Ancient John Berryman

Immured like a feeble Fisher King, home with the flu, old Henry offers a few stray thoughts.  Have been spending some time with Berryman again, aided by a fine study by Brendan Cooper, Dark Airs : John Berryman and the spiritual politics of Cold War America (Peter Lang, 2009).  Cooper goes a long way toward clearing out some of the commonplace critical pigeonholes, the convenient groupings.  He delves into the political commitments and concerns in Lowell, & especially Berryman, as they shaped them into poetry, & provides evidence that the handy label "Confessional" - with all its negative connotations for scholarship of the last 3 decades, at least - diminishes the real social & political complexity of their work.

So I delved into Berryman's poetry again today, reading Homage to Mistress Bradstreet & some of the shorter poems.

It struck me how this poetry from the 1950s still maintained a living bond with old high modes of poetic diction, stretching back to Shakespeare, & Chaucer, & beyond to Dante, & the ancient poets.  It's high-toned, scholarly, informed, intelligent.  This matter of tone or diction provides the poet with a way to explore cultural, historical & religious phenomena on a sort of "intimate" basis.  The everyday demotic speech of the present confronts a chasm of incomprehension : the tools of articulation are no longer there.

But Berryman is not simply a "traditionalist" or "formalist".  Far from it.  He wallows in archaizing vocabulary : he plays with it, alternately leaning on it directly for effect (as when the rhythm of the Shakespearean pentameter comes to his aid in powerful passages), and making a travesty of it - flipping it around with wisecracks, slang & verbal pratfalls.  It's Berryman's way of actually absorbing, confronting & making something new out of his encounter with the great forerunners, going back to the Bible & maybe beyond (Henry/Gilgamesh?).

Another thing : on this question of "confessionalism".  It seems to me that Berryman, in the Homage and the Dream Songs, is indeed confessional : but maybe in a different sense from that of the critical cliche.  Berryman is confessional in the old medieval sense, of a sinful man facing Eternity, frightened for the future of his soul.  This comes through not just in the late "(re)conversion" poems : I found it so powerful today in the Homage as well.  Berryman's shady, adulterous epithalamion for Anne Bradstreet provides a plot-frame for a painful, terrifying soul-shriving.  Terrifying in at least two senses : first in that Berryman provides no consolation (except perhaps very obliquely, in the moments of praise for the natural grace & beauty of Anne & her children).  Cooper points out the Homage's ironic judgement on the spiritual enthusiasm of the Puritans : they thought they were founding a "city on a hill"; instead they were setting the stage for mid-20th century American version of decadence & systemic violence (Berryman is writing in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the advent of the atomic bomb, and the Cold War).

Terrifying, secondly, in that the Homage seems to implicate the poet in an irreversible repetition of the "damnation" which threatens.  In these passages it seems to me that Berryman becomes "confessional" in both a personal & a theological sense.  The formality of the poem strains with Berryman's sense of guilt & soul-fear, his anxiety about his eternal soul in the face of his 1) sins and 2) unwillingness to repent.

There are many aspects to Berryman's persona and writing which seem ancient, archaic.  The beard, the bardic grandeur, the Irish, the Yeats, the Shakespeare... but on another level there is this access in his poetry to an older way of being, of understanding.  He's like an Old Testament prophet, castigating his nation while at the same time pouring ashes on his own head.  The fact that he can also convey at the same time a fragile gaiety & antic wit, speaks to his humanity.

Needless to say, the more I read Berryman, the more I realize this Henry is not that Henry, if you know what I mean.  It's hard to exaggerate the sense of despair and desolation emanating from much of the American literature of the mid-20th century.  Existential angst.  Its keynote seems to be the loss of faith : the death of God.  The inability to reconcile the horror with any kind of theodicy.

Berryman seems to have been torn by agonizing & recurrent crises of faith - the most powerful spiritual experiences coming toward the end of his life.  I've been there, too, in my way... but the pivotal crisis happened when I was young, around age 19.

Along with Brendan Cooper & Berryman himself, I've been reading another book on my sickbed : The Gothic Cathedral, by Otto von Simson.  A beautiful, brilliant work, focusing on the architecture of Chartres Cathedral.

