Henry’s UnderstandingHe was reading late, at Richard’s, down in Maine,aged 32? Richard & Helen long in bed,my good wife long in bed.All I had to do was strip & get into my bed,putting the marker in the book, & sleep,& wake to a hot breakfast.Off the coast was an island, P’tit Manaan,the bluff from Richard’s lawn was almost sheer.A chill at four o’clock.It only takes a few minutes to make a man.A concentration upon now & here.Suddenly, unlike Bach,& horribly, unlike Bach, it occurred to methat one night, instead of warm pajamas,I’d take off all my clothes& cross the damp cold lawn & down the bluffinto the terrible water & walk foreverunder it out toward the island.
No, I didn't. But I was aware that I was embarked on an epic. In the case of the Bradstreet poem, I didn't know. The situation with that poem was this. I invented the stanza in '48 and wrote the first stanza and the first three lines of the second stanza, and then I stuck. I had in mind a poem roughly the same length as another of mine, “The Statue”—about seven or eight stanzas of eight lines each. Then I stuck. I read and read and read and thought and collected notes and sketched for five years until, although I was still in the second stanza, I had a mountain of notes and draftings—no whole stanzas, but passages as long as five lines. The whole poem was written in about two months, after which I was a ruin for two years. When I finally got going, I had this incredible mass of stuff and a very good idea of the shape of the poem, with the exception of one crucial point, which was this. I'll tell you in a minute why and how I got going. The great exception was this: It did not occur to me to have a dialogue between them—to insert bodily Henry into the poem . . . Me, to insert me, in my own person, John Berryman, I, into the poem . . .
The Traveller"They pointed me out on the highway, and they said'That man has a curious way of holding his head.'They pointed me out on the beach; they said 'That manWill never become as we are, try as he can.'They pointed me out at the station, and the guardLooked at me twice, thrice, thoughtfully & hard.I took the same train that the others took,To the same place. Were it not for that lookAnd those words, we were all of us the same.I studied merely maps. I tried to nameThe effects of motion on the travellers,I watched the couple I could see, the curseAnd blessings of that couple, their destination,The deception practised on them at the station,Their courage. When the train stopped and they knewThe end of their journey, I descended too.
Master of beauty, craftsman of the snowflake,inimitable contriver,endower of Earth so gorgeous & different from the boring Moon,thank you for such as it is my gift.I have made up a morning prayer to youcontaining with precision everything that most matters.‘According to Thy will’ the thing begins.It took me off & on two days. It does not aim at eloquence.You have come to my rescue again & againin my impassable, sometimes despairing years.You have allowed my brilliant friends to destroy themselvesand I am still here, severely damaged, but functioning.Unknowable, as I am unknown to my guinea pigs:how can I ‘love’ you?I only as far as gratitude & aweconfidently & absolutely go.I have no idea whether we live again.It doesn’t seem likelyfrom either the scientific or the philosophical point of viewbut certainly all things are possible to you,and I believe as fixedly in the Resurrection-appearances to Peter andto Paulas I believe I sit in this blue chair.Only that may have been a special caseto establish their initiatory faith.Whatever your end may be, accept my amazement.May I stand until death forever at attentionfor any your least instruction or enlightenment.I even feel sure you will assist me again, Master of insight & beauty.
The marker slants, flowerless, day’s almost done, I stand above my father’s grave with rage, often, often before I’ve made this awful pilgrimage to one who cannot visit me, who tore his page out: I come back for more, I spit upon this dreadful banker’s grave who shot his heart out in a Florida dawn O ho alas alas When will indifference come, I moan & rave I’d like to scrabble till I got right down away down under the grass and ax the casket open ha to see just how he’s taking it, which he sought so hard we’ll tear apart the mouldering grave clothes ha then Henry will heft the ax once more, his final card, and fell it on the start.
Dream Song 187Them lady poets must not marry, pal.Miss Dickinson—fancy in Amherst bedding hér.Fancy a lark with Sappho,a tumble in the bushes with Miss Moore,a spoon with Emily, while Charlotte glare.Miss Bishop’s too noble-O.That was the lot. And two of them are hereas yet, and—and: Sylvia Plath is not.She—she her credentialshas handed in, leaving alone two totsand widower to what he makes of it—surviving guy, &when Tolstoy’s pathetic widow doing her whung(after them decades of marriage) & kids, she decided he was queer& loving his agent.Wherefore he rush off, leaving two journals, & die.It is a true error to marry with poetsor to be by them.
I have a tiny little secret hope that, after a decent period of silence and prose, I will find myself in some almost impossible life situation and will respond to this with outcries of rage, rage and love, such as the world has never heard before. Like Yeats's great outburst at the end of his life. This comes out of a feeling that endowment is a very small part of achievement. I would rate it about fifteen or twenty percent, Then you have historical luck, personal luck, health, things like that, then you have hard work, sweat. And you have ambition. The incredible difference between the achievement of A and the achievement of B is that B wanted it, so he made all kinds of sacrifices. A could have had it, but he didn’t give a damn.[...]But what I was going on to say is that I do strongly feel that among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement is ordeal. Certain great artists can make out without it, Titian and others, but mostly you need ordeal. My idea is this: the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he's in business. Beethoven's deafness, Goya's deafness, Milton's blindness, that kind of thing. And I think that what happens in my poetic work in the future will probably largely depend not on my sitting calmly on my ass as I think, "Hmm, hmm, a long poem again? Hmm," but on being knocked in the face, and thrown flat, and given cancer, and all kinds of other things short of senile dementia. At that point, I'm out, but short of that, I don't know. I hope to be nearly crucified,