Saved by John Berryman


So often it comes down; it comes down to this.
Depression looms, sadness, madness, even worse,
as I thumb through this Faber Book of Modern Verse.
Geoffrey Hill, Wallace Stevens – oblique, opaque;
my patience, my tolerance, so tested, may break.
George Barker, Robert Lowell . . . for me, not so hot.
The pointless puzzles of John Ashberry – “WHAT?!”
The smooth paper slips and slides in my hands.
“I don’t . . . I can’t . . . I DON’T UNDERSTAND!

I flick through the pages, desperate to hear
a voice singing out to me; vibrant and clear.
Then I turn the page to his “Sonnet 115”.
The words, suddenly, make sense; are alive.
“Henry” . . . “Mr Bones” . . . such clever interplay.
I should learn how to do that, but do it my way.
Biting, self-mocking, humour, despair;
the world of John Berryman suffuses the air.
Maybe, just maybe, I am not so thick.
I get it! All of it!  I get his shtick!

So often it comes down to this, you see.
Is it just, do you think; could it just be . . .
I suspect, I fear, he was rather like me?

No regular reader of this blog will be surprised to find me reading a book of modern poetry; but they might be surprised to read about the struggles described in my poem “Saved by John Berryman”.  The fact is, I bought a copy of The Faber Book of Modern Verse many years ago, at a time when I was not nearly as interested in poetry as I am now.  I browsed through it, found myself repelled by really enigmatic, oblique, difficult verse by such people as William Empson, John Ashberry, Wallace Stevens. . . and, feeling intensely frustrated, put the book aside.  It has been gathering dust on my bookshelves until fairly recently, when, strengthened by the knowledge that I have spent much of the last ten years steeped in volumes of verse, I picked it up again.  Imagine my surprise, and my frustration, at finding that many of the poems were just as difficult for me to understand and appreciate now as they had been ten years earlier!

I was on the point of flinging the book aside in despair, when I stumbled across the selection of poems by John Berryman.  Berryman (1914-1972) was an American poet who had problems with alcohol and depression throughout his life, and – like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, often associated with him – ended up committing suicide.  Having never read him before, I was amazed to find the poems not only immediately approachable, but amusing, moving, enlightening, absolutely compelling!  More than that, I found myself empathising with the overall tone or “feel” of the poems, and realizing that what we appreciate in a work of art often comes down to the artist having a similar sensibility to our own.



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