I was intrigued to learn that Suger and the other masters of the early Gothic were part of an intellectual milieu centered on the spiritual vision of St. Bernard, and much influenced by the Neo-Platonic Christianity of the Byzantine mystic known as "Pseudo-Dionysus".  Pseudo-Dionysus got blended with the patron saint of the Il-de-France, St. Denis.  According to Simson, the "Dionysian" theology of progressive emanations of spiritual light was filtered to Paris by way of an old acquaintance of mine, the Byzantine monk, St. Maximus the Confessor.

All this is neither here nor there.  But Simson explains how the anonymous "Master of Chartres" was an artist of genius, transforming the Romanesque into a new aesthetic unity of perfect proportions and overwhelming light.

I can't go into all the insights Simson provides.  He writes about how different the medieval worldview is from our own (his book was published in 1956).  I'm just here to confess how this study helps & reinforces my own viewpoint.  For me, a rational faith in the incarnate Word is possible; in fact, it's the door to all hope for humankind on this planet.  Chartres is simply one of the most powerful architectural expressions of this "rational faith" on earth.

Job's debate with God about suffering, horror and evil goes on.  It has no simple rationalistic verbal or formulaic resolution.  The inward "confession" of the human person cannot be abstracted, turned into a determinism.  & yet as far as the legal argument over the problem of evil, I stand on the following principles :

1)  Human persons have free will; they make choices for good and evil.
2)  God as spirit & creator is not responsible for Man's free-will choices for good or evil.
3) The message of Jesus is that repentance, mercy, forgiveness & transformation are not only possible, they are the power of God at work in Man to save the whole creation, and to save and heal individual persons.

Where Berryman is anguished, I am calm.  It is startling to me that while I was growing up in Minneapolis, John Berryman was living in my parents' and grandparents' old neighborhood, where I live now.  My family & I probably passed him on the street.  I wish I could have held out my little Henry hand to help him.



I realize my juxtaposition here of "the old high modes" and "everyday demotic speech" lands me plop in the middle of seemingly-outgrown battles over the true progress of American letters.  I come across as would-be mandarin, elitist, aligned with Eurocentric Anglo-centric stuffy traditionalism in poetry.  My comments seem to dismiss what has been a prime element of American literature : the search for an idiom adequate to specifically American speech, and to the vastness of American experience, exemplified by W. C. Williams, Wallace Stevens & so many others.  Instead I appear to have opted for that rather stuffy, contrived mid-century period, when New Critical academics sought to perfect & standardize their pedantic version of T.S. Eliot's "tradition".

But I think Berryman's poetry exemplifies how & why nobody has to align themselves with these critical pigeonholes or literary clans.  His absorption of the disciplines of the "old high style" reveal a debt to Yeats; the desire to emulate and recapitulate the ancient manner stem ultimately from a passion for participation, which moves poets to inhabit & revive the ghosts of ancient texts and long-gone times.

In my view this is of the essence of the poetic vocation; it comes from a power within "song" itself, to enliven and resurrect dead words, dead times, the old poets.  The bard goes into a kind of visionary trance in order to re-encounter these things - the way Homer, or Virgil or Dante all went down into the depths of the afterlife to speak with their ancestors.

So there is always something uncanny, a whiff of archaic mana, when a poet starts to mime the old speech in a new way.  And all I mean to suggest by the above is that Berryman's or any poet's engagement with the "old high forms" - various modes of traditional poetic artifice - opens doors to time and history not otherwise available.  The poetry of American "plain speech"  has indeed made accessible enormous new spaces of artistic perception & grasp of experience; I'm just suggesting that someone like Berryman re-enacts the exploration of past human times.


Abe's in the Gulf


Peto, Reminiscences.
Such silent stillness
in a wooden door.  This
repressed memory (forsakenness).

The mottled copper green, absinthe.
Like curdled Liberty.
Coins, ticket stubs... three
paths into the shredded labyrinth

of old glued paper notes.  Almost
erased, some calculations –
sums, additions...
within the mandorla (Abe’s

photo-ghost).  Abe’s playing golf
today, down at the Gulf –
in Florida, with grimacing
elf.  By the marred lake, full of pelf

& flattened tires... distended Brown
Decades of gaslight shadows,
drilled by torpedoes
into stunned prey (pressed down

under demented mansions).  Still
there is another window
clears this reified view
(black coral reef of sacrificial

scars).  The solidarity of living
stones is leaping light –
scaled from a dragon-fight
like trompe l’oeil Thanksgiving


or hologram of humming bird
circling the whisper dome
of spiritual freedom.
Ghost Dance, suspended word

hung from the apex of the tent –
a veil of murmuring linen
around the target sun
of a salty human sacrament

of joy, shipmate!  Ahoy, Jonah!
Cresting the deep wave,
smiling palm-wave
circumference hailing hurrah

for the red white & blue!  Old Glory
spangled by Love!
Columbia, dove
of Liberty... Emancipation story!

So the battle lines are drawn
at last.  Maid Marion –
trampled onto a plane
with Jack & Jackie, by the Lion-

Tooth (orange-tan phony-booth) –
you loose one gray thread
from the bleeding head
of Apollinaire... qui chante... the truth

shall make you free.  The limestone
wrinkles beneath clear streams.
Sovereign of human dreams,
arise like Francis to your servant throne.


it depends

Quiet evening here in Minneapolis, along the River Road, by the U of M (no, this is not Garrison Keillor - he's retired).  Sarah is down with the flu (mild for now).  We spent the morning at the clinic.  I'm off the big poem momentarily (Ravenna Diagram).  The house was quiet & the world was calm (right).

Thinking tonight for some reason of Eugenio Montale.  The phrase "superior dilettantism" - from his groundbreaking essay "Style and Tradition" (I like Joseph Cary's translation of that particular passage much better than Jonathan Galassi's).

Montale was a librarian, as well as a journalist, critic & poet, so I feel some slight personal affinity there.  (Not that I was ever much of a librarian, or much of those other things either.)

As person & poet he seems to emanate a good deal of something like Keats's negative capability.  He's sort of oblique.  He doesn't assert; he suggests, he implicates.  It's very sly, but also, strangely meek.  I'm speaking of his poetry.  Out of the literary blind alleys, undertones, non-sequiturs & jokes, you sense this emanation of a cherished & familiar landscape, a way of doing and not doing things.  A landscape of music, feeling.  Lacrimae rerum.

So he's very ancient & very present at the same time (Virgil, Dante, Bible).

He tightropes between the "aulic" & the ordinary, the colloquial.  (Maybe Benedetto Croce has something to do with this...)

& he sings.  Montale aspired to be an opera singer before he turned to poetry.  Let me repeat that : Montale aspired to be an opera singer before he turned to poetry.

Montale the poet is playful & subtle.  One of his striking images is that of the chess-playing woman in Firenze, somehow eking out a spiritual victory over the (Fascist) forces all around her : his muse.  I think he would have made a very good chess player, if he hadn't gone in for opera & poetry.

But I reiterate this idea of the landscape seeping up through the poetry.  The simple vernacular of the land - beautiful & troubled, suffering.  The "earth in labor", so to speak.  The artifice of pastoral yielding gracefully to the fatal wisdom of experience (rustic Adam & Eve, & all that followed).

Not sure where I'm going with this.  I'm surrounded by old books (I am a former librarian).  Montale's "dilettantism" appeals to me.  Not simply because I could be labeled a dilettante myself, but because the concept offers an opening to what Berryman called "the freedom of the poet".

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty..." spake the old vase, & the negatively-capable Keats.  There is something uncanny about the effect of the beautiful - the wholeness, the total impression of the complete work of art, however humble.

The rustic poet speaks quietly out of the landscape, out of experience... & we recognize the truth of those sounds.  We hear (with some trepidation) the implicit judgement of their rightness, their finality.

It's a certain way of responding to reality.  Distinct, that is, at least in some respects, from the scientific, the philosophical, the theological, or the political.  It's more raw, more colloquial - & more refined, more graceful.  Don't ask me why.  (Ends vs. means.  Reality vs. theory.  Innocence & Experience.)

Think of Robert Frost at Kennedy's inauguration.  Think about that for a while.  About what they both were trying to accomplish - & how it actually fell out (in an odd, unfinished, lovable, screwed-up way).

I'm perpetually obsessed with old texts, old words... I'm a librarian, I guess.  I started out as a very with-it (in my view) late-60's hipster poet.  It's how I managed to get into Brown University, back in 1970.  Basically I was following an impulse (by way of Rimbaud & Baudelaire & ee cummings & the New York School & all the 60s novels I was imbibing).  I was making poems.  But then I underwent a religious-psychological crisis, in 1973-74 (when I was about 19).  Not that different, I imagine, from what happened to T.S. Eliot - something deflected his river from its course, and so the waves rippled relentlessly through his life & poetry.

