An Education at The New Yorker
By JANET GROTH
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL
Copyright © 2012 Janet Groth
All right reserved.
Homage to Mr. Berryman
For a brief period in 1960 when he was in New York on academic vacation, the poet John Berryman was of the opinion that I would make him a good wife. He proposed this to me regularly. It seems he was, in the years between his second and third marriages, proposing to every halfway decent-looking woman he met. It was perhaps his way of acknowledging guilt at the failure of his previous marriages and an indication of his good intention to do better next time. Late in the sixties, at a women's group, he came up when the issue of male commitment arose—as an example of overcorrection. Among the seven women in the room, it turned out that he had proposed to three of us. And that was only in New York, in his spare time. The campuses where he taught in those bachelor years, 1959–61, were checkered with other potential Mrs. Berrymans. So it was perhaps not the mark of distinction it seemed in the moment.
John Berryman came into my life in 1956 as my teacher at the University of Minnesota. He was then a clean-shaven professor of humanities, teaching the classics from the Greeks to Shakespeare. Once exposed to his electrifying classroom technique, I took every class he offered. Then, once he'd begun to recognize me, after two or three semesters, I tagged along when he invited the best and the brightest of his students out for coffee and further discussion after class. Brilliant Jerry Downs was trained by the Jesuits, and troubled. I was bright enough to sit next to him, share notes—and Berryman. Jerry adored him, too, and when lucky enough to be asked, we would sit with him in some campus greasy spoon for an hour after class, or as long as Berryman's cigarettes held out. There, in a haze of smoke, Mr. Berryman, as we called him, held forth with ideas about everything from the text we were reading to his days at Clare College, Cambridge. He harbored nostalgic yearnings for those ivied halls, snowbound as he was in the wild terrain of northern Middle America.
A couple of years after my graduation, he reentered my life in his capacity as poet. On one of his visits to the office of Louise Bogan, the poetry editor of The New Yorker, he discovered me behind a desk on the editorial floor. Invitations to lunches and dinners ensued.
He had a personal triangle of stopping places when he was in Manhattan, from the Chelsea Hotel, to Chumley's on Bedford Street, to the White Horse on Hudson. My apartment was on Jane Street and so formed an insert in the baseline of his larger configuration. He would stop by, shouting his newest Henry poem, more pleased by it, more acute about its merits, chagrined about its weak lines, and acute about those, too, than any outside commentator could be.
His courting was full of high-flown compliments about the magnificence of my face, the golden flamingness of my hair, the metamorphosis of my body from its former student shape into what he perceived as its present womanly glories. But these remarks had a professorial, ex cathedra air about them. The real text of his conversation was more likely to be concerned with what he was writing, where he was reading his poems, how he was faring on one of his projects or another, or, with lapses into intimacy, something that his son—on a postdivorce visit—might have said to him as he watched his father shave. Berryman's talk was fast and compounded of so many diverse elements that ran into each other at such dizzying speed that I found it impossible to react. I felt vaguely stunned in his presence.
He never touched me except to draw his stretched-out second finger down the side of my face. I saw little of him, far too little to have justified his conviction that I would make him a good wife. There was only the occasional visit with a new poem and heavy compliments, or a telephoned summons to meet him at one of the points on his triangle, where there were sure to be others present. Youngsters, out on a date, hugged themselves and their beer mugs with delight at having stumbled on an evening with an authentic genius—eccentric, a poet, and in his cups.
So we made the rounds, or rather the angles, John dropping the great names of his famous friends, Cal and Saul and Delmore, and, when he was at the White Horse Tavern, of Dylan Thomas, another poet who drank more than was good for him. I sensed that he was both hurt and angry that he was not included in the ranks of those great and famous friends, had not achieved more, been recognized more. I knew, too, that he was hoping for the offer of a chair at Columbia—with what encouragement I am not sure, but he spoke of it as the hinge on which to swing our marriage. It did not seem to be forthcoming. I could not have married him anyway, for I was in love with somebody else. But it was clear that John was going through a bad time, and the time never seemed right for me to tell him that.
When I managed a diplomatic refusal, he went back to Minnesota. In the following year he married a young woman from Saint Paul called Kate. I became a person he looked up when he came into town from his many travels, to India and Dublin and elsewhere. Kate waited at home in Minnesota with a new baby and hopes of his recovery from alcoholism. He would call asking me to meet him somewhere, and I would arrive, only to discover that in the interim he had moved on. I might or might not go after him. If I did not, I would be treated to an early-hour rousting out of bed to find a weary cab driver supporting him on my doorstep. He had remembered, with sorrow, our broken date. I might get him to take a little coffee or tea as he sagged on my living room couch, smoking French cigarettes. He would not hear of sleep, not even when he was unfit for conversation. What helped was music. Certain Mozart quartets or any of the Brandenburgs commanded his reverent attention even when he could not speak.
