June 10, 2020

From Princeton to Minneapolis — John Berryman On the Bridge

By Stuart Mitchner

Nobody is ever missing.

—John Berryman, “Dream Song 29”

There’s a video online of John Berryman reading his poem “The Song of a Tortured Girl” in early October 1970, a year and three months before he jumped to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis.

It’s a short poem about a heroine of the French Resistance captured by the Gestapo and, as Berryman puts it, “tortured in various ways to death without giving up any names.” Watching the faded, grainy YouTube clip, I saw convulsive foreshadowings of Berryman’s last act. Although the video resembles a ghostly livestream preview of Zoom, there’s nothing merely “virtual” about the bearded, bespectacled poet’s spasmodic flailings; he’s not reciting the girl’s ordeal, he’s enduring it in an agony of compassion. You find yourself close to ducking, flinching, not sure whether he’s at the drunken mercy of — or in sly performative command of — his own lines. Everything’s at the last point-of-death remove, every pause feels like a fall into the abyss, and you’re there with the girl and the poet in “the strange room where the brightest light DOES NOT shine on the strange men: shines on me.” Nothing short of the capital letters I’ve added can suggest the way those two ordinary words wrench, attack, all but strangle him. It’s not emphasis for effect, it’s an emotional eruption.

No matter how much you read of Berryman’s work or John Haffenden’s 1983 biography or the Paris Review interview conducted at St. Mary’s Hospital later the same month, October 27 and 29, 1970, nothing really prepares you for the dimensions of Berryman’s presence alive and unwell, and rarely sober, in various online videos. Then you begin to understand his take-no-prisoners attitude to syntax; the poignant understatement of his third wife Kate’s reference to the “lovely confusion” of living with him (“you were part of the project”); and above all his lengthy closing response when the interviewer, his former student Peter Stitt, asks him, “Where do you go from here?”

Minneapolis Dateline

Admitted, it’s not by chance that the dateline of this column could be Minneapolis June 2020, the site of the crime scene video that fired the three-word shot heard round the world. Nor is it a coincidence that I’m writing about a poet who reads his work at times as if the words are forced physically out of him. Nor the fact that he was in the extended care ward of a Minneapolis hospital (the Intensive Alcohol Treatment Center to be exact) when he was asked where he’s “going from here,” and began his long rambling answer, “I’m very much interested in the question, or will be when I get my breath back from the composition of the last nine months …. When I get my breath back — it may be next spring — maybe I’ll begin to think….”

On the way to a closing declaration that “ordeal” is “among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement,” Berryman confesses that he has “a tiny little secret hope that … I will find myself in some almost impossible life situation and will respond to this with outcries of rage, rage and love, such as the world has never heard before.” After reiterating that “the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him,” he cites “Beethoven’s deafness, Goya’s deafness, Milton’s blindness,” and ends by saying, “I hope to be nearly crucified.” When the interviewer is quick to tell him, “You’re not knocking on wood,” Berryman says, “I’m scared, but I’m willing. I’m sure this is a preposterous attitude, but I’m not ashamed of it.”

Prometheus in Princeton

I found the Princeton chapters of Haffenden’s rich, insightful biography compulsive reading. Consider the wording of titles like “Princeton and the pains of scholarship, 1943-46,” “Art and adultery, 1947,” and “Work and shame, 1948-51.”

A typical testimonial of the period ranges from “John demolished me in one of those fierce assaults of his that nobody could withstand … I was mortally offended by him; crushed” to “I was quite won over … Marvelous conversation we had. Fantastic.”

One account has friends waiting “interminably” outside Berryman’s 120 Prospect Avenue apartment for someone to answer the door as the strains of Mozart’s Don Giovanni play at top volume on the phonograph (“it was clear to many of them that he thought of himself as an American Don Juan”).  Berryman would play the ending over and over again, telling friends like composer Edward Cone “what would happen to all of us on Judgement Day, and how we would all be hurled into Hell as non-believers … all crying ‘So it was true all along, and we never believed it!’ as we go hurtling into the abyss.”

Student disciples half seriously referred to him as “Prometheus,” his “success as a teacher conspicuous, his personal magnetism tremendous.” It was the “sort of charisma that moved an entire group.” They walked like him, talked like him, imitating his style, though presumably not the swings between “monumental arrogance” and “insufferable childishness.” Ultimately, he struck them in “something of the same way that Byron must have struck his contemporaries: as the walking archetype of the brilliant, erratic, guilt-laden poet,” but “beneath all the posturing, he was somehow the real thing.”

