Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir

Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir

by Eileen Simpson


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In 1942, Eileen Simpson—then Eileen Mulligan—married John Berryman. Both were in their twenties; Eileen had just graduated from Hunter College and John had but one slim volume of poetry to his name. They moved frequently—from New York to Boston, then Princeton—chasing jobs, living simply, relying on the hospitality of more successful friends like Robert Lowell and Jean Stafford, or R. P. Blackmur and his wife, Helen. Rounding out their circle of intimates were other struggling poets like Randall Jarrell and Delmore Schwartz. Berryman alternately wrote and despaired of writing. Everyone stayed up late arguing about poetry.

Poets in Their Youth is a portrait of their marriage, yes, but it is also a portrait of a group of spectacularly intelligent friends at a particular time, in a particular place, all aflame with literature. Simpson's recollections are so tender, her narrative so generous, it is almost possible to imagine the story has a different ending—even as Schwartz's marriage crumbles, as Lowell succumbs to a manic episode, as her own relationship with Berryman buckles under the strain of his drinking, his infidelity, his depression.

Filled with winning anecdotes and moments of startling poignancy, Simpson's now classic memoir shows some of the most brilliant literary minds of the second half of the twentieth century at their brightest and most achingly human.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374235598
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 10/21/2014
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 984,524
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Eileen Simpson (1918–2002) was a writer and psychologist. Her books include The Maze, a novel; Reversals: A Personal Account of Victory over Dyslexia; Orphans: Real and Imaginary; and Late Love: A Celebration of Marriage After Fifty.

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Poets in Their Youth

A Memoir

By Eileen Simpson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1990 Eileen Simpson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-23559-8



The links between the poets in the generation born around World War I were beginning to be forged by the time I met them in the early forties. On a Friday afternoon in February 1942, I was in Pennsylvania Station waiting for a train from Boston. John Berryman, with whom I had fallen in love the previous summer, was arriving with Delmore Schwartz for the weekend. During the nine months I had known John he had talked so much about his fellow poet and colleague at Harvard that I felt I knew him, too. With dazzling precocity Delmore had made his name following the publication in 1938 of In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, a collection of poems and stories. The critics who mattered most to both of them—Allen Tate, R. P. Blackmur, John Crowe Ransom, Mark Van Doren—had concurred in the opinion expressed by Tate that Delmore's poetic style was "the first real innovation we've had since Eliot and Pound." The title story, which had previously been published in Partisan Review, had been hailed as a masterpiece. At the age of twenty-six, Delmore was famous in the literary world.

John's career, by contrast, had barely begun. His first publication in book form had been in Five Young American Poets (1940), to which he had contributed twenty poems and, very reluctantly, a photograph. The man in the photograph looked absurdly unlike the one who had been brought to my New Year's Day party in 1941, the man who had kissed me under the mistletoe, saying with an impish grin, "One should respect custom, don't you agree?" Long and hard study of the face made me suspect that if I hoped to understand a character more complex than any I had previously known, I would have to make a composite of the man with the irresistible grin and the proud and introverted poet in the photograph.

The clock at the information booth in the station's great concourse seemed to have stopped. I tried to temper my eagerness and impatience by mingling with the throng of students arriving from Eastern colleges. Anticipation and excitement over the long weekend filled the wintry dusk that filtered down through the clerestory windows. From time to time I took out a pocket mirror and critically examined my new hat. Small, made of black velvet, it perched over one eye, and had a chin veil sprinkled with little dots. It was the height of fashion. Studying it critically, I decided that, yes, it had been worth a week of lean lunches. But would John find it becoming? If I understood his feelings correctly, there was no limit to how attractive I could be for him, although I must somehow arrange it so that I would not be attractive to other men. The veil was proving troublesome. My eyelashes kept catching in the little dots.

