Sunday, April 24, 2011

John Berryman / University of Illinois/ Laurence Lieberman

In the middle of the winter of 1969, shortly following the announcement of the awarding of the National Book Award in poetry to John Berryman's volume His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, the University of Illinois invited Mr. Berryman to visit the campus for a few days and present a couple of readings from his work. The letter of invitation was sent some months before the suggested date for the readings, but we received no reply from Mr. Berryman. Finally, a couple of weeks before the date scheduled for his arrival, we phoned the poet, and he warmly agreed to be our guest. Apparently, he had misplaced our letter and then had forgotten about the matter, thinking he had already replied in the affirmative.

I had for many years been an ardent devotee of the poet's work, and since I was to act as his host at the university, I looked forward to our first meeting with great enthusiasm. I strongly advised Mr. Berryman to plan to arrive a day or two before his first reading, because bad weather in mid- winter between Minnesota and Illinois often interrupts jet traffic. But he arranged to reach Urbana just a few hours before the reading. There was some snowfall on the day of his arrival, not heavy enough to ground the planes but sufficient hazard to delay his shorter flight--the notoriously unreliable Ozark shuttle plane-- between Chicago and Urbana. I drove to the airport to meet the late Ozark plane, and when Mr. Berryman failed to appear among the deboarding passengers, I panicked, since his first scheduled performance was just hours away. I phoned his home in Minneapolis, and his young daughter assured me that he had flown by jet to Chicago. Then began the marathon wait.

Mr. Berryman's first performance was scheduled for 8:00 P.M. and by 7:30 P.M., most of the audience of several hundred had already assembled in the lecture hall. I hurriedly composed a speech of apology, but just before I reached the speaker's podium to send the audience home, I was called to the phone. Mr. Berryman was calling from a public phone booth at some point along the highway between Chicago and Urbana--he wasn't sure of the distance--and his first words to me were, "Lieberman, hold the audience!" He sounded in very high gay spirits, saying he had found a cabdriver at O'Hare Airport in Chicago, a lovely, talkative man, who had agreed to taxi him 140 miles to Urbana for a reasonable price. He expected to be about one hour late, and I should kindly ask the audience to wait. Nearly everyone in the crowded auditorium was happy to wait. I delighted to imagine the dialogue between Mr. Berryman and his cabdriver, which I assured the audience jokingly must resemble the wonderful repartee between Henry, the autobiographical persona of Berryman's famous Dream Songs, and his friend and counterpart who refers to Henry in the poems as Mr. Bones. A student carrying a guitar mounted the stage and began to play folk songs; then a number of other students followed the first, and all spontaneously began to sing--so the time passed quickly and happily for all.

Shortly after 9:00 P.M., some of the audience became fidgety, and a slow stream of those who had lost patience and were tired of waiting began to trickle out of the lecture hall. At 9:15, the phone rang again. Mr. Berryman, his voice now at fever pitch, repeated "Hold the audience!" In the background, I could make out a jukebox and jangled voices: Clearly, Mr. Berryman was phoning me from a bar, and no doubt he would be treating his chauffeur to "a couple for the road." At 10:00, when the phone rang for the third time, half of the audience had left. Mr. Berryman was calling at last from the registration desk of the Illinois Union, his place of lodging for the night. He had arrived safely, paid his cabdriver, and wished to rest for a short while in his room to get ready for his performance. I elatedly reported the news to the audience, and we all moved from the auditorium to a very spacious private home. We settled in for a late meeting with our poet, in which we anticipated the intimacy of a small, informal--if crowded--gathering would compensate for the long delay.

At 11:00 P.M., I met Mr. Berryman at his room, as agreed earlier, and he rose to greet me, while covertly replacing a whiskey flask in his satchel. He was shaking from head to foot, and I distinctly remember him saying as we shook hands, "There's nothing wrong with me that a completely new nervous system wouldn't fix." (I'm reminded of those words by a line in one of the poems in Love and Fame, "When all hurt nerves whine shut away the whiskey." When we arrived at the large home at which the remains of the audience were gathered, Mr. Berryman was quickly accosted by a somewhat deranged young ex-GI poet. I was amazed at Mr. Berryman's extreme kindness toward this ill-mannered fellow; he exercised infinite patience toward a man who was obviously very unbalanced mentally and perhaps dangerous. Mr. Berryman's astonishing compassion for troubled young people was unmistakably demonstrated by this incident. I can hear his words of sympathy for this young man echoed in the many poems in Love and Fame dealing with agonized patients of the psychiatric ward in which Mr. Berryman apparently was a patient for a short while.

Another revealing exchange preceding the performance was Mr. Berryman's meeting with John Shahn, the son of the famous artist Ben Shahn, a dear friend of the poet's who produced the superb drawings for the first edition of Mr. Berryman's book Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. Ben Shahn had recently died, and his son, John, was the first to give Mr. Berryman the terrible news. Mr. Berryman's instant outpouring of grief for his friend gave me a firsthand glimpse into the poet's great talent for friendship, a major theme of so many of his best poems-laments over the deaths of his friends. In the course of his reading, he interrupted the actual flow of his poems often to comment on friends living or dead, and I particularly remember that he frequently sang the praises of Robert Lowell. He tried to convince the audience that Lowell deserved the Nobel Prize in literature, and evidently he felt there was a good chance that Lowell would win the award later that year.

