Monday, November 17, 2008

Lewis Hyde, on Poet John Berryman (and Berryman on William Carlos Williams)

Yesterday, while flipping through the New York Times Sunday magazine en route to "The Exit Interview" with Condoleezza Rice, I glanced upon the name "Hyde" on an earlier page, and thought "Wouldn't it be great if this was an article about Lewis Hyde?" And in fact it was: a piece by Daniel B. Smith called "What is Art For?" Okay, I'm an Ideal Reader for this kind of writing, and I'll return to it again in the future. For now, a focus on poetry.

I first heard of Lew Hyde way back in the mid-70s, when he wrote his provocative essay "Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking." I just pulled it off the shelf to read it again. I remember being shocked at the time by the blunt tone – the short emphatic sentences rendering judgment, and the unambivalent assessment of Berryman as drowned in self-pity and self-abuse. The beginning of the essay reads like a pitch for Alcoholics Anonymous, an odd thing to find in The American Poetry Review in 1975. (But then Blake Edwards's brilliant film Days of Wine and Roses, starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, came out in 1962, and it includes an outright pitch for AA, too. And now I'm wondering: will Don and Betty watch Days of Wine and Roses on the next season of Mad Men?)

When a student at the University of Minnesota, I often walked across the Washington Avenue Bridge, where Berryman pitched his body down. I tried many times to read Berryman's The Dream Songs, but they didn't fully capture my interest: they belonged to the legendary tragic figure, a chain-smoking bearded professor who stumbled through inadvertently brilliant humanities courses while intoxicated. Later I knew his daughter Martha, when she was in high school; we talked about writing, but never about her dad. (Here's an article about Berryman focused on Kate Donahue, his last wife, Martha's mother.)

In 1993 Hyde wrote another piece called "Berryman Revisited: A Response," published in Recovering Berryman: Essays on a Poet. Ed. Richard J. Kelly and Alan K. Lathrop (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993). Both essays are vehicles for thinking about connections between alcohol and spirit, and for wondering about the role of alcohol in the lives of those many writers whose lives have not ended or proceeded well.

Here is Berryman's Dream Song 324, "An Elegy for W.C.W." It pays tribute to poet-physician William Carlos Williams, a writer who was famously capable of living an engaged and inspiring life, unburdened by the disease of alcoholism.

Henry in Ireland to Bill underground:
Rest well, who worked so hard, who made a good sound
constantly, for so many years:
your high-jinks delighted the continents & our ears:
you had so many girls your life was a triumph
and you loved your one wife.

At dawn you rose & wrote--the books poured forth--
you delivered infinite babies, in one great birth--
and your generosity
to juniors made you deeply loved, deeply:
if envy was a Henry trademark, he would envy you,
especially the being through.

Too many journeys lie for him ahead,
too many galleys & page-proofs to be read,
he would like to lie down
in your sweet silence, to whom was not denied
the mysterious late excellence which is the crown
of our trials & our last bride.

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