Issue 53, Winter 1972
On a Sunday afternoon in late July 1970, John Berryman gave a reading of his poems in a small “people's park” in Minneapolis near the west bank campus of the University of Minnesota. Following the reading, I reintroduced myself—we hadn't seen each other since I was his student, eight years earlier—and we spent the afternoon in conversation at his house. He had had a very bad winter, he explained, and had spent much of the spring in the extended-care ward at St. Mary's Hospital. I asked him about doing an interview. He agreed, and we set up an appointment for late October.
Berryman spent a week in Mexico at the end of the summer and had “a marvelous time.” A trip to upstate New York for a reading followed, and by early October he was back at St. Mary's. It was there that the interview was conducted, during visiting hours on the twenty-seventh and twenty-ninth of October.
He looked much better than he had during the summer, was heavier and more steady on his feet. He again smoked and drank coffee almost continually. The room was spacious, and Berryman was quite at home in it. In addition to the single bed, it contained a tray table that extended over the bed, a chair, and two nightstands, one of which held a large AM-FM radio and the usual hospital accoutrements. Books and papers covered the other nightstand, the table, and the broad windowsill.
Berryman was usually slow to get going on an answer, as he made false starts looking for just the right words. Once he started talking, he would continue until he had exhausted the subject—thus, some of his answers are very long. This method left unasked questions, and the most important of these were mailed to him later for written answers. In contrast to the taped answers, the written answers turned out to be brief, flat, and even dull. (These have been discarded.) By way of apology, he explained that he was again devoting his energies almost entirely to writing poetry.
An edited typescript of the interview was sent him in January 1971. He returned it in March, having made very few changes. He did supply some annotations, and these have been left as he put them.
Mr. Berryman, recognition came to you late in comparison with writers like Robert Lowell and Delmore Schwartz. What effect do you think fame has on a poet? Can this sort of success ruin a writer?
I don't think there are any generalizations at all. If a writer gets hot early, then his work ought to become known early. If it doesn't, he is in danger of feeling neglected. We take it that all young writers overestimate their work. It's impossible not to—I mean if you recognized what shit you were writing, you wouldn't write it. You have to believe in your stuff—every day has to be the new day on which the new poem may be it. Well, fame supports that feeling. It gives self-confidence, it gives a sense of an actual, contemporary audience, and so on. On the other hand, unless it is sustained, it can cause trouble—and it is very seldom sustained. If your first book is a smash, your second book gets kicked in the face, and your third book, and lots of people, like Delmore, can't survive that disappointment. From that point of view, early fame is very dangerous indeed, and my situation, which was so painful to me for many years, was really in a way beneficial.
I overestimated myself, as it turned out, and felt bitter, bitterly neglected; but I had certain admirers, certain high judges on my side from the beginning, so that I had a certain amount of support. Moreover, I had a kind of indifference on my side—much as Joseph Conrad did. A reporter asked him once about reviews, and he said, “I don't read my reviews. I measure them.” Now, until I was about thirty-five years old, I not only didn't read my reviews, I didn't measure them, I never even looked at them. That is so peculiar that close friends of mine wouldn't believe me when I told them. I thought that was indifference, but now I'm convinced that it was just that I had no skin on—you know, I was afraid of being killed by some remark. Oversensitivity. But there was an element of indifference in it, and so the public indifference to my work was countered with a certain amount of genuine indifference on my part, which has been very helpful since I became a celebrity. Auden once said that the best situation for a poet is to be taken up early and held for a considerable time and then dropped after he has reached the level of indifference.
Something else is in my head; a remark of Father Hopkins to Bridges. Two completely unknown poets in their thirties—fully mature—Hopkins, one of the great poets of the century, and Bridges, awfully good. Hopkins with no audience and Bridges with thirty readers. He says, “Fame in itself is nothing. The only thing that matters is virtue. Jesus Christ is the only true literary critic. But,” he said, “from any lesser level or standard than that, we must recognize that fame is the true and appointed setting of men of genius.” That seems to me appropriate. This business about geniuses in neglected garrets is for the birds. The idea that a man is somehow no good just because he becomes very popular, like Frost, is nonsense, also. There are exceptions—Chatterton, Hopkins, of course, Rimbaud, you can think of various cases—but on the whole, men of genius were judged by their contemporaries very much as posterity judges them. So if I were talking to a young writer, I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.
What is your reaction to such comments as: “If Berryman is not America's finest living poet, then he is surely running a close second to Lowell”?
Well, I don't know. I don't get any frisson of excitement back here, and my bank account remains the same, and my view of my work remains the same, and in general I can say that everything is much the same after that is over.
It seems that you, along with Frost and several other American writers, were appreciated earlier in England than in America.
That's true. More in Frost's case. Stephen Crane is another.
Why do you think this is true?
I wonder. The literary cultures are still very different. Right this minute, for example, the two best reviewers of poetry in English, and perhaps the only two to whom I have paid the slightest attention, are both Englishmen—Kermode and Alvarez. Of course, that's just a special case—ten years ago it was different, but our people have died or stopped practicing criticism. We couldn't put out a thing like the Times Literary Supplement. We just don't have it. Education at the elite level is better in England, humanistic education—never mind technical education, where we are superior or at least equal—but Cambridge, Oxford, London, and now the red-brick universities provide a much higher percentage of intelligent readers in the population—the kind of people who listen to the Third Programme and read the Times Literary Supplement. They are rather compact and form a body of opinion from which the reviewers, both good and mediocre, don't have to stand out very far. In our culture, we also, of course, have good readers, but not as high a percentage—and they are incredibly dispersed geographically. It makes a big difference.
You, along with Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and several others, have been called a confessional poet. How do you react to that label?
With rage and contempt! Next question.
Are the sonnets “confessional”?
Well, they're about her and me. I don't know. The word doesn't mean anything. I understand the confessional to be a place where you go and talk with a priest. I personally haven't been to confession since I was twelve years old.
You once said: “I masquerade as a writer. Actually I am a scholar.” At another time you pointed out that your passport gives your occupation as “Author” and not “Teacher.” How do your roles as teacher and scholar affect your role as poet?
Very, very hard question. Housman is one of my heroes and always has been. He was a detestable and miserable man. Arrogant, unspeakably lonely, cruel, and so on, but an absolutely marvelous minor poet, I think, and a great scholar. And I'm about equally interested in those two activities. In him they are perfectly distinct. You are dealing with an absolute schizophrenic. In me they seem closer together, but I just don't know. Schwartz once asked me why it was that all my Shakespearean study had never showed up anywhere in my poetry, and I couldn't answer the question. It was a piercing question because his early poems are really very much influenced by Shakespeare's early plays. I seem to have been sort of untouched by Shakespeare, although I have had him in my mind since I was twenty years old.
I don't agree with that. One of the dream songs, one of those written to the memory of Delmore Schwartz—let me see if I can find it. Here, number 147. These lines:
Henry's mind grew blacker the more he thought.
He looked onto the world like the act of an aged whore.
He flung to pieces and they hit the floor.
That sounds very Shakespearean to me.
That sounds like Troilus and Cressida, doesn't it? One of my very favorite plays. I would call that Shakespearean. Not to praise it, though, only in description. I was half hysterical writing that song. It just burst onto the page. It took only as long to compose as it takes to write it down.