Saturday, 30 May 2015

Infinitely Quotable

In an omnibus review of various new editions of John Berryman's poetry, Helen Vendler reminds us of the emotional and psychological misery the poet endured:
His life, as related in John Haffenden’s detailed 1982 biography, makes for excruciating reading. The maladies from which Berryman suffered—bipolar illness and severe alcoholism—ruined his abused body and shook his excellent mind. Since the medicine of his era could do little for these illnesses, his life became marred by successive hospitalizations, attempts at rehabilitation, divorces, the loss of at least one job, and desperate remedies (including a late return to his childhood Roman Catholicism just before his suicide at fifty-seven)
She also celebrates the art he was able to wring from those ordeals: The Dream Songs, which feature Henry, a talking Id, and an unnamed interlocutor:
Within the encounters of this nonrealistic pair, Berryman inserts the imperfect, grandiose, inebriated, wry, grieving, guilt-ridden existence of a greatly gifted poet possessed by the devils of mania, depression, and drunkenness. The Dream Songs, flawed as they are, remain infinitely quotable—the witty lament of a singular man with the courage to exhibit himself in shame, indignity, and exuberant speech. Nothing else in Berryman equals them.

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