I never liked Eliot, I couldn't stand him.  I actually reacted viscerally to the slimy sibilant sibylline sound of his verses. Some of this certainly must have been mere cultural conformism on my part (nobody liked Eliot back in the 20th century).  We can argue ad infinitum about TSE pro & con.  My point is, that despite my animus, my polar opposition to Eliot, it seems we underwent some kind of fairly similar psychological-cultural-religious crisis of conversion.

Why, oh why do I bring this up, right here in my Nobel lecture about Eugenio Montale?

I think poetry is something we don't really understand.  It comes from the deepest layers of the human psyche & spirit - dimensions that reach far backward & forward, from our very animal prehistory to a future we can't yet see.  Matthew Arnold's notion of "touchstones" gets at some clue of which he may have been unaware - something primordial, like a low iron tone or wooden knock or flute whistle through prehistoric bone.

So, if this is correct, the "vernacular" or the colloquial or the amateur or the unprofessional or the dilettantish or the rustic or the pastoral music of poetry might speak in its own way to the human condition... & possibly in such a charming manner as to reshape the public's conception of reality itself.

We need the old words right now, old words of faith & hope & charity, whether we believe them or not - because there are powers at work that deny the meaning of words per se.

My grandfather Edward S. Gould was a veteran of World War I, and led the veterans' Armistice parades through downtown Minneapolis during the 1920s.  He & my grandmother (Florence Ainsworth) lived in an apartment near the University of Minnesota, where I spent the first 18 months of my life.  Grandpa kept an old brass shell from the war in the corner of their apartment (he was an artillery captain), and over the dinner table hung a print of a famous painting, of George Washington & Lafayette, at a celebratory dance in Washington (Grandma was a member of the D.A.R.).

Grandpa & Grandma were part of the American historical panorama, the fabric.  They were ordinary people.  Grandpa would be called a racist today.  Grandma's beloved D.A.R. tried to keep Jewish refugees from Hitler out of America, and tried to stop Marian Anderson from singing at the Lincoln Memorial.  These are sad, absurd truths.

Yet what did that dance in Washington celebrate?  The experiment of American democracy; the experiment of a new people in a new land of equality.  Eventually Lafayette's dance would bump up against the reality of America's license to enslave, exploit and deceive (the America of Herman Melville's Confidence-Man).  And the Civil War would instill a pattern (freedom vs. slavery) which we have not yet resolved unto this day.

America is an experiment, an improvisation.  Yet the experiment is rooted in something quite deep : the legal concept of equity & justice, of the inalienable rights of human persons, going back before the Revolution to the jurist Edward Coke, and to his student, the pioneer-theologian-lawmaker Roger Williams.

There is something very grounded & rooted in this particular  legal concept.  It is a spiritual ground, a spiritual root.  It is the very ancient notion of Creation, of the realm of Spirit - the mantling wings of Manitou (the Thunderbird).  Martin Luther King's righteous web of mutuality... Black Elk's 6-directional diamond.


unfurling Providence


Pythagoras & Aristotle
felt both stars & sun
move (by persuasion
of love) around the atlatl

of the Pole – slow sarabande
of heart’s desire (my soul
pines for your solo Yule
just so, trompette marine).  &

though we scoff now, Harry,
your wedding dance is just
a veiled illusion – dust
on cosmic rewind, arbitrary –

yet those ripples on the strand
projecting gracefully
sound waves of sea
through particles of sand

put me in mind of relativity,
so that behind this mesh
of silken crossweave rush
soft murmurs (hush little baby,

don’t you cry)...  & a kind face
beyond divisibility
windy invisibility
ghostly ellipse of human race

gathers in gravity & mass
like a cloud-pebble
or magnified Hubble-
infinitesimal, lifted by windlass


into a masque of morning glory
from the outer darkness
with a rose compass
to inward salience (galactic story

of grave milky equilibrium
outlasting mirror-war
of swollen Minotaur
to bind the wounds with honey-balm).

