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David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of School of the Americas from Black Lawrence Press (2013). Black Lawrence will also bring out Not Alone in My Dancing: Essays and Reviews next year.

>These Wayward Things: Revisiting Berryman's Sonnets

As he put it, preempting, perhaps, any future charge that the whole project might find him floundering in a sea of sentimentality, he had written a series of poems about an "excellent lady with whom he was in wuv." It hardly seems an auspicious preamble to what is arguably the best known American sonnet sequence of the last century. Yet by the time I came across the volume, entitled Berryman's Sonnets and indicating the eponymous Berryman to be a character as well as a subject, we all knew it, at least by reputation. And that reputation, based on the later 77 Dream Songs, struck us as high, perhaps even in excess of the achievement, solid as it was, from which it grew.

My encounter with the Sonnets began in 1968 when I was in college. The well known and wonderfully opinionated poet who happened to be my poetry teacher told us that we must first learn to write in form. The theory being that you had to know the form to break the form. In my particular case, I was charged with writing daily sonnets for a whole year, with Berryman's Sonnets my Bible. What I soon learned was that the youngest of the Nashville Fugitives, Merrill Moore, also wrote a sonnet a day his whole adult life. But he is not remembered for his sonneteering, or even his Fugitive-fellow-travelling, so much as his psychological counseling work with poets like Robert Frost and Berryman's friend Robert Lowell. Did my teacher not say that Berryman knew more about English syntax than any man alive? That he could discourse upon a semicolon for an hour? So I set about my regimen with a sense of duty, all the more so, as my teacher knew Berryman personally, writing a sonnet a day, and making a particular study of the tradition with and against which Berryman strove.

And strove he did. Not a few of the 115 sonnets make reference to the particular linguistic and lyrical circumstance in which he finds himself, shadowing skepticism, fighting ambivalence, at the dilemma that unfolded in the sequence, just as it did in the illicit affair it records. Berryman was married when he embarked on a romance with a colleague's wife while he was teaching at Princeton in the early 1960s, the Kennedy years. The affair followed the timeless script allotted to most sublunary lovers: the love at first sighting, the requital, the divergences and cooling, the disillusionment of the ending. Berryman's rendering of this event, an often chaotic journaling that references Sidney and Petrarch, without following the standard course of Platonic idealism with which sonnets mediate the requirements of form, have often led readers into a state of bafflement.

Many poets leave readers at the bafflement stage when they try to address the numinous and ineffable, where what is meant can't be said but is presumed to be there just beyond the reach of language and so is the subject of verbal gesture, silence, orthographic irregularities, and other extralinguistic tricks from which we infer, well, more words. But because inference depends of frame of reference, the lack of standard articulation and the resort to varieties of understatement can leave us with the vague sensation that we've missed the boat. Putting the reader on the edge is not the same as a delivery. The other kind of bafflement comes with experiments with language (or what are perceived as experiments). The reception of Eliot and Pound offer cases in point. Berryman's ability to play riffs upon conventional rules of syntax is another case. The difficulties of Berryman's Sonnets are, in large part, though not exclusively, of this kind.

Choosing the sonnet puts any poet directly in line of a host of conventions, some hackneyed, some helpful. It also, in the case of the Petrarchan sonnet, brings along an array of image clusters, one of whose chief effects is to create a sense of paradox: freezing-in-fire, death-in-life, joyous misery, fullness-in-absence. It also predisposes one to accept paradoxes in a more philosophical light, as bracketed contradictions, moments of irresolution superseded. In Berryman's case, there is a modern sense of guilt tilting with a desire before the spectacle of the illicit: remorse and pleasure, anticipation and disappointment, freedom and bounds both natural—like time—and artificial—like moral expectations and legal customs. It is within the frameworks of such tensions that Berryman sets out to record this most traditional of plights: faith predicated on faithlessness, where love and lust are under a cloud, partners confused, the desire to declare, even declaim, lies against the need for secrecy.

           No jest but jostles truth! .. I burn ..and led
           Burning to slaughter, passion like a sieve
           Disbands my circling blood the priestess slights.
           —Remorse does not suit you at all' he said,
           Rightly; but what he ragged, and might forgive,
           I shook for, lawless, empty, without rights. [19]

It is popular in analyzing the poet's fondness for paradox to understand that this feature, because it puts us in view of incompatible alternatives, actually hints that we are free because we have overcome armies of unalterable law simply by virtue of making contradiction dance to the tune of truth, or at least of reality. But there is another sense that, on the contrary, demonstrates that the presence of paradox does not imply freedom, but the doubling-up of necessity. The poet can, in fact, and Berryman does, go back and forth between these mutually exclusive understandings. It's as if when Whitman utters his famous disclaimer, "Do I contradict myself? So I contradict myself!" he, like the sorcerer's apprentice, finds his examples begetting further and richer examples of why we must be free and yet why inescapability is a natural feature of the existential landscape, including the inescapability of freedom itself. Paradox indeed.

