Berryman’s Haunted I

Dorothea Lasky
John Berryman Centenary

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In commemoration of the centenary of John Berryman’s birth (October 25, 1914), FSG’s Work in Progress is celebrating this icon of twentieth-century American literature by having authors write about what they admire about him and his work.


I often think of my favorite poets as employing what I would like to call a Metaphysical I. I define this as an I who acts, within the poem, as a kind of shapeshifter. For me, this is the most powerful position an I can take: it can adopt any role, can don any costume, without promptings—external or internal—from the poem. In other words, a Metaphysical I is a haunted I.

What I have always loved about Berryman is his ability to function so well within his own haunted being, his hallucinatory movements within the poems: there, the imaginative world and the real world float together seamlessly. Part of this is due to his understanding of poem as performance, an understanding rooted deep in his love of Shakespeare: a poem sits on the stage and its job is to entertain, surprise, and terrify a reader beneath the changing moods and lights of live theater.

The Dream Songs
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My first real encounter with Berryman’s work was over 13 years ago as a first-year MFA student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. My friend was obsessed with The Dream Songs; the first time he read them, he rushed over hurriedly in the middle of the night to read them to me. Over the course of several nights, he read all of the songs aloud, and I remember the pink and orange streams of daybreak coming in as I heard all of these new words. Even early on, Berryman taught me that poetry is not just what exists on the page: it must be what one encounters outside of it, in the space of speaking and listening.

What makes this new selected, The Heart Is Strange, so exciting is that it collects all of the best instances of Berryman’s haunted I in one place. We can see the beginning and ends of a career that broke from a formality into an area of jagged beauty, into the arena of possession—where, as in “The Possessed” the “discomfortable dead/ Drift into doorways, lounge, across the bridge,/ Whittling memory at the water’s edge,/ And watch.” “This is what you inherited,” Berryman reminds us poets.

“American Lights, Seen From Off Abroad,” included in this Selected, is a classic Berryman performance of the Metaphysical or haunted I. In the poem, his I moves from “I never think, I have so many things” to “I worry like a madwoman over all the world” to “I have no plans, I mean well” to “I am a maid of shots and pills” to “I am all satisfied love & chalk.” Berryman is not only possessed with a quintessential American aesthetic and spirit—seen, dramatically, from outside of the country and by a non-American—but also connects everyday details to universal experience. In the face of these contradictions, he is able to make an I in the poem that does everything at once because it is nothing at all.

The Heart is Strange
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Rereading Berryman’s work through this new Selected has also reminded me how much his poems connect to one of my favorite James Ensor paintings, “Self Portrait with Masks.”

In it, we see a painting populated by faces that feel familiar, but are not real. The eye cannot rest on any one face for too long; the competing eye sockets seem to peer and multiply the more one looks at each of them. The question of the painting becomes: Are the masks ganging up on Ensor in the painting (ganging up on the speaker of the poem) or are they a sign of the impending doom meant for the viewer? Whatever the case, we feel crowded; looking at the painting, the viewer can feel the eyes speak. Their possession of us seems imminent. Like Berryman, Ensor shows us that life becomes decidedly more real as facets of mood are visualized in performance and glorious costume. Berryman, in his poems, wears the mantle of the bard, the waxen faces of both life and death, to bring the horror of being out into the open so that we all might perhaps feel less alone.

In “Despair,” Berryman summons Walt Whitman, with his great American haunted I, and after a long admission of his sadness, he writes:

Walt! We’re downstairs,
even you don’t comfort me
but I join your risk my dear friend & go with you.

In this new Selected, we see how Berryman risked everything for his poems, a skeleton of being clothed fearlessly in a clown costume, performing his death again and again, until the end.

Dorothea Lasky is the author of four books of poetry, most recently ROME (W.W. Norton/Liveright, 2014), as well as Thunderbird, Black Life, AWE, all out from Wave Books. She is the co-editor of Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry (McSweeney’s, 2013) and several chapbooks, including Poetry is Not a Project (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010). Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of Poetry at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and lives in New York City.

Photography by Bob Peterson. (©Bob Peterson)

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