The last time I saw John he was bearded and very famous indeed, having won a Pulitzer for 77 Dream Songs. He, drunk and shirtsleeved and rambling; his publisher, Robert Giroux, sober and correct and embarrassed; and I, also sober, also correct, also embarrassed, met, supposedly to lunch, at Giroux's apartment on the Upper East Side. John came to the door bearing a water tumbler of bourbon in his trembling hand. Beads of cold sweat stood out on his forehead. Bob Giroux and I bounced worried suggestions off him about food and doctors, rest and warm baths. He would not hear a word from either of us. His talk was difficult to follow but brilliant. Among other, more personal comments about how fine I was looking and what sort of terms he hoped to get for his next book, he delivered a tercentenary tribute to Jonathan Swift and told us about a visit he had paid when he was a student at Clare College to the aged and oh-so-awe-inspiring Yeats, at which, as John recalled it, he tried to one-up Yeats. Then he shouted a few poems at us. Then, out nearly cold on the sofa, he made heartrending reference to what he knew he was doing, couldn't seem to stop himself from doing, to his wife—whose temporary retreat to New England with their child he applauded as "awfully wise." This outburst was followed by the emotionless invocation, "Please, God, let me be dead soon." It seemed as if he might at least sleep.
But his stick-thin frame was shaken upright again by the ringing of the doorbell. Lunch arrived. He began again on the bourbon and cigarettes. Would not take hold of a morsel of bread, much less a bite of a sandwich. I could not conceive that he could give a public reading that night. Yet at 8:00 p.m., I sat in the third row at the Guggenheim, next to Jane Howard, who was to write about him for Life, amid several hundred New York literati, and saw him do it. He was shaky, but he was eloquent, and his weaving and slurred speech only seemed to add to the drama and interest of the occasion.
Then one day I opened the newspaper to discover a photo of the bearded Berryman. Like everyone else in the literary world, I was shocked to read that on January 7, 1972, John had left his home, walked to the bridge that crossed the Mississippi on the left side of the Minneapolis campus, and jumped. I imagined him briefly looking down at the river as a block of ice floated by, waving to a young couple kissing on the campus-side bank. Whether he performed either of those actions, he did jump a hundred feet to his death, a pocket of his overcoat yielding only one document, a blank check.
We who used to fill to capacity the auditoriums of the universities and museums in which he read met once more at the Donnell Library for a memorial service. Poet friends read, but John stole the show. His familiar voice—on tape—made what had been a solemn and bleak occasion rocket toward hysteria with its power to evoke in us a mixture of laughter and grief.
In the years after his death, as I heard a sardonic Frenchman put it, "the dissertation bells went off all over the country." I hated it when I heard the way he was being talked of by junior professors at Modern Language Association conventions and reedy-voiced sophomores in poetry coffeehouses—expounding on his death wish, lumping him together with three or four others who happened, like him, to be dead by their own hand.
I found that those who had known him wrote or told about it as if the frazzled, badly behaved neuroses were him. How unjust! To me his value lay neither in the titillating gossip of his riotous life nor in the private gratification of having been admired by him. It is not the poems he left behind, though the poems loom large. It is the poet sage.
Since I could not watch John make his poems, the next best thing was to watch him teach. As a poet-teacher he so invested his ego in his work that he was ego-free, a fleshless, selfless lover and sharer of enlightenment, pure spirit. This part of him is neither personal nor notorious nor recorded anywhere at all except in his poems and in the memories of his students, where he exists as the chief item in the little library of hours we've brought away from our lives in the university.
For those of us who took his humanities course, this meant fifty minutes a day, five days a week, for five trimester terms. The course, called something like Western Civ, covered everything from the Greeks and Romans to Flaubert. As he taught it, it became a remarkable monument to the life of the mind—or whatever real education had better be called, now that to call it education is to give it a bad name.
He came in a little late, but faithfully. They say now that he was often hung over, or on ambulatory leave from some local drying-out clinic or halfway house or mental ward. Perhaps the latter were only facets of the later years of his tenure. I recall his missing only one class in the one and a half years I attended the course. The occasion must have been more serious and predictable than a spate of illness; when he was merely ill, he came. On that one day, he had arranged for a substitute chosen to make up to us for his absence—and perhaps in the case of anybody else's absence, it would have done.
He sent us his friend Saul Bellow, a visiting professor from Chicago, a figure who should have delighted our glamour-loving selves. Yet the one who came in John's stead struck us as dull stuff, a burned-out case to the likes of us, who had been fed on real flames of a real spirit. The day passed. Back came our man, passing the light and culture of the past through the shining honeycomb of his passionate personality, informing it with life and intelligence. With him we entered once more into the world of sacrifice and ritual, of meaning and conflict and beauty. Existential truth emerged and took on life and breath before us.
The more I hear this man reduced to the wasteful contours of a faintly ridiculous fame as one of the "confessional poets," the more necessary it seems to proclaim his real worth as manifested in his classroom.
Excerpted from The Receptionist by JANET GROTH Copyright © 2012 by Janet Groth. Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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