A Troubled Generation

For many of the artists who dominated the world of poetry from the 1940s to the 1960s, tragedy was a prominent theme in their lives.

Although many of these writers witnessed the disintegration of their own lives, they often were able to exorcise their pain through their poetry.

According to Eileen Simpson, poet John Berryman's widow, the seeds of the poets' destruction were sown early in their childhood. For example, Berryman's crippling emotional problems were caused in part by his difficult relationship with his mother, she writes in her book Poets in Their Youth.

Simpson says that the late poet never stopped blaming his mother for having an affair with a wealthy man, which he believed helped cause his father's apparent suicide.

Perhaps because he thought his father killed himself, suicide always hung like a shadow over Berryman's life, Simpson writes. She recalls an incident after a drunken prenuptial party in New York when Berryman fought with his mother and then leapt onto the narrow railing of her apartment terrace many stories above the city streets.


According to Simpson, in the end it was poetry that kept her husband alive until 57,17 years older than the age at which his father died.

Berryman was not unique among the earlier poets in having a troubled childhood. Delmore Schwartz's relationship with his mother was also occasionally explosive, Simpson writes. And Robert Lowell hinted at the sadness of his childhood in his later confessional poems, one of which describes his fictional stay in a mental asylum where all the patients were from Harvard and all the monitors came from Boston University.

Simpson writes that the poets could not escape their pain, even after they had completed a substantial work. Berryman and Schwartz both experienced writer's block, and often the two would panic when their work had gotten a bad review, she writes.

For example, when Berryman had finally completed a book about Hart Crane on which he had worked for a long time, he enjoyed only "one or two" days of relaxation on Cape Cod with his wife before he began to worry about how the book would be reviewed.

Schwartz also experienced strong feelings of insecurity. Simpson writes that after Schwartz had entered a New York restaurant in a lively mood, he suddenly turned sullen because he felt vulnerable when he was not seated with his back to the wall.