John Berryman at the Brockport Writers Forum


I’ll read you a poem I wrote during the Second World War. I was living in Boston. It’s called “The Song of the Tortured Girl” and it’s about a heroine of the French Resistance captured by the Gestapo and
tortured in various ways to death without giving up any names. After a little I could not have told–but no one asked me this–why I was there. I asked. The ceiling of that place was high. And there were sudden noises, which I made. I must have stayed there a long time today: my
cup of soup was gone when they brought me back. Often “Nothing worse now can come to us” I thought, the winter the young men stayed away, my uncle died and mother cracked her crutch. And then the strange room where the brightest light does not shine on the
strange men: shines on me. I feel them stretch my youth and throw a switch. Through leafless branches the sweet wind blows making a mild sound, softer than a moan; high in a pass once where we put our tent, minutes I lay awake to hear my joy. –I no longer remember what they want.– Minutes I lay awake to hear my joy. Brockport Writers Forum, in a continuing
series of discussions with leading literary figures, presents The Poetry of
John Berryman. Author of numerous collections spanning several decades, a
respected critic and recipient of the Bollingen Prize, the National Book
Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, John Berryman is currently a professor
of English at the University of Minnesota. Discussing Mr. Berryman’s
works are Jerome Mazzaro, a widely published poet and critic and professor
of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo and the host of the
Writers Forum, an author of a recent collection of poems and of many essays
on contemporary American poets, William Heyen. –You look good on there. You’re on the screen! –Mr. Berryman, the poem you just read, “The Song of the Tortured Girl”–it’s terribly powerful and rending poem, I
think. Later on Yates would write the Crazy Jane poems and then…
–No. Before. –This is before your poem? –Yes. –Well that’s fine, then. Tell me … –Any connection? –Yeah, tell me about it. –Well, I thought those poems were marvelous. –What made you decide to go into the business of poetry? –Well, I always planned to be a writer. And I manifested
my sincerity by writing half a science fiction novel at the age of 12. And this was published by a rather tall girl named Helen Justice. And she thought I was
wonderful and I liked her very much but she was too tall. Besides I was in love with Charlotte –. But anyway she had a marvelous Spencerian handwriting. And she took my manuscript and put half inside a brown paper cover with the title of the book, which I forget. It was about a trip to Neptune. One of the few sensible
things that I have ever done: I had begun to publish in the national magazines as an undergraduate at Columbia and I went abroad two years. And I knew my stuff was viable and so forth but it was no good. So I decided not to print anything for two years. And didn’t. Then Robert Penn Warren was running The Southern Review. Did a group of four poems. And Partisan did some. Delmore took a number. And Mr. Ransom had set up Kenyon and he wrote
and asked me for stuff. So I was in business. As I told you about a quarter past four night, I believe in apprenticeship. Suppose I want to be a composer and write piano concerti. I don’t buy some music paper and sit down. I don’t know what an oboe can do. OK? OK. We serve an apprenticeship. My second wife and I once were walking
down Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis one evening in the direction of a bar. And we decided
that the names that we disliked most were: feminine, Mabel, and masculine,
Henry. So in an affectionate and sweet way we began–I would call her Mabel and she would call me Henry. That’s where the name started. About the character. Somebody quoted me as saying that there’s a fiendish resemblance between Henry and me. But of course it’s not me. My foot is killing me. I have to take off my shoe. –That’ll censor us. –Anybody who lives past 35 or 40 must expect to have his friends drop dead. But I think I’ve been unusually unlucky. My friends have wiped themselves out in large numbers. Some . . . Thomas died in alcoholic shock. Ted and Delmore died of heart attacks, but they were both alcoholics. My best friend, a young poet named Ben
Campbell–he was three years older than me but I was very much ahead of him. And his wife. We set up housekeeping, we shared an apartment. Then Harvard asked me to come and that Thanksgiving I flew out to see Campbell. He had about 10 days to live. And he was completely irrational. Grinned at me all the time, looking like his own corpse and telling me not to worry,
everything will be all right. As a TB patient. He had–was dying of cancer. What he had was perianal adenocarcinoma grade four. And it wiped him out in about three months. You must ask me a question. Otherwise I
will ramble. OK. Life is hard on everybody but especially so on the artist. I don’t know. Anyway. He has to record it. Most people don’t. –Does art in the end mean some kind of
human affirmation? Does it have to? Is that part and parcel of it? I am incredibly doubtful! All I have to do is think about Samuel Beckett–a mind so dark that it
makes you wonder if the Renaissance really took place! –Your new book
is going to be called “Love and Fame.” and we’ve talked mainly about your
writing, but the love part . . . You write an awful lot about love in
your poetry, too. –Uh– It’s given me a lot of trouble. For example, you fall in love with somebody, and pretty soon you say, “Will you marry me?” and she says yes. So you’re married! That’s part of your biography. I’ve married three women. I’ve screwed infinite numbers of them and had maybe even seven or eight very serious affairs. I thought as I got old that this interest in women would diminish or leave me. I thought. I thought. I’m still waiting. I wouldn’t have trusted myself alone with your wife last night. She’s so attractive. –Well I don’t trust you, but I trust my wife. –Oh, I’m absolutely sure that you can. And you can also trust me, because, uh, now–I wouldn’t go behind your back. –Jerry? –Yes? –Thank you very much for being with us again. I’m afraid our time
is over. Mr. Berryman, it has indeed been a pleasure. Thank you very much for being with us today. –Thank you sir.

7 thoughts on “John Berryman at the Brockport Writers Forum

  1. 92

    – and he did suffer the anyman to death.

    What make Henry decide, too?

    He submits to a fellowship to keep it going.,

    and went on deciding to end – just now.

    If he hadn't killed himself,

    and hadn't died, prematurely –

    Harry would never hear him.

    But he ended himself, and died.

    So Harry – being in this position of panic –

    explored Henry. Harry explored;

    and Harry discovered a whole voice

    in his head, which went aloud.

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