Berryman's Sonnets

Berryman's Sonnets

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A brilliant and fiercely pitched sonnet cycle about love: at once passionate, forbidden, and doomed

John Berryman was an unconventional poet, but he must have surprised even himself when, in his thirties, he found he was suddenly compelled to write sonnets. It was an unusual choice—even an unpopular one—for a poet in a midcentury American literary scene that was less interested in forms. But it was the right choice, for Berryman found himself in a situation that called for the sonnet: after several years of a happy marriage, he had fallen helplessly, hopelessly in love with the young wife of a colleague.
"Passion sought; passion requited; passion delayed; and, finally, passion utterly thwarted": this is how the poet April Bernard, in her vivid, intimate introduction, characterizes the sonnet cycle, and it is the cycle that Berryman found himself caught up in. Of course the affair was doomed to end, and end badly. But in the meantime, on the page Berryman performs a spectacular dance of tender, obsessive, impossible love in his "characteristic tonal mixture of bravado and lacerating shame-facedness." Here is the poet as lover, genius, and also, in Bernard's words, as nutcase.
In Berryman's Sonnets, the poet draws on the models of Petrarch and Sidney to reanimate and reimagine the love-sonnet sequence. Complex, passionate, filled with verbal fireworks and the emotional strains of joy, terror, guilt, and longing, these poems are ripe for rediscovery by contemporary readers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466879621
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 10/21/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 144
File size: 275 KB

About the Author

John Berryman (1914–1972) was an American poet and scholar. He won the Pulitzer Prize for 77 Dream Songs in 1965 and the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize for His Toy, His Dream, His Rest in 1969. April Bernard is a poet, novelist, and essayist. She is the author, most recently, of the collection of poems Romanticism and of a historical novel about Margaret Fuller, Miss Fuller. At Skidmore College she teaches literature and writing, and she is also on the faculty of the Bennington MFA Writing Seminars.
John Berryman (1914-1972) was an American poet and scholar. He won the Pulitzer Prize for 77 Dream Songs in 1965 and the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize for His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, a continuation of the Dream Songs, in 1969.
Daniel Swift teaches at the New College of the Humanities in London. His first book, Bomber County, was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Guardian First Book award, and his essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the New Statesman, and Harper’s.

Read an Excerpt

Berryman's Sonnets

By John Berryman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2014 April Bernard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7962-1


    [ 1 ]

    I wished, all the mild days of middle March
    This special year, your blond good-nature might
    (Lady) admit — kicking abruptly tight
    With will and affection down your breast like starch —
    Me to your story, in Spring, and stretch, and arch.
    But who not flanks the wells of uncanny light
    Sudden in bright sand towering? A bone sunned white.
    Considering travellers bypass these and parch.

    This came to less yes than an ice cream cone
    Let stand .. though still my sense of it is brisk:
    Blond silky cream, sweet cold, aches: a door shut.
    Errors of order! Luck lies with the bone,
    Who rushed (and rests) to meet your small mouth, risk
    Your teeth irregular and passionate.

    [ 2 ]

    Your shining — where? — rays my wide room with gold;
    Grey rooms all day, green streets I visited,
    Blazed with you possible; other voices bred
    Yours in my quick ear; when the rain was cold
    Shiver it might make shoulders I behold
    Sloping through kite-slipt hours, tingling. I said
    A month since, 'I will see that cloud-gold head,
    Those eyes lighten, and go by': then your thunder rolled.

    Drowned all sound else, I come driven to learn
    Fearful and happy, deafening rumours of
    The complete conversations of the angels, now
    As nude upon some warm lawn softly turn
    Toward me the silences of your breasts .. My vow! ..
    One knee unnerves the voyeur sky enough.

    [ 3 ]

    Who for those ages ever without some blood
    Plumped for a rose and plucked it through its fence? ..
    Till the canny florist, amorist of cents,
    Unpawned the peppery apple, making it good
    With boredom, back to its branch, as it seems he could, —
    Vending the thornless rose. We think our rents
    Paid, and we nod. O but ghosts crowd, dense,
    Down in the dark shop bare stems with their Should

    Not! Should Not sleepwalks where no clocks agree!
    So I was not surprised, though I trembled, when
    This morning groping your hand moaning your name
    I heard distinctly drip .. somewhere .. and see
    Coiled in our joys flicker a tongue again,
    The fall of your hair a cascade of white flame.

    [ 4 ]

    Ah when you drift hover before you kiss
    More my mouth yours now, lips grow more to mine
    Teeth click, suddenly your tongue like a mulled wine
    Slides fire, — I wonder what the point of life is.
    Do, down this night when I adore you, Lise,
    So I forsake the blest assistant shine
    Of deep-laid maps I made for summits, swine-
    enchanted lover, loafing in the abyss?

    Loaf hardly, while my nerves dance, while the gale
    Moans like your hair down here. But I lie still,
    Strengthless and smiling under a maenad rule.
    Whose limbs worked once, whose imagination's grail
    Many or some would nourish, must now I fill
    My strength with desire, my cup with your tongue,
    no more Melpomene's, but Erato's fool? ..

