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From Poetry Magazine

Berryman’s Sonnets

By April Bernard

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[Note: Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Four of April Bernard’s poems appear in the June 2014 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.]

Why sonnets? Why on earth, in the middle of the twentieth century, a sonnet sequence?

In the case of John Berryman, the turning to sonnets, and more specifically, love sonnets, is completely of a piece with the nature of the personal crisis that prompted them. He was in his thirties; he had been contentedly married for several years; he was happily—and for him, luckily—teaching literature at Princeton. And then, out of the blue, inconveniently—and almost from the first, evidently unluckily—he fell in love with a young woman who was the wife of a colleague.

To a writer as self-scrutinizing as Berryman, this was a wonderful, terrifying, and guilty predicament. It was also a familiar one, at least literarily. The history of lyric poetry is, among other things, a history of passionate folly; and the best chronicles of this folly are to be found in sonnets. From the original fourteenth century Canzoniere of Petrarch, to Petrarch’s Elizabethan translators and emulators, to nineteenth century writers as diverse as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Meredith, poets have told their tales of joy and pain, longing and doubt, praise and blame, in the story form of multiple sonnets. Functioning as a stanza in the long poem that is the sequence, each sonnet in itself, a powerfully knit, compact fourteen lines, is also designed to stand alone. Over the course of many such sonnets, a story about love unfolds along with a story about poetry as the sonnets converse with one another by repeating tropes, repeating rhymes, returning to themes with variations.

When Berryman embarked on these sonnets, he was already in the midst of his affair. Many of the early poems are explicitly addressed to the beloved, to “Lise,” as he would later rename her for public eyes. In these first private envoys he writes to dazzle, to praise, and to persuade.

This morning groping your hand moaning your name
I heard distinctly drip . . somewhere . . and see
Coiled in our joys flicker a tongue again,
The fall of your hair a cascade of white flame.  (#3)

Great citadels whereon the gold sun falls
Miss you O Lise sequestered to the West
Which wears you Mayday lily at its breast.  (#9)

But to be writing sonnets, and discovering that he was writing more than just a few, must also have disquieted the poet. It is a given of the love sonnet sequence that it ends, and not happily—if not in the death of the beloved, in any case in severed or unsatisfied love. Petrarch’s “Laura” dies; Sidney’s “Stella” rejects him; Shakespeare’s two loves, the “fair young man” and the “dark lady,” betray and disappoint; and even Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese ends pro forma with the dismissal of the lover as the speaker embraces death—although, as everyone knows, in “real life” the poet found her happier ending. (The only prominent exception to this rule is Spenser’s Amoretti, which culminates in marriage.) We can feel Berryman’s tense relationship with his own enterprise in some of the later poems here:

How can we know with whom we ride, or soon
Or later, ever? You . . what are yóu like?
A topic’s occupied me months, month’s mind.  (#91)

Berryman seems willfully to be prolonging the production of these sonnets, as if the next one—like the next rendezvous with the beloved—might turn the tide of the narrative.

In 1967, some twenty years after these poems were first written, Berryman gathered them together, ordered them, and wrote a few additional poems to fill out the sequence. He called them Berryman’s Sonnets. The title offers the winking suggestion that “Berryman” is a character, both the poet and not the poet (as Henry in the Dream Songs is, and is not, Berryman). By naming himself as a character, Berryman also offers in his title the first linkage of his sequence with the one he most closely models it on—Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella.

Berryman’s verse is filled with allusions to his literary ancestors—directly and indirectly, in his sonnets he also invokes Petrarch, Wyatt, Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, Sophocles, Villon, the Psalmists, and many others, including Eliot and Pound. But it is with Sidney—and through Sidney to their common ancestor, Petrarch—that he is most closely and consciously allied. The “plot” of Berryman’s Sonnets follows that of Sidney’s sequence: Passion sought; passion requited; passion delayed; and, finally, passion utterly thwarted.

Double consciousness–the knowing ambiguity of claiming that one’s passion is uniquely wonderful, uniquely painful—while at the same time acknowledging that love is also, always, the same old thing—drives both Sidney and Berryman. To some extent this ambiguity is built into the structure of the sonnet itself, here in the meditative, circular shape of the so-called Italian form. After the volta, or turn, that marks the break between octave and sestet, the poem modulates into an alternative attitude, which tends then to circle back around to an inconclusive conclusion, or stalemate, between the two parts of the poem. (The English, or Shakespearean, sonnet is structured more dialectically; it argues its way to a concluding couplet designed to resolve or synthesize the ambiguity set in motion by the volta.) It is not surprising, in Petrarch, or Sidney, or Berryman, for a sonnet to say, in the octave: “My suffering is unique to me, unique to our love.” Then, in the sestet: “On the other hand, love has been ever thus. How about that.”

