An Author's Assemblage: Brief Notes and Notices

The accumulation of posts to this web page serves merely as an author’s assemblage of brief notes and notices: the collection of informal bits of information, quotations, and observations gathered as one way to display a personal reflection of perceptions on poetry, publication, and related selections of material drawn from my perspectives as a poet or professor of literature and creative writing.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Laurence Lieberman on John Berryman: "Our Shrewdest Clown"

“The daring imagination of John Berryman in Dream Songs, and to a lesser degree in the Sonnets, is constantly en route between the bizarre melodrama of a loser-in-love—with all that world’s particularity of detail—and the hallucinatory dream-world of his inner life. We keep traveling back and forth between these poles, and Berryman’s sensibility is so rich, his imagery so fresh and varied, he never repeats himself, even though he seems to be covering virtually the same ground again and again. The possibilities are endless, inexhaustible, always unpredictable. The circuit between dream and reality is a pliant, limber, ever-adaptable medium for expressing what may well be the most tantalizingly resourceful personality in contemporary literature. Many of the poems gravitate too near one pole or the other: those that are explicitly confessional, almost journalistic, tend to be outlandishly slapstick, corny, self-pitying, or indulgently freakish. Others sail away in dream-clouds of smoky obscurity. In fact, I find very few of the poems to be altogether successful. Nearly all are flawed in some lines; some are cluttered with glaring blemishes. So often, Berryman tries to mix irreconcilables: classical references, squibs in French or German, insolubly diverse metaphors . . . . When the technique fails, his phrasing suffers from redundancy, imprecision, word-thickness. When it succeeds—more often than not, surely—each element in the cluster of meanings seems like an irreducible fragment of the inner state of personality, and the successive words and phrases connect horizontally, if not vertically, in a chain which, though discontinuous at points, vibrates uniformly. The characteristic tone frequency of Berryman’s poetry is a superarticulate mental wail. The accumulative effect of the Dream Songs, as well as the Sonnets, is overwhelmingly powerful. One must read Berryman by the bookful. Then one is struck by the ceaselessly self-risking explorations of levels of pain and frustration in modern life, and, in addition, his marvelous capacity for laughing at himself whenever the poetry verges on studiously earnest self-torture. As in the art of Groucho Marx, the slapstick comedy veils a keen, self-piercing intelligence. Berryman is our shrewdest clown.” —From Laurence Liebermann’s Unassigned Frequencies: American Poetry in Review, 1964-1977 (University of Illinois Press, 1977)

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