    [ 5 ]

    The poet hunched, so, whom the worlds admire,
    Rising as I came in; greeted me mildly,
    Folded again, and our discourse was easy,
    While he hid in his skin taut as a wire,
    Considerate as grace, a candid pyre
    Flaring some midday shore; he took more tea,
    I lit his cigarette .. once I lit Yeats' as he
    Muttered before an Athenaeum fire
    The day Dylan had tried to slow me drunk
    Down to the great man's club. But you laught just now
    Letting me out, you bubbled 'Liar' and
    Laught .. Well, but thén my breast was empty, monk
    Of Yeatsian order: yesterday (truth now)
    Flooding blurred Eliot's words sometimes,
      face not your face, hair not you blonde but iron.

    [ 6 ]

    Rackman and victim grind: sounds all these weeks
    Of seconds and hours and days not once are dumb,
    And has your footfall really not come
    Still? O interminable strength that leaks
    All day away alert .. I am who seeks
    As tautly now, whom the vague creakings strum
    Jangled this instant, as when the monstrous hum
    Your note began! — since when old silence spéaks.

    Deep down this building do I sometimes hear
    Below the sighs and flex of the travelling world
    Pyromaniacal whispers? .. Not to be
    They say would do us good .. easy .. the mere
    Lick and a promise of a sweet flame curled
    Fast on its wooden love: silence our plea.

    [ 7 ]

    I've found out why, that day, that suicide
    From the Empire State falling on someone's car
    Troubled you so; and why we quarrelled. War,
    Illness, an accident, I can see (you cried)
    But not this: what a bastard, not spring wide! ..
    I said a man, life in his teeth, could care
    Not much just whom he spat it on .. and far
    Beyond my laugh we argued either side.

    'One has a right not to be fallen on! ..'
    (Our second meeting .. yellow you were wearing.)
    Voices of our resistance and desire!
    Did I divine then I must shortly run
    Crazy with need to fall on you, despairing?
    Did you bolt so, before it caught, our fire?

    [ 8 ]

    College of flunkeys, and a few gentlemen,
    Of whippersnappers and certain serious boys,
    Who better discriminates than I your noise
    From the lemon song and black light assertion
    Of the academies of eternity? .. Your fen —
    Yet it's your fen yields this perfume I poise
    Full against Helen, and Isotta: toys
    To time's late action in this girl. Again
    As first when I sat down amongst your trees
    I respect you and am moved by you! Hér you
    Taught not, nor could, but comrades of hers you have,
    She sleeps, she rouses, near you, near she frees
    Each morning her strange eyes, eyes that grey blue
    Not blue .. for your incurable sins some salve.

    [ 9 ]

    Great citadels whereon the gold sun falls
    Miss you O Lise sequestered to the West
    Which wears you Mayday lily at its breast,
    Part and not part, proper to balls and brawls,
    Plains, cities, or the yellow shore, not false
    Anywhere, free, native and Danishest
    Profane and elegant flower, — whom suggest
    Frail and not frail, blond rocks and madrigals.

    Once in the car (cave of our radical love)
    Your darker hair I saw than golden hair
    Above your thighs whiter than white-gold hair,
    And where the dashboard lit faintly your least
    Enlarged scene, O the midnight bloomed .. the East
    Less gorgeous, wearing you like a long white glove!

    [ 10 ]

    You in your stone home where the sycamore
    More than I see you sees you, where luck's grass
    Smoothes your bare feet more often, even your glass
    Touches your hand and tips to your lips to pour
    Whatever is in it into you, through which door
    O moving softness do you just now pass —
    Your slippers' prows curled, red and old — alas
    With what soft thought for me, at sea, and sore?

    Stone of our situation, iron and stone,
    Younger as days to years than the house, yet might
    Wé stare as little haggard with time's roil ..
    Who in each other's arms have lain — lie — one
    Bite like an animal, both do, pause, and bite,
    Shudder with joy, kiss .. the broad waters boil!

    [ 11 ]

    I expect you from the North. The path winds in
    Between the honeysuckle and the pines, among
    Poison ivy and small flowerless shrubs,
    Across the red-brown needle-bed. I sit
    Or smoking pace. A moment since, at six,
    Mist wrapped the knoll, but now birds like a gong
    Beat, greet the white-gold level shine. Wide-flung
    On a thousand greens the late slight rain is gleaming.

    A rabbit jumps a shrub. O my quick darling,
    Lie torpid so? Cars from the highway whine,
    Dawn's trunks against the sun are black. I shiver.
    Your hair this fresh wind would — but I am starting.
    To what end does this easy and crystal light
    Dream on the flat leaves, emerald, and shimmer? ..

    [ 12 ]

    Mutinous armed & suicidal grind
    Fears on desires, a clutter humps a track,
    The body of expectation hangs down slack
    Untidy black; my love sweats like a rind;
    Parrots are yattering up the cagy mind,
    Jerking their circles .. you stood, a week back,
    By, I saw your foot with half my eye, I lack
    You .. the damned female's yellow head swings blind.