The comic possibilities of the double consciousness are not unrelated, in Berryman’s case, to his additional twentieth century burden of psychoanalytic self-interpretation. Obsession, of the kind that is revealed and perhaps even fostered by the writing of these sonnets, can seem more than merely neurotic; it can seem completely mad. So if Berryman’s characteristic tonal mixture of bravado and lacerating shame-facedness seems especially high-pitched in these poems, we can guess that it might be because he anticipates the judgment of the beloved and the judgment of his readers to agree with his own: that the poet is a genius, certainly, but also a nut case.

My own first, delighted encounter with Berryman’s work was through his 77 Dream Songs, which I carried around with me like a private hymnal when I was in college. At Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room, where I spent an inordinate amount of time, the curator Stratis Haviaras—this was in the 1970s—showed me two shoeboxes full of uncatalogued tapes of Berryman reading his poems aloud. I don’t remember the sources of the tapes. But I do remember offering to help sort them, and then spending many hours for many days at a tape machine, taking notes to figure out which poems he was reading, even noting where the spoken poems varied slightly from the ones in the books—the Dream Songs, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, and Berryman’s Sonnets—I had open on the table before me. As anyone who has listened to Berryman knows, his voice is odd and seductive. The emphasis often falls peculiarly, on the “wrong” syllable. Sometimes he mumbles, sometimes he roars, and very often he pauses mysteriously. He chuckles at his own jokes and adopts “funny” vaudeville-style voices, hamming it up like all get-out. When his voice does not sound drunken—and even when it does—it carries a keening, musical quality that seems as if it should be accompanied by percussive strums on an Irish harp.

It was not difficult for me, at the age of twenty, to adore Berryman. Succeeding years, and the acquaintance of enough writers possessing that same lethal combination of arrogance and self-abasement, have made me less susceptible. Drunkenness, also, has lost its appeal. So the persona, as persona—and I hasten to add that I never knew the poet, and so am not speaking of the person, but only the public poet’s persona—is no longer present to charm me when I read the poems. Instead newly, and as if for the first time, I am astonished and amazed by the poems themselves.

In reading the sonnets again, I find I can accept the persona“Berryman” or Berryman, whicheveras flawed. Even in those sonnets where he coldly describes the pain he inflicts on others; or self-pityingly complains about his health; or boasts, while trying to seem nonchalant, that he owes Pound three letters. And the reason I can accept the flaws is because the poetry which conveys all of this information, about suffering, and bragging, and adoring, and despising, and whining, and lusting, and howling at the moon, is so extraordinary that it seems to make an entirely new world of thought and feeling.

Of course everything new, in poetry, is grounded in the old. “Crumpling a syntax at a sudden need” (#47), Berryman reaches back in time, past Sidney’s forms to Thomas Wyatt’s syntax and meter, with its free, almost jazzy quality.

Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise,
Twenty times better, but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall

and she caught me in her arms long and small.
(From “They flee from me…”)

Wyatt’s famous agonized lines of remembered bliss nearly resurrect themselves in Berryman’s sonnets:

I say  I laid siege—you enchanted me….

I . . Only we little wished, or you to charm
Or I to make you shudder, you to wreck
or I to hum you daring on my arm   (#97)

In Wyatt’s sonnet “Some fowls there be,” he writes

For to withstand her look I am not able
And yet can I not hide me in no dark place,
Remembrance so followeth me of that face.

Since Wyatt, only Gerard Manley Hopkins and Berryman have been able to carry off a comparable sustained dis-ordering of syntax to successful effect. Berryman is most disordered when expressing himself in extremis; as did both Wyatt and Hopkins, in transports of agony or joy. The slicing-up of syntax seems for all three poets an authentic way to convey the disarrangement of the intellect in the face of powerful feeling.

Troubling are masks . . the faces of friends, my face
met unawares and your face: where I mum
Your doubleganger writhes, wraiths are we come
To keep a festival, none but wraiths embrace.  (#31)

Returning again to the idea that the Italian sonnet form offers a kind of stalemate, or suspension of thought, rather than a conclusion: We can see why this form appealed to Berryman. He had seemingly resisted the very necessity of ending at all, adding the poems 107 and 112-115, which explicitly round out or conclude the sequence, only later. These final sonnets, emotionally and syntactically calm by comparison with the rest, also seal his relationship with Sidney (“‘Look in thy heart and write!’”) in the final phrase: “I sat down & wrote.” This is ingenious because, like the sonnet form itself, it returns us to the beginning; we may have just read what he wrote, he tells us, but since in the poem he is sitting down to write, emotionally we are back where we started.

As we know, Berryman later invented his own form, the “dream song.” Looser than a sonnet, and also faster, it is a stripped-down and rebuilt sonnet, a serviceable three-stanza machine that can turn as often as it likes, and which neither structure nor rhyme can force to a conclusion. Dream songs are just over when they are over; they do not “end” or “conclude.” (I like to think of Berryman’s dream song form as “refusing” to conclude; as opposed to the Italian sonnet’s gentler “thwarted wishing” to conclude.) Refusing the end is characteristic of the poet’s late work. His poems become a kind of ongoing diary, in which the poet tries to outrun mortality, and all other endings, by the mad, brave exuberance of refusing to stop.

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Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Thursday, June 5th, 2014 by April Bernard.