Sam Leith at the Guardian (this seems to be Guardian day at LH) has a wonderful appreciation of John Berryman, one of my favorite American poets, who would have turned 100 yesterday; as I told my brother, who sent me the link (thanks, Eric!), I have two copies of The Dream Songs (one of which is a gift from PF when he visited me in Peekskill a decade or so ago — thanks, PF!), and I should take them down a lot more often. Here’s a taste of Leith’s essay:
Berryman is (relatively) unusual among poets because he’s funny. Daniel Swift, who has edited some handsome centenary reissues of Berryman’s work for Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US (Faber, feebly, isn’t marking the occasion in the UK), suggests that his status as a minor major poet – his not quite getting his due – is in part down to this. People still don’t think funny poets are as important as the non-funny kind. But Berryman is the proper sort of funny: the funny that is involved with heartbreak. His friend Lowell called him a “great Pierrot … poignant, abrasive, anguished, humorous” – and that seems to me an unimprovable description of the mix. The Dream Songs is a slapstick Book of Job. Most of what you might call the Greatest Hits – the lines and poem chunks most quoted in isolation – are funny. “Life, friends, is boring …”; “Bats have no bankers and they do not drink / and cannot be arrested and pay no tax / and, in general, bats have it made”; “Bright-eyed & bushy-tailed woke not Henry up”; “If I had to do the whole thing over again / I wouldn’t.”
One of his lines – even though I have no idea to what it refers – makes me laugh every time I think of it.
– Are you radioactive, pal?
– Pal, radioactive.
– Has you the night sweats & the daysweats, pal?
– Pal, I do.
– Did your gal leave you?
– What do you think, pal?
– Is that thing on the front of your head what it seems to be, pal?
– Yes, pal.
(That’s the end of Dream Song 51. Incidentally, there’s a typo in the last paragraph — Berryman committed suicide in 1972, not 1977.)