Is it any wonder that Berryman turns syntax into taffy? Discarding and bending the rules of word order rhymes nicely, you might say, with his subject, which is the bending, rearrangement and dismissal of the most intimate of behavioral standards. It is also the signature to his style.

Michael Wood makes an important distinction with regard to Vladimir Nabokov. It's one that bears on our poet, not only as a sonneteer but as a dream songster, ventriloquist, flagrant marital infidel, and baby-talk expert: "A literary signature would then be the visible shorthand for a literary person; a style would be a more complex but still legible trace of that person's interaction with the world." It is a question of the sort that he must have posed to himself: John Berryman: poet or verse stylist? The purpose of the Sonnets is to record, express, celebrate, praise, forgive, and justify an affair that could not make the public at the time of composition, although Berryman himself confides his peccadillo to a number of colleagues. It is also the signature to his style, as if to register and distinguish the particulars of his situation, which we have made intelligible culturally through its opposite: the generalizing of the personal that the recourse to the sonnet sequence represents. For what could be more general than tradition? It's in tradition that the personal is ennobled, the never-to-be-repeated particularity acknowledged in and through the generalizing mill of language.

The late Allen Grossman notes that the poem takes place "at the limit of the autonomy of the will." Grossman is suggesting that the poem begins where the poet stops. The implications of Grossman's assertion are worth looking at. Language, you might say, which is the preserve of no one in particular, even as it is the sole imagistic tool of the poet, rescues the intended poem from the very particularity that gave it rise and sets it on a course in the public domain, where its authenticity is justified by its boost to anonymity. The ego, which Blake in prophetic parlance memorably described as "Satan," loses ownership of the hic and ille of content but gains immeasurably in taking its place in the body (good word—body) of poetry..

Berryman's distinctive syntax may be seen as an attempt to widen the personal field within the general template of the sonnet, and by extension, upon literary utterance and human song, since the sonnet so indisputably represents the enterprise of lyric poetry altogether. The push-back that we feel in Berryman's Sonnets is that of a man who knows that we bore our listeners when we tell them our dreams. So he suggests a substitution, thereby gesturing toward a personal realm, time, and circumstance that is belied by the use of convention.

Painters say it's not about the picture, it's about the paint. Now in reminding you of this saw I don't mean to suggest that language just takes over and leaves the hapless poet standing in moccasins. And yet, there is a sense in which the writing of a sonnet sequence based on an extramarital affair is a continuation of that affair by other means. For he knew, as we do, that the course of these things never does run smooth and that, at the least, a series of poems bound and reshaped by form, says that just as this is a coin that Caesar is not going to get, it is a love affair whose eventual collapse lives on in the emblem of its once-real, but time-KO-ed actuality. "I become a word," in the succinct phrase of Stanley Kunitz, echoing poets from the vasty deep of cultural time, right down to Mallarmé and Yeats, and all poets who wish to be relieved of the burdens of ironic distance.

Berryman's Sonnets, celebrating the amorous congress between two feisty, lusty, drink-fueled, touchy, smart-mouthed, and despairing lovers, one the standard issue of poetic complaint, the other an unpredictable cipher, puts one in mind of Ruth Pitter's refrain, "But for love we could be friends." Lust at first rules and later topples the affair, but in doing so gives classic shape to the joints of relationship. But for lust indeed. And yet lust-as-fuse is that part of the story most modified by the quiddity, as it were, of going-forth. The married man at length returns the ring to his finger and seeks to re-ingratiate himself with the unknowing spouse, whose Bronté-sounding pseudonym, "Heather," stands in contrast to the flingy "Lise," whose odd spelling leaves the reader unsure of the most basic initial housekeeping: how to pronounce the heroine's name. This is no Laura, no Beatrice, not even a Dark Lady. She is described as an "excellent lady" in the preface, but her excellence, whatever it consists of, palls before simple doubt.

All readers of the Dream Songs know that you have to account for the eccentric language that often seems to offer itself as a vehicle of enhanced immediacy or mind-mapping, rather than the leisurely guardrails of grammar that our ears are accustomed to, often to the point of preferring seismic tracery to clarity. Of course all poets "write double." Berryman is not making an admission previously withheld by bards. He is offering a clue to the nature of his own sequence, and in doing so both overcomes the anachronistic whiff of the sonnet altogether, even as he games the system in revealing its mechanism at the same time that he records the high-wattage emotional charge of the love affair itself—in earnest, one hesitantly adds.