* * *

From January to June of the previous year I had heard from John only once, at the time he sent me a copy of his book. It wasn't until he came to New York at the end of the academic year on a brief visit to his mother that we met again. From then on we were inseparable until he returned to Harvard in the fall. After it became clear that he was going to stay on in the city that summer, he rented a "low dark long damp room" below ground on Lexington Avenue at Thirty-sixth Street, where he wrote, listened to music and, as he said afterward, plotted how to seduce me. At five o'clock, when I left the office where I was working on lower Broadway, we met in the Jumble Shop on Eighth Street for a drink. Or went to rundown, airless, steaming movie houses on the Lower East Side to see films like Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky. Or to the Apollo on Forty-second Street for any picture with Louis Jouvet or Jean-Louis Barrault.

Also we walked, walked miles of city streets from river to river, from the Battery to Inwood, during which John talked about poetry, the writing of which, he said, quoting Delmore, was "a vocation." It demanded, and should have, a poet's whole attention. ("Poem" and "poet" he pronounced with a caress, as if an umlaut hovered vaguely over the oe). He must be engaged in it with his whole being. But how could he, John, be so engaged when he had to earn a living? Delmore and he had been born at the wrong time and in the wrong country. "Pushkin could count on railway workers to know his poems. Think of it! Who reads poetry in America?"

Not I. I had bought the Faber editions of both Eliot's and Pound's Selected Poems, but I was ashamed to admit that I would not have been able to quote more than one or two of them had John asked me to. He never asked. He took it for granted that everyone he met, fellow poets excepted, needed to be educated to read verse. Crucial to our relationship was his discovery early on that while reading Keats and Byron and Shelley (though not Spenser, Milton or Wordsworth) in college, I had, in some woolly way, come to believe that poetry was the most powerful and mysterious form of writing. To be the "helpmate" (wasn't that the word we undergraduates used in the student cafeteria, talking of such things?) to a poet would be the most interesting and useful way for a woman to spend her life.

Perfect! The combination of near ignorance (no wrong-headed notions to be dislodged), eagerness to learn (from what better teacher?), an exalted view of his craft and the promise of devotion, suited John admirably in a companion. "Take a typical Harvard undergraduate from a good Eastern school," he'd say. "He hates Milton, is pious about Shakespeare, who actually bores him. Incredible! The fault of schoolmasters, of course. In Delmore's essay, 'The Isolation of Modern Poetry'—have I given you that issue of Kenyon? ..."

On nights when it was too hot to stir that torrid summer (my first spent in the city working, instead of at the beach on Long Island) we sat at the Brevoort Café on lower Fifth Avenue, where the waiter permitted us to dawdle over a glass of ale until closing time.

If John had spent the day "obsessed" with thoughts about me, instead of working—if I didn't declare unconditional love for him, and soon, he was going to lose his mind—he would talk about how old he was, and how little he had accomplished. Twenty-six and all he had to his name was a fifth of a book. Still, he didn't envy Delmore his fame. One didn't want success to come too early, or too generously. Precocity was an enemy of promise. "I must find you a copy of Cyril Connolly's book tomorrow." In Enemies of Promise, Connolly says that fame sets up expectations in critics, and in writers, which restrict a writer's freedom to experiment, to fail, to fall silent. The ideal is to keep almost completely but not entirely underground ("No harm in a little encouragement," John said wryly) until one is sufficiently formed and strong enough to be unaffected by either success or, since success can't be constant if one is developing, failure. "Yeats's way was the ideal way. A long slow development, the work getting better, the character stronger, until the late great poems and world fame. That's what Delmore would have wished for himself."

"Not, mind you," John added with amusement, "that Delmore hasn't schemed for success, even to the point of stage-managing the prepublication promotion of In Dreams." He had told James Laughlin of New Directions what senior poets to solicit for quotes, and had seen to it that the book got into the hands of the right people for review. After publication he suffered not only from the predictable post-partum depression, but also from terrible apprehension about his literary future: Was this the summit of his career? From now on would it be a downhill slide? The gnawing anxiety exacerbated his insomnia. "Insomnia Valley" is what Delmore called Cambridge when he and John commiserated with each other about their white nights.

