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Death of a Poet

Delusions, etc. by John Berryman Farrer, Strauss and Giroux, 69 pp., $6.95

By Dwight Cramer

JOHN BERRYMAN jumped to his death from a bridge on the University of Minnesota campus on January 7, 1972. At that time his last book of poetry, Delusions, Etc., was in proof and contained a poem titled "Walking Into the River." The poem has since been deleted and does not appear in the published volume. Posthumously published works usually raise questions concerning the extent and character of editing done after the author's death, and Delusions, Etc. is no exception. But even without any unmistakably specific references to his impending suicide, this poetry is clearly the product of a tortured mind.

If there is any central theme to the diverse assortment of poems in Delusions, Etc., it is a general expression of desperation and a hope for some sort of release from life. Berryman's father committed suicide and the memory of that event sharply marks poems such as "Tampa Stomp" and "Old Man Goes South Again Alone." The lines from a poem called "No" are very explicit, when Berryman claims that "I faint for some soft & solid & sudden way out as quiet as hemlock in that Attic prose." In the penultimate poem of the collection, "The Facts & Issues," Berryman states: Let me be clear about this. It is plain to me Christ underwent man & treachery & socks & lashes, thirst, exhaustion, the bit, for my pathetic & disgusting vices, to make this filthy fact of particular, long-after, faraway, five-foot-ten & moribund human being happy. Well, he has! I am so happy I could scream! It's enough! I can't BEAR IT ANY MORE. Let this be it. I've had it. I can't wait.

A RELIGIOUS FAITH never entirely defined accompanies Berryman's despair. It is a faith that invokes God as a protector but does not explore the Divine nature. It revolves less around God than around the poet's personal need for Him. The first section of Delusions, Etc. is composed of eight poems patterned on the Roman Catholic liturgical offices of the day, from Lauds to Compline. Other poems in the collection include a number of prayers ("Somber Prayer," "Overseas Prayer," "Usual Prayer," and "The Prayer of the Middle-Aged Man") and a thanksgiving. There is also a poem in honor of the Virgin. Clearly the Church is a talisman for him.

The primary emphasis of his poetry is on the need for some sort of protections. In a poem on Dylan Thomas, Berryman claims that in his last years Thomas expressed a great interest in the Garden of Eden and its flowers, but little in their creator. The point seems equally applicable to Berryman. He was more interested in enjoying the creation than in glorifying the Creator. This poetry is not a celebration of God but the expression of a modern man's need for him.

Expressions of personal misery do not dominate every poem in Delusions, Etc., The 43 poems of the collection fall into five sections. The first and last of these sections are sober sets of prayers. But the second division is composed of a group of five poems on Washington, Beethoven, Emily Dickinson, George Trakl and Dylan Thomas. This group is followed by 13 miscellaneous poems with subjects as diverse as suicide, Christ and the fall of man. The fourth section contains two poems reprinted from the April 1969 Harvard Advocate. The poems, "Henry's Understanding" and "Henry by Night," were offshoots of Berryman's longest poem, Dream Songs. The first volume of that work, 77 Dream Songs, won the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and its second volume, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, won the 1969 National Book Award.

BERRYMAN's MOST recent book does not possess the unity necessary for comparision with a work of the magnitude of Dream Songs. At least one of the poems included in Delusions, Etc., "Scholars at the Orchid Pavilon," was begun over 20 years ago. Only its first section, the "Opus Dei," composed of the poems following the offices of the day, has the sustained internal coherence necessary to approach the consistent outlook of Dream Songs, and those eight poems are on a much more modest scale. In this final book, Berryman has created no character of the engaging importance of Henry-Mr. Bones, the narrator-leader of Dream Songs. Instead, he has gathered a varied collection of poems.

THEIR OVERALL EFFECT is depressing. Not that they are not on occasion technically impressive. Berryman combined extraordinary erudition with a carefully cultivated colloquial voice to produce difficult poems rich in meaning. Sometimes the seams of the combination show: more often the result is a penetrating piece of work. But the remains obsessed with his personal misfortunes. He fails to give any specific idea of what their roots might be and concentrates on the possibility of refuge from his problems in an equally unspecific God. He manages to create a mood in time, but it has neither origins nor resolution. It is a mood of self-centered static despair. Taken in small doses, Berryman's despair is palatable, and the poems are individually very impressive for their not necessarily pleasant combination of craftsmanship and desperation.

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