Poem Guide

W.S. Merwin: “Berryman”

A poet revisits his legendary teacher’s advice.

What can one poet teach another, in person, that cannot be learned just by studying the poems? How can a poem on a page embody that live, one-time-only connection? If you don’t have to meet the poet—if all that matters are the poems—why do so many of us want to meet or take classes with poets?

These questions of artistic mentorship are not new (the Victorian poet Robert Browning poked fun at them in his poem “Memorabilia”), but they have special salience for the generation of W.S. Merwin (born in 1927), the first cohort of American poets that could take poetry-writing classes in college and then go on to teach writing as a career. Though Merwin himself has rarely taught for a living, earning money as a translator, tutor, and professional writer instead, he has been surrounded by poets who did. His poem about what he learned from an early master sets literary celebrity against a more important, but ultimately unknowable, idea of literary value. It also presents a pedagogy separate from—maybe even superior to—whatever students can learn from assignments, for grades, in schools and colleges, even though the encounter that Merwin records took place in one of them.

The poet John Berryman (1914–1972) was teaching at Princeton University when 17-year-old Merwin matriculated there in 1944. Berryman had already published poems in nationally prominent magazines, such as The Nation, but his first book, The Dispossessed, would not appear until 1948. Along with the critic and poet R.P. Blackmur, Berryman in those years launched Princeton’s creative writing program. Merwin remembered in 2010 that he discussed literature with Blackmur (“the wisest man and the greatest literary intelligence I ever knew”) but showed his own poems instead to Berryman, who “was absolutely ruthless. It was very good for me.” 

Perhaps the older poet saw Merwin’s potential. He described Merwin’s verse in kinder terms to others: Berryman’s then wife, Eileen Simpson, in her memoir, Poets in Their Youth (1982), remembers that Berryman “was particularly excited by the work of Frederick Buechner, who had shown him part of a novel, and by W.S. Merwin, who was writing poetry. Both of them were ‘the real thing.’”

How do you know that a young poet is “the real thing” before you have seen many poems that you admire? How do you know, or transmit, the sense that a poet will write valuable poems before he has written them? You can’t “know” in the sense that you can know the square root of nine: you can only describe a feeling and try to give reasons for it. But you can’t “know” that any complete individual poem will last either: the unconfirmable feeling you can have about a person’s potential might differ only in degree from the feeling you can have about a poem, the inexplicable sense that something or someone will matter to someone else.

As a teacher, Berryman seems to have communicated exactly that sense to his student, a knowledge that can be neither separated from craft nor reduced to craft: it feels more like a laying on of hands. The great man praised “presence” and “passion” and seemed to give Merwin both: Berryman also furnished both good and bad examples of how poets ought to live. But the most important gift he gave Merwin—so Merwin implies—was permission to live with what he could not know.

Merwin won the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1952, but he became a name to conjure with later on, with The Lice (1967), whose spare free verse denounced the Vietnam War and contemplated the end of civilization. Merwin’s subsequent books often took the side of nonhuman nature, of silence, and of spiritual resistance against the busy, crowded, destructive, reckless work of human beings. The characteristic lack of punctuation in his poetry—he has used very little in 50 years—tends to give his poetry a kind of hushed seriousness and requires him to break many lines at the ends of phrases, clauses, and sentences because his line breaks can do the work of commas and periods. (Notice, in “Berryman,” the shock of the pause at “corner and he.”) That seriousness removes the poetry from the high formality of older styles but also from the sharp variety and interchange of ordinary conversation. Merwin’s lines, meditative and almost secluded, occupy a tonal space of their own.

The style of Berryman’s most famous work now looks like the opposite of his former protégé’s: “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” (1956) and The Dream Songs (1963, 1968) are gregarious, polyphonic, sometimes outrageous, well-populated poems. One is set in 17th-century New England, the others in Berryman’s own busy (and drunken) life, recording the vicissitudes of lust, hunger, shame, and regret in a way that seems almost amoral and never self-effacing. Yet Merwin implies that Berryman was somehow fundamental to the creation of Merwin’s style: how can this be?

The answer lies not in Berryman’s poems but in the poet’s attitude toward the writing of them. Merwin sees Berryman not just as a teacher but also as close kin, thanks to their shared vocation. But can whatever wisdom Berryman offered, in person, by virtue of that kinship, be shared with us (“I will tell you,” Merwin writes), through the limited medium of the printed page?