John was a night owl. If I had not had to be at work at 8:30 in the morning, he would have resisted taking me home even at 2:00 or 3:00 A.M. There was so much to talk about, so much we had to learn about each other. What he had to say about poetry, about books, about films, about his youth, his family, his years abroad, his hopes, his dreams, about us—especially about our deepening love for each other—made it difficult to separate at my doorstep. Only the memory of what it would feel like, mid-morning, as my head nodded over the typewriter after three or four hours sleep, helped me to resist yet another walk and another talk before going in.

After he left me at the brownstone on Twelfth Street where I had a room, John often sat up until dawn in an all-night cafeteria and wrote. One night, on his way home to Lexington Avenue, he cut across Union Square and stopped by a cluster of men to listen to a dispute. Before he knew what was happening, he was caught up in an argument about the entrance of the United States into the war. When he tried to inject reason into the "savage" argument, the ringleader told him to shut up, and called him a Jew. John's objection that he wasn't a Jew but a Catholic enraged the leader, who shouted at him, "You look like a Jew, you talk like a Jew, you are a Jew," and challenged John to disprove the charges by reciting the Apostles' Creed. Partly because by now John, too, was angry, partly because he hadn't said the Creed in years, he could recall from his days as an altar boy only phrases of the Latin—proof, the leader told the crowd, that John was a Jew. The crowd, which was convinced by the leader's reasoning and thought there was nothing further to be said, lost interest and drifted off to join other groups.

John walked the streets until morning and, still overwrought, telephoned and asked me to meet him for breakfast. He hoped that by recounting the events of the night he would understand what had happened, what it meant to him. Later that day he began writing a poem called "Union Square," worked on it for a week or so and then put it aside. I had become so involved in what he was doing that I was disappointed when he abandoned it. "Abandoned" was too strong a word, he said. If I wanted to be helpful to him, I must learn not only to follow him in his enthusiasms, but also to let go of them when he did. It was as important as not pressing him to write for money. He was happy to discover that, unlike his mother, I seemed to have no temptation to do this. If a subject were worth going on with—many were not—it would surface again in months or even years. (This lesson in how to be a "writer's ear" I didn't learn at once. I had all but forgotten about the night in Union Square when, years later, John began reworking the material in fictional form. Four years after the episode took place, his story "The Imaginary Jew" appeared in Partisan Review [Autumn 1945].)

The arrival of the train from Boston was being announced. I hurried to the gate to meet the real and the imaginary Jew, stationing myself where I could see the passengers getting off: soldiers and sailors, businessmen with briefcases, Boston matrons, Harvard students with green book bags over their shoulders. And there they were! Far up the platform I could see the poets, talking animatedly. Delmore was taller than John, over six feet, heavier, and looked barrel-chested in his carelessly belted overcoat. He walked with a little running step, giving the impression that his legs were shorter and less well-developed than the rest of his body.

John strode by Delmore's side (that it was not easy to keep up with these giant steps I well knew). His broad-shouldered, slim, narrow-waisted build made him look the more athletic of the two, yet I knew that Delmore had beaten him at tennis. John looked younger, now that he was no longer wearing his book-photograph mustache. I much preferred the hollow-cheeked, ascetic appearance of his clean-shaven face, but I knew better than to tell him so, for I suspected that the mustache, and an earlier beard he'd once grown in England, had been attempts to make himself look older.

As John spotted me in the crowd and quickened his pace, I lost my nerve and took off the veil. Delmore would be looking me over. "He's madly curious about you, of course," John had said, and I didn't want Delmore to think I was frivolous. Frivolity wouldn't have troubled him seriously, it turned out. (Would he even have noticed?) He was going to look me over with another concern in mind.

A shy-sly-smiling Delmore approached to shake my hand. He looked amused, and a little embarrassed, that John and I had embraced openly. His voice was soft as he said how much he had heard about me, how pleased he was that John was finally permitting us to meet.

