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.

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