“We must travel in the direction of our fear.” ~ John Berryman

berryman.jpg (24711 bytes)
Poet John Berryman (1914-1972)


I haven’t posted anything from The Paris Review’s Art of Poetry series in a while, so here is something from an interview with John Berryman:

“So if I were talking to a young writer, I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.” ~ John Berryman

John Berryman, The Art of Poetry No. 16

Interviewed by Peter A. Stitt


Can one generalize on that? So many of the poets of your generation have encountered at least personal tragedy—flirting with suicide, and so on.


I don’t know. The record is very bad. Vachel Lindsay killed himself. Hart Crane killed himself, more important. Sara Teasdale—quite a good poet at the end, killed herself. Then Miss Plath recently. Randall—it’s not admitted, but apparently he did kill himself—and Roethke and Delmore might just as well have died of alcoholism. They died of heart attacks, but that’s one of the main ways to die from alcoholism. And Dylan died in an alcoholic coma. Well, the actual cause of death was bronchitis. But he went into shock in the Chelsea, where I was staying also, and they got him to the hospital in an ambulance, where he was wrongly treated. They gave him morphine, which is contraindicated in cases of alcoholic shock. He wouldn’t have lived, anyway, but they killed him. He lay in a coma for five days.


You were there, weren’t you?


I was in the corridor, ten feet away.


What was it like to take high tea with William Butler Yeats?


All I can say is that my mouth was dry and my heart was in my mouth. Thomas had very nearly succeeded in getting me drunk earlier in the day. He was full of scorn for Yeats, as he was for Eliot, Pound, Auden. He thought my admiration for Yeats was the funniest thing in that part of London. It wasn’t until about three o’clock that I realized that he and I were drinking more than usual. I didn’t drink much at that time; Thomas drank much more than I did. I had the sense to leave. I went back to my chambers, Cartwright Gardens, took a cold bath, and just made it for the appointment. I remember the taxi ride over. The taxi was left over from the First World War, and when we arrived in Pall Mall—we could see the Atheneum—the driver said he didn’t feel he could get in. Finally I decided to abandon ship and take off on my own. So I went in and asked for Mr. Yeats. Very much like asking, “Is Mr. Ben Jonson here?” And he came down. He was much taller than I expected, and haggard. Big, though, big head, rather wonderful looking in a sort of a blunt, patrician kind of way, but there was something shrunken also. He told me he was just recovering from an illness. He was very courteous, and we went in to tea. At a certain point, I had a cigarette, and I asked him if he would like one. To my great surprise he said yes. So I gave him a Craven “A” and then lit it for him, and I thought, Immortality is mine! From now on it’s just a question of reaping the fruits of my effort. He did most of the talking. I asked him a few questions. He did not ask me any questions about myself, although he was extremely courteous and very kind. At one point he said, “I have reached the age when my daughter can beat me at croquet,” and I thought, Hurrah, he’s human! I made notes on the interview afterward, which I have probably lost. One comment in particular I remember. He said, “I never revise now”—you know how much he revised his stuff—“but in the interests of a more passionate syntax.” Now that struck me as a very good remark. I have no idea what it meant and still don’t know, but the longer I think about it, the better I like it. He recommended various books to me by his friend, the liar, Gogarty, and I forget who else. The main thing was just the presence and existence of my hero.


Dream Song 265

I don’t know one damned butterfly from another
my ignorance of the stars is formidable,
also of dogs & ferns
except that around my house one destroys the other
When I reckon up my real ignorance, pal,
I mumble “many returns”—

next time it will be nature & Thoreau
this time is Baudelaire if one had the skill
and even those problems O
At the mysterious urging of the body or Poe
reeled I with chance, insubordinate & a killer
O formal & elaborate I choose you

but I love too the spare, the hit-or-miss,
the mad, I sometimes can’t always tell them apart
As we fall apart, will you let me hear?
That would be good, that would be halfway to bliss
You said will you answer back? I cross my heart
& hope to die but not this year.

~ John Berryman


Music by John Allyn Smith Sails, “Okkervil River” (about John Berryman’s suicide)