The Earth’s unfurling Providence.
Slow-forming pearl
beneath the gray whorl
of a clay-worn shell – immense

agate of Agape, threaded
with light gold fleece
around a centerpiece
of Paradise (salt bread

& wine out of a stone casket).
Indomitable almond
branch, a blooming wand
cut for a lilac shoot, whose trumpet-

vine leans like a flinty mule
against vain headwinds
to Pacific ends –
vast azure of a wingspan’s rule,

bright Gate of international
ange d’or (meek door
for lambs, forevermore).
So sighs your shell, antiphonal.



west of St. Louis


& the word came out west of St. Louis.
Kind of hokey, like
a dust-devil psych-
out on eccentric orbit.  She was US.

The weird windlass twirled due Nord
into a wilderness
of cedar & watercress –
deserted road, iced-over, hard.

Held up on a tiny pinhead pine-
needle of sunlight, she spun
like a gyroscopic moon,
beholden to none.  She was fine

to behold, like a mason jar, with her G-
fitz-G major Eyelash Curl –
a square-dance whirl
around an Irish jug (from C

to C minor & back again).
She spoked light so lightly
all the ire of unspritely
iron nations (dusty canyon

grandeur in a pride of lions)
molted into Phoenix
ash & rainbow peacock’s
eyes – & I can’t write these lines

without tears wide as Okeanos
coursing planetary curves,
as Stella Morris swerves
another starfish into star (yes, yes!)




ultra rich & strange


His leaden haze puts Hobo in mind
of his old pal Willie
(Wallace), in D.C. –
simple homeless vet, friend

of Feathered Eagle.  You could find 
him, of a morning
(borderline bored) leaning
against that sunny wall behind

the taco place.  Told me once
about the time he met
the President.  Let
me have a word, sir... since

you’re headed to church, will you pray for me?
& old Bush says – C’mon along
brother, we’ll sing a song
together.  Man-fest, I guess.  Destiny.

So they trooped on down to the Cathedral
hand in hand, them two
old hands.  You know
there’s lots of masonry in the capital.

Big maze of marble, curious flame-
&-turtleshell designs.
Defunctive tombstones,
mostly – but I was there when King came,

for the March, back in ’63.
Love that constancy
in his treble prophecy,
you know?  Beauty, truth & rarity


– rarin’ to go, that meek milkman.
Love has her reasons,
I reckon.  The season’s
colder now.  WW long flown –

but sometimes I see his ghost wing
past the tyrant’s house.
Or maybe that was Phoenix.
I do get confused.  Wish I could sing

with the Prez too – like Maid Marion
underneath Robby Lincoln’s eye,
so redbreast mild (sigh).
Pall-bearers’ props (sable, crimson)

& the trumpets & the drums... the boots
in the saddle, all backwards.
Buried bee buzzwords,
scribbled graphs, epitaphs.  Hoots

from the midnight owl – soft whisper
over dim cedars.
Her grey eye engenders
all this concrete into something... suffer

the little sea-change, children, croons
Columbia.  The statue
called La Paix (flew
out of Normandy, wounded) from dunes

of military cemetery, comes
to life... Hermione
her name, Queen for a Day.
Rich & strange now.  Sound the drums.


Sophie at the Raptor Center


Iris was a messenger


This winter light is innocent,
salted with snow.  Downstream
from Franklin Bridge, steam
lifts by gawky crane, afloat

like nautical giraffe (all finished
now).  Henry Hobo
seeps his moonshine so
far down... devoutly to be wished,

that well-being.  Dante was agile
in the Tuscan sun, seeking
also – her flame leaking
through trumpet vine (light, fragile

grace).  Men search for causes
& neglect their ends.
Ophelia’s betrayal bends
into a sea of stinging roses

where Earth replies with Mendelssohn
& Paradise was felt
before her deck was dealt
(52 weeks of sun – Apollinairean

royal flush).  She seeks you too,
his glinting Beatrice.
Iris on her way
from infinite mercy (blue

rondure, flecked with gold, aswirl
from blazing central star)
brings home to where you are –
in thicket night, a glowing coal.


message to President Donald Trump

Dear President Trump,

Just thought I'd share something we here in America call "harmony".  Harmony is a concord of different notes - "e pluribus unum" expresses the same idea. We don't try to hate & attack & control others, because we all come from the same place, we're all brothers & sisters. Life is good. We're all immigrants & pilgrims in this world.

Henry Gould