I seem to have been reading nothing but poetry the last few weeks (with the exception of AS Byatt’s ‘Ragnarok’, which I’m reviewing for The Skinny), and plan to read nothing but poetry for the next few months. This verse-obsession is partly related to the next book I want to write, and partly an attempt to fill some of the monstrous gaps in my literary knowledge – I’ve never read Wallace Stevens, for example, or Elizabeth Bishop, or Christopher Middleton, and after stumbling upon the subterrannean world of the British Poetry Revival, I’ve got an even vaster list of writers I want to explore.
You don’t read poetry the same way you read prose; the reader is forced to slow down, to let the impressions arise and accumulate from the text. Having the poet’s collected works, if possible, is the best way to proceed. In ‘Out of Sheer Rage’, Geoff Dyer writes that everything in a ‘selected poems’ edition “comes in tacit quotation marks: those provided by the editor’s choice of material”, whereas in a definitive or collected edition, “nothing comes between us and the writer.” We are reading the poet “unquoted.” To that end, everything I’ve been wanting to get hold of recently has tended to be collected editions – the 900+ pages of John Ashbery (which only takes the reader to 1987; Ashbery is still very much alive); the 1000+ pages of Robert Lowell; the 1000+ pages (in two vols) of William Carlos Williams. I have a book ready to read by Helen Carr about Imagism and Ezra Pound (‘The Cantos’, Faber edition, 818pp) which is 982 pages long. This is all clearly going to take me some time.
Stepping back slightly from this tsunami of verse, one book I’ve acquired is John Berryman’s ‘The Dream Songs’, his semi-autobiographical, confessional collection of lyric poems, a corruscating look at his emotional failings and alcoholic excesses. I haven’t read Berryman before, but I’ve long been fascinated by him as a slightly neglected figure in American poetry (if you can be called neglected when you’ve won a National Book Award). Mainly this is due to Saul Bellow’s novel, ‘Humboldt’s Gift’, his masterpiece. The central character in Bellow’s book, the washed-up poet Von Humboldt Fleischer, was based on another neglected genius of the 1930s and ’40s, Delmore Schwartz. Bellow had been Schwartz’s student, and was also a great friend of Berryman, and characteristics of both of these damaged poets made their way into his fictional one. There’s something tender and loveable about Berryman, despite, or because of, his many great failings as a human being. He killed himself in 1972, jumping from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis. At the rail, just before he flung himself into the freezing water, Berryman turned and waved to the passersby – a detail that endears him to me.
There are quite a lot of clips on Youtube about Berryman – here are two very much worth watching. See if you can guess in which the poet is horribly drunk, and doing his best to remember his own words: