January 19, 2018
Berryman: Dream Songs to SuicideOn this day in 1972 American poet John Berryman committed suicide at the age of fifty-seven. His 77 Dream Songs won the 1964 Pulitzer, and the writing of some 300 more over the subsequent years earned Berryman international fame, but his personal problems kept pace. These seem to stem from the severe trauma of his father's early suicide, but whatever the cause, living became a volatile and destructive mix of compulsions -- work, alcohol, sex, and four packs a day.
Berryman hated and scoffed at the label of "confessional poet," but he wrote openly about all his troubles, and sometimes optimistically: when asked in 1970 about his poetic direction, he talked of his "secret hope" that he might be visited by something like Beethoven's deafness or Milton's blindness, thus becoming the "extremely lucky" artist "who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him." The poems written over the last eighteen months reveal the raw, downward trail of his unluck, and a gradual giving-up on religion, writing, teaching, marriage and change. From the rehabilitation center in May, 1970, this pledge:
Thine. I have solo'd mine since childhood, since
my father's suicide when I was twelve
blew out my most bright candle faith, and look at me....
and that must be after all my complex struggles: very simple.
I do, despite my self-doubts, day by day
grow more & more but a little confident
that I will never down a whiskey again
or gin or rum or vodka, brandy or ale.
It is, after all, very very difficult to despair
while the wonder of the sun this morning
as yesterday & probably tomorrow.
It is, after all, very simple.
You just never drink again all each damned day.
on x or y depend for Your being there.
I know You are there. The sweat is, I am here.
illusion on illusion, big books long laboured, a power
of working wellness to some, of securing this house,
the cocktail hour, --
but I am not without a companion: there's left Fear.
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