    Cageless they'd grapple. O where, whose Martini
    Grows sweeter with my torment, wrung on toward
    The insomnia of eternity, loud graves!
    Hölderlin on his tower sang like the sea
    More you adored that day than your harpsichord,
    Troubled and drumming, tempting and empty waves.

    [ 13 ]

    I lift — lift you five States away your glass,
    Wide of this bar you never graced, where none
    Ever I know came, where what work is done
    Even by these men I know not, where a brass
    Police-car sign peers in, wet strange cars pass,
    Soiled hangs the rag of day out over this town,
    A juke-box brains air where I drink alone,
    The spruce barkeep sports a toupee alas —

    My glass I lift at six o'clock, my darling,
    As you plotted .. Chinese couples shift in bed,
    We shared today not even filthy weather,
    Beasts in the hills their tigerish love are snarling,
    Suddenly they clash, I blow my short ash red,
    Grey eyes light! and we have our drink together.

    [ 14 ]

    Moths white as ghosts among these hundreds cling
    Small in the porchlight .. I am one of yours,
    Doomed to a German song's stale metaphors,
    The breasty thimble-rigger hums my wring.

    I am your ghost, this pale ridiculous thing
    Walks while you slump asleep; ouija than morse
    Reaches me better; wide on Denmark's moors
    I loiter, and when you slide your eyes I swing.

    The billiard ball slammed in the kibitzer's mouth
    Doctor nor dentist could relieve him of,
    Injecting, chipping .. too he clampt it harder ..

    Squalor and leech of curiosity's truth
    Fork me this diamond meal to gag on love,
    Grinning with passion, your astonished martyr.

    [ 15 ]

    What was Ashore, then? .. Cargoed with Forget,
    My ship runs down a midnight winter storm
    Between whirlpool and rock, and my white love's form
    Gleams at the wheel, her hair streams. When we met
    Seaward, Thought frank & guilty to each oar set
    Hands careless of port as of the waters' harm.
    Endless a wet wind wears my sail, dark swarm
    Endless of sighs and veering hopes, love's fret.

    Rain of tears, real, mist of imagined scorn,
    No rest accords the fraying shrouds, all thwart
    Already with mistakes, foresight so short.
    Muffled in capes of waves my clear sighs, torn,
    Hitherto most clear, — Loyalty and Art.
    And I begin now to despair of port.


    [ 16 ]

    Thrice, or I moved to sack, I saw you: how
    Without siege laid I can as simply tell
    As whether below the dreams of Astrophel
    Lurks local truth some scholars would allow
    And others will deny in ours! O now
    The punishing girl met after Toynbee's bell
    Tolled for us all I see too bloody well
    To say why then I cheapened a blind bow.

    Paid at the shore eyes, ears, a shaking hand,
    A pull of blood; behind you coming back,
    Already holding, began to be borne away ..
    Held. After Mozart, saw you bend and stand
    Beside my seat .. held. I recovered.. . Rack
    The consumer! I rushed out Rockwell Street one day.

    [ 17 ]

    The Old Boys' blazers like a Mardi-Gras
    Burn orange, border black, their dominoes
    Stagger the green day down the tulip rows
    Of the holiday town. Ever I passioned, ah
    Ten years, to go where by her golden bra
    Some sultry girl is caught, to dip my nose
    Or dance where jorums clash and King Rex' hose
    Slip as he rules the tantrum's orchestra,
    Liriodendron, and the Mystick Krewe!
    Those images of Mardi-Gras' sweet weather
    Beckoned — but how has their invitation ceased?
    .. The bells brawl, calling (I cannot find you
    With me there) back us who were not together.
    Our forward Lent set in before our feast.

    [ 18 ]

    You, Lise, contrite I never thought to see,
    Whom nothing fazes, no crise can disconcert,
    Who calm cross crises all year, flouting, alert,
    A reckless lady, in whom alone agree
    Of bristling states your war and peace; only
    Your knuckle broke with smashing objects, curt
    Classic dislike, your flowing love, expert
    Flat stillness on hot sand, display you wholly.

    .. And can you do what you are sorry for? ..
    'I'll pin you down and put a biscuit on you'
    Your childhood hissed: you didn't: just this side
    Idolatry, I cannot see you sor-
    ry, darling, no! what other women do
    And lie or weep for, flash in your white stride.

    [ 19 ]

    You sailed in sky-high, with your speech askew
    But marvellous, and talked like mad for hours,
    Slamming and blessing; you transported us,
    I'd never heard you talk so, and I knew —
    Humbler and more proud — you each time undo
    My kitcat but to cram it with these powers
    You bare and bury; suddenly, late then, as
    Your best 'burnt offering' took me back with you.

    No jest but jostles truth! .. I burn .. am 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.


Excerpted from Berryman's Sonnets by John Berryman. Copyright © 2014 April Bernard. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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