Just as the Sonnets precede the Dream Songs, so a Dream Song itself prefaces the Sonnets. This sets the stage by making an up-front, if tiny, prolepsis. In the process our lover-poet disparages, you might say, the very principle of causation and consequence, of the horse before the cart, and of the understanding of moral and social wrongdoing, be it ever so subject to retrospective tinkering.

Berryman ends the Sonnets in compliance with the Muse's command in Sidney's Astrophel and Stella. He does so quietly, borrowing images from the natural world to establish the requisite wistfulness and so soften the blow of inevitability, then announces his return to duty. The command to be an artist that comes after, as Dickinson said, "great hurt," comes across as especially fitting. The formal feeling that comes is almost a form of housekeeping. The poet already has a sheaf of poems to offer the Beloved, but as he passes from lover to literary creature, the business of composition succeeds the mischief of romance. That is to say, he announces his intention to find where lies the limit of the autonomy of the will. The projected complete set of Berryman's Sonnets partakes of the naturalizing: it is the natural thing to go and be John Berryman and sit down, alone, pen at the ready. The last sestet goes like this:

           The weather is changing. The morning was cold,
           as I made for the grove, without expectation,
           some hundred Sonnets in my pocket, old,

           to read her if she came. Presently the sun
           yellowed the pines and my lady came not
           in blue jeans & a sweater. I sat down & wrote. [115]

One of the unintended consequences of writing with revised syntax in a Petrarchan sonnet is that the rhymes, which are more insistently present in this form, are less obtrusive. Ironically, one of the effects of ruptured syntax is to reinforce the feeling that the poems resist recitation because constructions new to the ear are also foreign to the tongue. This, in turn, reinforces the feeling that they are based on, even intended for, the page, appealing to the mind—an academic distinction, perhaps, but a real one. This feature superficially resembles the Joyce of Finnegan's Wake, but the key difference lies in the fact that Joyce, a passable tenor, conceived of his reinvention of English as of a piece with the music in his head and hence on his tongue, in contrast to Berryman's emphasis on his own thought and the mind's jolting and jostling exclamations of self-awareness.

In their originality, Berryman's Sonnets of course presage the Dream Songs, and numerous people have noticed that the Dream Songs themselves often seem to be variations of the sonnet form, in which the extended reach of the additional stanza allows for syntactical play that ever so lightly relaxes the pressure put on phrasing in the sonnet, where real estate is at a premium and compression indistinguishable from relaxation. It also allows for the interplay of voices to a much greater degree than is the case with the Sonnets, where formal compliance with discipline specifically becomes self-discipline, where style and signature must live in amiable confinement.

These are just surmises. We must remember too that at the time of the composition of the Sonnets (the early 1960s), the only other member of his American peer group to take on the task of the sonnet sequence was Robert Lowell. And the History project was several years in the future. When my poetry teacher long ago prescribed Berryman's Sonnets for the young, world-drenched poet just starting out, she knew another thing: that there are some poets from whom imitation is a dangerous thing. Think of the poets who disappeared in the shadow of Yeats and Eliot. Or for that matter, Dylan Thomas, to whom Berryman seems to owe a great deal and yet form whose incantations he seemed to have emerged more or less intact. Berryman, in turn, was a good master: he knew I would not follow him, and so his influence was metaphysical, an amazing feat in so un-metaphysical a thinker otherwise. But he did make me mindful that, just as painting is about paint, poetic composition is about words. I am tempted to say, words, words, words. And that is a good influence. The occasion of Berryman's Sonnets, an extramarital love affair, is a thing of the deep past, its participants long gone to dust. But something about the issues raised by the fierceness of the contemporary phrasing within an ancient and approved form, refuses to go the way of the dramatis personae. They, the historical actors, are "these wayward things," but even more so are the poems. They are, in the phrase of American poet Andrew Glaze, the "damned ugly children" who started out between the early poems and Homage To Mistress Bradstreet and prefigure the magisterial sequence of his later, mature years, until the come-to-Jesus meeting of his last book, Love & Fame. The Sonnets mark an achievement on the stage of American poetry and irascible, mysterious, difficult, unintelligible, frustrating, and ugly as they can be, they are also radiant and vital, moving nervously and unsurpassed in their chutzpah and tenderness and tragedy.

           Double I sing, I must, your utraquist,
           Crumpling a syntax at a sudden need,

           Stridor of English softening to plead
           O to you plainly lest you more resist.

           'Arthur lay then at Caerlon upon Usk..'
           ¨I see, and all that story swims back.. red

           Satin over rushes .. Mother's voice at dusk.

           So I comb times and men to cram you rare:

           'Faire looketh Ceres with her yellow Haire'—

           Fairer you far O here lie filteréd. [47]


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