandy with dancing, dark    moist eyes among my toes.

Its soft iambic lilt adds, for me, to its melancholy, and its rather audaciously simple theme of missing a lover comes just short of sentimentality, this sentimentality reined in by its careful craft, indicated by its abovementioned rhythm and meter, its song-like rhyming, its two almost-dehiscing O’s rhyming with “snows” and “toes”; and especially the caesura—another O!—a lacuna really—in the final line, swallowing this reader into the poem’s bleak and sandy sadness.

I also liked a number of poems from Berryman’s famed The Dream Songs, some of which I’d encountered in various anthologies; and the pillorying of critics from time-to-time (“To be a critic, ah, / how deeper and more scientific,” from “Olympus”); but it was the sonnets, Shakespeare looming over them like some grand inspiriter, where Berryman asserted himself most strongly. I especially enjoyed their mimicry, what Michael Leong calls “poetic ventriloquism”; their arch tonality, playful digressions, and nods to Blake, Mozart, Marvell, Bach, Schubert; their lovely archaisms and obsolete-but-integral-to-the-poems orthography.

Here’s my word-hoard from the collection:

dog-dull, burbleth, sequestered, wide-flung, torpid, lime-slow, amaranthine, Natheless, epigone, unsleeping, brume, sun-incomparable, wind-slapt, reflexion, a-conning, dicker, whelming, Cantabacks, mummers, perduring, vanisht, morning-cheese, spumoni, cadenza, plink, decussate, publishingers, ground-rhythm, prickt, ur-moist, cointreau, instauration, ill-sped, yatters, cried-over, half-strangled, blow-it-all, desuetudes, kerb.

5 thoughts on “John Berryman: Poems Selected by Michael Hofmann: A Word-Hoard

  1. A pleasure, John. To me Berryman’s a navigational star, we’ve all yet to take the measure of his contribution to the language & form of American poetry. Note how your word-hoard includes several comic neologisms.

    Coupla things. First, the soap opera of his battle w/ depression & gin has run on long enough. He suffered & lost, yes, & that’s a tragedy, but as a *poet,* he’s all about painful wrenching rendered w/ scrupulous acuity; he’s lucid, always, even at his most side-of-the-mouth. Second, Berryman actually wrote about Stevens, his death, in DREAM SONG #219. A fine elegy, it begins:

    He lifted up, among the actuaries,
    a grandee crow. Ah ha & he crowed good.
    That funny money-man.
    Mutter as we all must as well as we can.
    He mutter spiffy. He make wonder Henry’s

    1. Thanks, John.

      I agree with you that “the soap opera of his battle w/ depression & gin has run on long enough”, and that what matters is not the mottled corpse he left behind but the words. The cover of this collection, however, serves, for me, more as a distraction than anything else, a stupid one at that.

      The line “He mutter spiffy” reminds me, for some reason, of our mutual friend T.S. Eliot’s manuscript title for The Waste Land: “He Do the Police in Different Voices.”

  2. I read very little poetry, but I love Berryman. I own a first edition Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. And I quote it as my epigraph in forthcoming satire. He’s just gorgeous and emotional in his writing.

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