Berryman @ 100

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.

Mark Kerstetter, PCX9, acrylic on wood, 72 x 72 inches

Mark Kerstetter, PCX9, acrylic on 9 wood panels, 72 x 72 inches

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.

PCX9, detail

PCX9, detail

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.

PCX9, detail

PCX9, detail

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.

PCX9, detail

PCX9, detail

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9 Responses to Berryman @ 100

  1. Brendan says:

    Fine remembrance of a poet’s formational impact. Berryman’s way of seeing imprints well in your painting. There’s a rip in Berryman’s center whose sound I can find resonance in your work. I’m not a fan of Berryman — I like his criticism better than his poetry. Lewis Hyde wrote an essay titled “Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking” which asserts that as Berryman deepened into his alcoholism, the voice became booze’s own. (Hyde quotes the old Chinese adage, “man takes a drink, drink takes a drink, drink takes the man.) He was in that voracious vociferous group of poets of the early ’60s that included Theodore Roethke and Robert Lowell whose madness was part of the heroic verse. In my worst years of drinking there was a voice but little soul inside the sentences. I’m surely too influenced by that history in my judgment of Berryman. BTW, my wife never reads anything I write, it’s just too “heavy” for her tastes. Though I think she’s a much more gifted and accomplished artist than I can ever be. There’s a wide, wide distance between the human beloved and the goddess within, and it does help to know that …

    • I respect your reason for not being a fan. I do think that Berryman’s sickness spoke (or rather sang) in his poetry, and you would be justified in arguing that the sickness is the booze. I appreciate the distinction you make between soul and voice–a voice that is powerful yet lacks soul. I would reply that Berryman’s voice is extraordinary. I touched on what I don’t relate to in Berryman, but I could elaborate here that I think he lived too much in language for my taste. An extramarital affair served as fodder for a collection of sonnets (extraordinary sonnets!), for example. His novel ‘Recovery’ is heartbreaking to read because you know this guy is never going to recover; he cannot disentangle the discourse of the 12 step program from actual recovery. I also consider his suicide in a way his last literary act. Basically, Berryman was a romantic, perhaps the last great romantic, and that goes against everything I aim to be as a poet. Yet I keep going back to him because of that extraordinary voice and because of that model which can certainly serve many different kinds of poetic uses.

      (have downloaded a pdf of the Lewis Hyde essay to read–thanks)

      • Brendan says:

        Why do we embrace certain poets? I think the reasons are so unique to our own travail and path that sometimes it feels like a restaurant recommendation from a co-worker; you wonder what the heck they were thinking when they tasted that food. But that’s the rub, isn’t it, just what were we thinking when we grazed into a poet’s garden.

        A good critic I think is able to voice what is found both on the surface and the many sub-domains of a poetic work and career. As you say in your reply to my comment, what keeps attracting you to Berryman is that such a voice has so “many different kinds of poetic uses.” Berryman the romantic isn’t what attracts you, if I read your comment correctly, but more perhaps how the romanticism was throttled by modernity, modulated and blasted in 12-tone polyphonic organum. I see that wonder in you as you read Beckett and Artaud, or listen to Braxton: the abstract wavelengths you record are intense. As in your painting of Henry Pussycat, the vibe is something the world has a hard time getting; it requires some explanation and explication: it perhaps as much as anything shows how complex a lens you see things through. The “extro-introvert.”

        I think I’m more deeply stained by that “traditional” romanticism, and perhaps judge works too harshly that can’t attenuate; post-Christian, I may still be a traditionalist in that way. It was Robert Lowell who said Berryman was a much better critic than poet, but that’s coming from the mosh-pit of poetic celebrity, whatever that once was. (Lowell also said that Elizabeth Bishop was the best WOMAN poet of the age.) All that seems so long ago. Maybe it was the tragic hero act that Berryman can still be faulted for, but as the life fades into oblivion the work may shine better through. Thanks for doing what you do.

        • I think you’re right about the work shining brighter as the life fades. Berryman was such a character, such a personality and of course whenever someone commits suicide that fact seems to color everything. The work should really stand on its own. I was very young when I encountered Berryman, but then I’ve left so many things behind while he still teaches me. I may not go to him for wisdom, but yes, certainly for a superior example of modern art-play. An example of how Henry is Berryman and yet not Berryman: he once compared his work on or through Henry to what a novelist like Tolstoy does; he caused all manner of things to happen to Henry, all sorts of tragedies and passions and drama.

  2. Susan Scheid says:

    Mark: I don’t know how I missed this post and am so glad to have spotted it today! The back story of your own encounter with Berryman, making that glorious art (I’m so glad you transferred it to a more permanent form–while to your eyes, knowing the original, it may seem to have lost some of its spontaneity, I respond to it as full of vital life). You’ve also salted this post with trademark pithy observations, like this: “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.” Which of course reminds me of Ashbery, too. I’ve been thinking of you quite a bit this week, as it’s New York Poets week in ModPo. I haven’t been very active throughout, but I wanted to get in there for the possibility of a discussion about Ashbery’s work, at the least. One of my favorite lines of Ashbery’s could fit right in here, too: “There is light in there, and mystery and food.” May there always be mystery! I don’t know Berryman’s work, and don’t know how/whether I’ll get on with it, but I will now check it out.

    • Thanks Sue. I found a book in a thrift store years ago called, “Don’t Get Taught Art this Way!” that was illustrated throughout with cartoons. One message of the book has stuck with me: the author spoke of a work of art in terms of its “tiring speed”, the amount of time it takes for the viewer to literally get tired of looking at it. I have my own personal criteria for how to avoid a quick tiring speed (at least I try)–I’m not talking about being deliberately abstruse, but constructing the piece with the idea in mind that the viewer/reader/ brings their own world to it. I want to meet them half-way, give them something to think about, not tell them what to think. Basically, film directors that tell you where to look in every shot are boring, painters that don’t leave a door open out of the composition are boring, poets who are too literal or whose rhythms are too tight are boring….. Of course it’s possible to leave too much to the reader’s imagination, and I think Ashbery sometimes makes that mistake, but I forgive him everything.

      • Susan Scheid says:

        Mark: Here’s yet another takeaway for me in what you’ve written: “constructing the piece with the idea in mind that the viewer/reader/ brings their own world to it. I want to meet them half-way, give them something to think about, not tell them what to think.” Art is simply not alive unless this is the case, is it? And of course I love your closing line. I’m very glad to be “properly” introduced to Berryman. As an Ashberyian aside, I had the opportunity and pleasure of revisiting a couple of your Ashbery posts, one of which was Hybrid Locations on Nicelle Davis. On the ModPo FB page, folks have been reading that post and quoting from it, clearly delighted with your insights.

  3. Pingback: Henry @ 100 | The Mockingbird Sings

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