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.
John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.