"John is very secretive. He keeps your visits to Boston dark until they're over."

Word had got out in the small, gossipy literary world of Cambridge that John had been seen that summer (during the week we had spent there so that he could pick up some books and papers) walking through Harvard Yard with a young woman. He had also been spied having breakfast with her in Fiske's. Breakfast! Was she a Radcliffe undergraduate? The English girl he had become engaged to while he was abroad? Delmore, up in Maine on vacation, received intelligence reports by letter, and on his return had been eager to know more.

During term time I had been up to visit John almost every month, but when I was there we had seen no one. The occasion of the two men taking the train together to New York made for an easy meeting, with a plan for the three of us to have a drink together.

On Seventh Avenue we looked for a taxi. John led the way, jaywalking, skillfully dodging cars, Delmore shouting at him to be careful. Delmore grabbed my arm in mock-serious need for protection against the onrushing traffic. Once in the taxi he collapsed against the back of the seat and said with relief, "Oh, my castration anxiety!" at which we all laughed.

Without a trace of the shyness I thought I had seen at first, he continued in a bantering manner to play the role with John of a worldly-wise advisor to a naïf who didn't know how to look after himself. Sancho Panza and Don Quixote was the way they characterized this part of their relationship. John jaywalking, John being undiplomatic with his publisher, John being stand-offish with his colleagues, John moving from Cambridge to Boston (as he had done following our summer together in New York). This last had isolated him from the academic community, Delmore said to me, and had been bad for his career.

"It's not good for John to be so much alone. He's a recluse, you know."

For some time I hadn't known. Having heard about John for years from my closest friend in college, Jean Bennett (to whom he had been engaged before going to England), as an undergraduate who, as he later put it, "rowed and danced and cut classes and was political," I continued to think of him in this way for some time, although Jean had also told me that he had returned from his two years abroad greatly changed. He had arrived at Harvard following a year of teaching English at Wayne University in Detroit, where he had left behind another poet and colleague, Bhain Campbell, to whom he was devoted. At this time Bhain was:

    yellow with cancer, paper-thin and bent
    even in the hospital bed
    racked with high hopes ...

hopes which no one shared, for testicular cancer was killing him. Grieving for the loss he knew he would suffer within months, John had plunged into teaching and the drudgery of correcting papers. As a bachelor he hadn't been automatically included in the social life of the Harvard English department, and was too low-spirited to take the initiative with his colleagues.

That apart from Delmore John "saw no one," as he more than once told me during the summer, I hadn't taken in until mid-August when we went up to Cambridge together. Appian Way, where he then lived, not far from Harvard Square, was little more than a paved lane, with a Radcliffe building on one side, and three or four white frame houses on the other. Number 10, large and handsome, had an ell to which had been added, long after the original structure was built, a dependency so fragile-looking, so amateurishly put together that it was hard to guess whether it had been intended as an oversized playhouse for children or undersized quarters for servants. By the time John went to live there, it had been rented out for some years, usually to a member of the academic community, and had a number of its own, 101/2.

The address—the juxtaposition of the name of the imperial Roman road with the fraction—was the best thing about the house, John said, for it was dark, damp, draughty, cramped and, as the previous winter had shown, unheatable.

"The living room, as you will see," he said, turning the key in the lock and butting the ill-fitting door with his shoulder, "is like the cabinet of Dr. Caligari."


Excerpted from Poets in Their Youth by Eileen Simpson. Copyright © 1990 Eileen Simpson. 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.
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Table of Contents

Preface to the 1990 Edition xi

I John and Delmore 3

II Boston and Cambridge 22

III Jobless in New York 51

IV Princeton and the Blackmurs 71

V Lear and Randall 96

VI Damariscotta Mills: Jean and Cal 115

VII Analysands All 147

VIII "The Colour of this Soul" 174

IX Mistress Bradstreet 203

X Afterward 231

References 257

Acknowledgments 263

Index 265

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