Art and Adultery

It would be too easy to say Berryman emerged in full Don Juan splendor during his affair with the 27-year-old married friend residing with her graduate student husband and small child not far from Berryman and his first wife Eileen (whose memoir Poets in Their Youth is the most engaging account of postwar Princeton I’ve ever read). The summer of 1947 was, in Haffenden’s words, one of “fleeting ecstasy and relentless remorse,” since Berryman “found his adultery all-consuming and destructive … a labyrinth from which no exit seemed charted.” Meanwhile, he was writing a sonnet sequence (later published as Berryman’s Sonnets) and keeping “a serious and rewarding journal intime.” His lover was by all accounts a formidable person, “bold, loyal, and strange,” a blond life-force (the biographer’s name for her is Lise) who shared his love of Scotch. The two couples remained friends, played tennis, went to the shore together, bicycling out Stony Brook, or walking around Lake Carnegie.

Princetonians will find lots of local color in the “Art and adultery” chapter (Berryman once said admiringly of Lise, “She has a personality the size of Princeton”). The various “trysting places” included his office at 15 Upper Pyne on Nassau Street, at other times “his library study below ground, or else at a country grove not far distant.” When Robert Lowell came down for a visit, the two poets had a competitive romp in Lise’s yard, “both barefoot … climbing up the big sycamore tree which shaded the small, stone Revolutionary house, Lowell perched at the very top of the tree, on the uppermost branches. Just beneath him, trying to get higher than Lowell, was Berryman.”

More than a decade later, when Berryman was at the University of Minnesota, Lowell described his friend to Elizabeth Bishop (in an April 14, 1961 letter) as “utterly spooky, teaching brilliant classes, spending weekends in the sanitarium, drinking, seedy … the poem (77 Dream Songs) is spooky, a maddening work of genius, in John’s later obscure tortured, wandering style full of parentheses, slang no one ever spoke, jagged haunting lyrical moments ….”

Thinking back to Minneapolis and the bridge and Berryman’s last day of life, January 7, 1972, with Lowell’s stress on “spooky” in mind, I read April Bernard’s introduction to the 100th anniversary reprint of Berryman’s Sonnets (2014), where she notes that his “Dream songs are just over when they are over; they do not ‘end’ or ‘conclude,’ and that refusing the end” is characteristic of his late work, where the poems become a kind of ongoing “diary,” in which he “tries to outrun mortality, and all other endings, by the mad, brave, exuberance of refusing to stop.”

Three Endings

John Haffenden’s account of Berryman’s last morning is based on the eyewitness evidence of one Art Hitman, a university carpenter who was crossing the Washington Avenue bridge inside the glass-enclosed pedestrian walkway when he saw Berryman climb over the north side at about nine o’clock: “He jumped up on the railing, sat down and quickly leaned forward. He never looked back at all.”

In Paul Mariani’s biography Dream Song, he climbed “onto the chest-high metal railing and balanced himself,” and while several students watched, “made a gesture as if waving….Then he tilted out and let go.”

My guess is Berryman would prefer Haffenden’s version, if only because his Dream Song characters Henry and Mr. Bones would enjoy the idea of a witness named Hitman. Also, if Berryman’s preferred ending for a poem is closer to the “mad, brave, exuberance of refusing to stop,” he would dismiss the gesture of waving to the students as superfluous. The whole point is how quickly it should happen. No looking back, as if such a thing were possible.

The one word in Mariani’s version he might retain is “tilted,” with its echo of the line in the fifth stanza of Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge,” where a “bedlamite” appears on the bridge’s parapets: “Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,/A jest falls from the speechless caravan.” Berryman’s first published poem was an Elegy for Hart Crane, who jumped to his death not from a bridge but from the stern of a ship 40 years before, April 27, 1932.

But then Berryman had already drafted his own version (with its echo of Crane’s) the night before. Composed in the style of one of his Dream songs, it begins, “I didn’t. And I didn’t,” meaning that “after I’d climbed across the high railing of the bridge / to tilt out, with the knife in my right hand / to slash me knocked or fainting till I’d fall / unable to keep my skull down but fearless.” The third stanza was two lines short when he crumpled it up and threw it in the waste basket. The next morning he never looked back.