Poem for National Poetry Day 2014: John Berryman’s ‘Of Suicide’
Recently, I opened up some John Berryman again and been enjoying his poetry, so for National Poetry Day, I thought I’d offer up one of his poems. Berryman (1914 – 1972) was, says Michael Hofmann in the introduction to my Faber edition, “of the first generation of American ‘professional poets’”. i.e. he taught in university, toured around giving ‘readings’ and winning prizes. He was also an alcoholic and suicidal. His father had killed himself when Berryman was 12 and the poet himself ended the same way nearly 50 years later. The dates of his publications make interesting reading:
1948 (aged 34): The Dispossessed
1953: Homage to Mistress Bradstreet
1964: 77 Dream Songs (which led to him winning the Pulitzer Prize)
1967: Berryman’s Sonnets
1968: His Toy, His Dream, His Rest
1971: Love and Fame
1972: Delusions (published posthumously)
So, he started late and did not do much until after he had turned 50 when he published a whole load of books in short succession. Hofmann quotes a late interview in Paris Review, published after his death, where he said about T. S. Eliot,
“I think he is one of the greatest poets who ever lived. Only sporadically good. What he would do – he would collect himself and write a masterpiece, then relax for several years writing prose, earning a living, and so forth; then he’d collect himself and write another masterpiece, very different from the first, and so on. He did this about five times, and after the Four Quartets [themselves published individually over a space of 6 years] he lived on for twenty years. Wrote absolutely nothing. It’s a very strange career. Very – a pure system of spasms. My career is like that. It is horribly like that.”
Hofmann calls it “self-aggrandizing” to compare himself to the great T. S. Eliot, but the comparison seems reasonable enough to me. His work is difficult and it hurts him. A depressed alcoholic “slashing eloquence in undertones, amber tumblers of bourbon, a stony pyramid talking down a rugful of admirers” as his great rival Robert Lowell described him. His dream poems are generally short, very erudite, often difficult and written in his alter ego of ‘Henry’. “Write as short as you can, in order of what matters,” was the Berryman dictum apparently.
‘Of Suicide’ is not a ‘dream song’ but very like one and comes from Love and Fame, published a year before his death.
Reflexions on suicide, & on my father, possess me.
I drink too much. My wife threatens separation.
She won’t ‘nurse’ me. She feels ‘inadequate’.
We don’t mix together.
It’s an hour later in the East.
I could call up Mother in Washington, D.C.
But could she help me?
And all this postal adulation & reproach?
A basis rock-like of love & friendship
for all this world-wide madness seems to be needed.
Epictetus is in some ways my favourite philosopher.
Happy men have died earlier.
I still plan to go to Mexico this summer.
The Olmec images! Chichén Itzá!
D. H. Lawrence has a wild dream of it.
Malcolm Lowry’ s book when it came out I taught to my precept at Princeton.
I don’t entirely resign. I may teach the Third Gospel
this afternoon. I haven’t made up my mind.
It seems to me sometimes that others have easier jobs
& do them worse.
Well, we must labour & dream. Gogol was impotent,
somebody in Pittsburgh told me.
I said: At what age? They couldn’t answer.
That is a damned serious matter.
Rembrandt was sober. There we differ. Sober.
Terrors came on him. To us too they come.
Of suicide I continually think.
Apparently he didn’t. I’ll teach Luke.
The simple, blank sentences and the chopping between ideas is perfect for this poem. Our thoughts come like this – moving between apparently disconnected ideas before eventually we make a decision. To me, it feels like morning. The poet is probably hungover. He could be lying in bed or getting dressed, putting on his tie in front of the mirror or shaving before he goes out to teach the Gospel of Luke to his class.
The poem starts with ‘reflexions’, which suggests the mirror idea. He is looking into himself and thinking about his father and the idea of suicide, both of which, ghost-like, ‘possess’ him. The situation is bleak – marriage on the rocks, alcoholism, suicidal obsessions and no one to save him. His mother with her ‘postal adulation & reproach’ is not helping. The grand statement “a basis rock-like of love & friendship / for all this world-wide madness” is nicely undermined by the bathetic “seems to be needed”. It fits with the tone of morning musings, and perhaps suggests how far away we are from that.
He tries to think of himself in comparison with other artists and thinkers. Is he normal? He too, like Lawrence and Lowry is excited about Mexico. Like Rembrant “terrors” come to him. Is Gogel’s reputed impotence also something he connects with as present state or possible fear? But he is different from them too. Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, said, (according to Wikipedia) that “the foundation of all philosophy is self-knowledge” and that, although we have no power over external things, we have the freedom of rational choice between good and not-good.
We know Berryman’s ending all too well, but here the poet chooses life, chooses to live another day. He does not “entirely resign”. He knows, in a brilliant phrase, that “others have easier jobs / & do them worse.” Life requires us to “labour & dream”, to combine hard work and imagination and must at times have seemed too much for him. Fortunately, I am not one who is plagued by suicidal thoughts, but for the people I know who are or have been, it is something that never entirely leaves. He ends having finally reached his conclusion. Time is up and he must choose: “I’ll teach Luke” he decides and leaves.