Merwin’s Berryman stands out not just for giving good advice (“why point out a thing twice”?) but also for the respectful way that he gave it. He acts out the passion he wants his poems to contain, or at least he says he does: “he / said he meant it literally,” but he did not leave the party, or stop the class, in order to kneel. Yet the advice is no joke: Merwin later said in an interview that “pray to the Muse” was “excellent advice.” (A few significant English-language poets have knelt to pray unpredictably in public, notably the 18th-century visionary Christopher Smart, who was put in a mental institution for it.)

Merwin’s tender, almost embarrassed account of the great man, and the advice the man gave, makes poetry sound less like a craft (much less an academic discipline) than like a religious vocation. The wall, papered with rejection slips, resembles a monkish cell. Transmute remains the rarest word in a poem whose diction remains educated but unremarkable, and transmute points to alchemy, magic, discredited science; those processes, not scientific ones, correspond to the making of poetry, and the word passion, of course, has Christian religious roots as well.

Berryman’s almost religious devotion to poetry might be mistaken for self-absorption: “he was deep / in tides of his own,” though these tides were not—Merwin has to add—the tides of the alcoholism that later carried him away. It would be easy to rewrite Merwin’s “Berryman” as the pretext for an insult: who is this young man with an “affected” accent, and what makes him so sure of himself? Where does he get off recommending, with such “vehemence,” clichés such as “movement and invention”? In Poets in Their Youth, Simpson confirms Merwin’s portrait of a man who was thinking of poetry all the time—to the neglect of his family. Yet Merwin’s poem works as homage, where it fails as advice: John Berryman “was certainly one of the two or three brightest individuals I’ve ever known,” Merwin said, “and his sense of language was passionate and had immense momentum. His integrity was absolute. He was a wacky man, but that devotion was like a pure flame all the time, and that was a great example for me.”

The poem amounts to a sketch of an eccentric, his oddity visible even to his fingertips, a man few people could emulate directly. Berryman’s inimitability and charisma are not exactly the same thing as but rather stand in for and resemble the inimitability, the unpredictability, and the weirdness of poetic language itself. The shortest line in the poem—“you die without knowing”—is also one of the few one-line sentences, as is the memorable final line.

Berryman’s good advice to the young Merwin also pushes back against the image of Berryman that we might get from Berryman’s own later poems. The critic David Haven Blake writes that those poems present Berryman as “a public figure, a poet characterized by fame,” a modern celebrity tracking and sometimes mocking Berryman’s own “confusion about the nature of literary fame.” For example, in “Dream Song 342,” Berryman reflects on evidence of his public success, such as “fan-mail from foreign countries,” “imitations & parodies in your own, / translations,” and other trappings of celebrity, before concluding that the quality, not the quantity, of readers’ attention is what matters: “A lone letter from a young man: that is fame.”

Merwin’s poem is, in one sense, that letter. Merwin sets up his own early teacher as a figure beyond celebrity, a model for poetic integrity of the kind Merwin invites himself to seek. What looks like an unseemly preoccupation with poetic power and literary prominence is rewritten here as just the right kind of “arrogance,” a way to prevent worldly “vanity” by focusing on the art of poetry: an art of uncertain and unworldly rewards.

The undergraduate Merwin wanted to know how to get an A in great poetry writing. He did not know any better than to ask, and he got the only possible answer. You can learn, for a grade, right answers to questions about how to read already existing poetry and how to hear it. As for the question of how to write poetry so that people remember it, how to write poetry that will “transmute” the language or itself wind up “transmuted” by “passion”—that question cannot be answered: “you can never be sure.” The lines end in a kind of proof by least likely case: if this learned, charismatic figure cannot be sure what makes a poem last, then no one can; and if that answer did not satisfy Merwin in his late teens, it might satisfy him now.

That ability to live with uncertainty might be the most important of the many gifts—attention, seriousness, and charisma among them—that Berryman gave the young Merwin. “Poetry,” Merwin told an interviewer in 2014, “does not come from what you know. All that you know is very important, and not to be put down or ignored or got rid of, but finally it is from the unknown that poetry comes to you.” Knowing an author, taking a class, might help, but it is never a requirement. What you learn by meeting a great poet might just be how little the poet knows.


Originally Published: January 5th, 2016

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...

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