One October day when I was 21 years old, I taped six large sheets of newsprint together and attached the whole sheet, six feet square, to the wall just above the bed in the tiny cell of the Manhattan YMCA I was living in. With a box of dry pastels in hand, I stepped onto the bed and without a single thought began drawing, the dust from the cheap pastels falling to the mattress. What emerged was a strange half-cat half-human cartoonish figure I christened Henry Pussycat, emblazoning the “PC” on its Gumby-like chest as if he were a demented super hero. Both arms were arcs, or semi-circles. Frowning but colorful, jagged but childlike, PC drew with one arm what looked like a massive bird’s beak into himself and with the other arm flung the world away. An extro-introvert, he was a perfect self-portrait.
Henry Pussycat is of course the creation of the poet John Berryman—who would have been 100 years old this October 25th—in his book The Dream Songs. Before I left the farmhouse my parents rented in rural Pennsylvania, The Dream Songs sat on my drawing board. I was a visual artist in those days—one who read and wrote a lot—and every day before I made my drawings and paintings I’d read a Dream Song or two. Berryman was the first poet I fell in love with (after a brief infatuation with E E Cummings). He was the first writer whose language I could see. Sure, Cummings did nice things on the page, and I had seen calligrams and other form poems, but Berryman was subtler and somehow even more striking for not being obvious. He didn’t have to arrange words on a page, he only had to combine words in a phrase like this:
Like the sunburst up the white breast of a black-footed penguin
The words jangled, sparkled, sang, and at the same time I could see them. Like Beckett, Berryman was earthy, and yet so smart, far smarter than me, and he still is. I think that explains why I’m still in love with him. The things that we get to know too well, or think that we know too well, fall out of our affections. To know something is to forget it. That which retains mystery continues to draw us in. Just as the love of my life remains an enigma, there are dimensions of Berryman’s poetry that remain obscure to me. My first gift to my great love, the woman I met a year after making the PC drawing, was a collection of Berryman’s poetry. It soon became clear that she did not have an eye, an ear or even a mind for poetry, and the book took its rightful place in my collection. I still have it, still open it up and read the inscription I wrote to her, in green. She is a mystery to me. Poetry is a dimension of my life that remains in shadows between us, sometimes illuminated by an incoherent flash of brilliant light: she supports my irrational efforts to make poetry, despite not being able to “get” it.
I love Berryman, and so I can forgive him everything, except for one thing. His father’s suicide when he was just a boy fucked him up for life. And then, when his own children were still so very young (and he a mere 57), he did it to them, he jumped off a bridge and put an end to himself. I cannot fully understand him, nor fully accept his decisions, but that is also a condition of my love. Perfection is death. Heaven is a place where nothing happens.
What I do understand is what an extraordinary achievement The Dream Songs is. There is no other book like it: autobiography yet fantasy, whimsy and great pain, mirth and real joy, death followed by rebirth in an endless tumble of days and nights, discrete songs and yet a continuous record, a kind of diary of the many moods of a man’s soul, and also one cannot forget that it is a triumph of form. Each Song is a construction of three stanzas of six lines each with roughly the same amount of words and no other constrictions. The lengths of Berryman’s lines vary greatly. Sometimes he rhymes, often not. This model, in a sequence of nearly 400 units, creates an impression of openness and precision simultaneously. The closest approximation I can make to describing its effect is to the music of someone like Sun Ra. Ra was such a master of his instrument, of the history of jazz forms and the techniques of arrangement that his music could evoke chaos and precise order in quick succession. I know of nothing more beautiful in any of the arts than to wed such apparent opposites. The sum, for me, is greater than the parts. This model endlessly inspires me, especially when one adds the element of fantasy. Berryman is sometimes called one of the “confessional” poets, yet he proved that truth could be (and maybe sometimes should be) painted in many colors.
Newsprint and dry pastel powder aren’t made to last. Years after making my PC drawing in that YMCA cell I made a small version in gouache and later still a six foot square version in acrylic on wood (the details you see here are of that version). Alas, I knew it too well by then, and produced a stilted thing that had lost all the freshness, the vitality, the dance of that first act when, without a single thought in my head, I first stepped onto that dingy old daybed.