The performance itself was surely one of the most electric and memorable poetry readings I have ever attended. Mr. Berryman felt a great affection for his audience, so many of whom were seated in ardent adulation at his feet in the large front-room parlor, and he easily established a communion with a couple of the prettier girls in the front rows. He often seemed to address the lines of his poems, as well as the wonderful flow of anecdotes and reminiscences between poems, directly to those individual faces. And this quality of personal involvement and exchange gave more life to the experience for us all.

In the next few days, during which I was honored to act as Mr. Berryman's host, he often exhibited the same instant surging of warmth and affection for attractive females, including my younger daughter Deborah, who was seven years old at the time and probably reminded him of his own daughter of about the same age. Contrary to the legend of Mr. Berryman as an impetuous seducer of women, his expressions of affection for females of all ages took the form of a spiritual, loving kindness. As I think back to his genuine fondness for every lovely young lady he met while in my company, the memory gives a special ring to my ear as I read the following lines from perhaps the loveliest and most moving of the Eleven Addresses to the Lord.

Sole watchman of the flying stars, guard me
against my flicker of impulse lust: teach me
to see them as sisters & daughters. Sustain
my grand endeavours: husbandship & crafting.
Forsake me not when my wild hours come ...

This memoir first appeared in Eigo Seinen [The Rising Generation] (May 1972)
from Beyond the Muse of Memory: Essays on Contemporary American Poets, Laurence Lieberman, University of Missouri Press, 1995 -reprinted with author's permission.
return to Writer's Friendships

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Jack Foley on James Broughton

From The Potted Psalm in 1946 to Erogeny in 1976 I could not have created anything without sharing love with my collaborators. This is a weakness I take delight in. “Relations are real, not substances,” said the Buddha. And the more intense the love, the livelier the work.
—James Broughton

I would like to profile Joel, Stephen (who is working on a bio) and Jack in relation to your projects and your lives with James and since his death.
—Franklin Abbott


I was interviewing Michael Lerner, a politically active rabbi, on my [KPFA-FM] radio show. When I asked him about death, he answered, “Death?” His answer made me think of my dear friend James Broughton (1913-1999).

James—not easy to write about. Where to begin? There are so many incidents, so many feelings. Scarcely a day passes when I don’t have some kind of thought of him. His image, his poems are on the walls of my house—more are in my memory. Dear James, a lovely, deeply funny, deeply deep man:

I am

a center of gravity
a thermal spring
a magnetic field
a mercurial planet

We met in the mid 80s, probably 1985. I was running a poetry series at Larry Blake’s restaurant on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. The series was quite successful and featured a very wide range of poets. One of these was Robert Peters—in full drag as Elizabeth Bathory, his “blood countess.” Peters asked me whether I’d like to be introduced to James Broughton. I said, “Sure,” though I was only vaguely aware of his work. I had heard of his films and had read the excellent early poems published in Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry. I also knew that he was a gay man—but I don’t think I knew much more than that. Wonders awaited. James read for my [radio] series many times—including one memorable occasion when the series day fell on November 10, 1987, James’s 74th birthday.

My first experience of him was a lunch: he invited me over for one of those incredibly delicious gourmet feasts regularly prepared by his lover, Joel Singer. Though at that time I was a very little-known poet—and straight!—both men made me feel not only at ease but extremely comfortable in their presence. James spoke to me as if I were an old friend. One of the interesting things about him was the fact that, though he was a deep and lifelong believer in “love,” he was never sentimental or treacly. His wit and intellect cut through the false faces of love and went directly to its deep heart. By this time I had read—and adored—his Androgyne Journal. I knew he was in some ways a “Jungian.” I remarked to James, “I like Jung but the problem with Jungians is that they often seem to skip over the body in their zeal to arrive at the archetypal.”

James smiled and answered with his ironic drawl, “Tell me about it.” Then James and Joel set me in a little room with a film projector in it. They started Testament (1974) and left me to see it. I emerged starry-eyed. I had seen something stunningly beautiful and incredibly rich. What a movie! At once personal—even self-deprecatory—and magical, alive with transformation. I loved film and had published articles about it, but this was the vita nuova. James wrote of Testament,

I spun what I thought would be my final film: a self-portrait bouncing me from my babyhood to my imagined death. To summarize the quest for erotic transcendence that animated all my cinema I mixed film clips, still photos and staged scenes. I was assisted at the camera by an ingratiating redhead named H. Edgar Jenkins… At the film’s beginning I am seen rocking in a chair by the Pacific Ocean, questioning my life:

I asked the Sea how deep things are.

O, said She, that depends upon
how far you want to go.

I mentioned to him once that the word “testament” was connected by etymology to the word “testicle.” “Is it!” he said.

Over the years I knew James, I wrote many articles about him and interviewed him often. He was a regular guest on my KPFA radio show. I loved his work and was very pleased to discover that he enjoyed mine. One of the features of my poetry readings is the presentation of choral pieces read by my wife Adelle and me. James—unlike some of my other friends—immediately understood the significance of these pieces and dubbed them “androgynous,” a very important word in his cosmos. I introduced James at many of his events. For one I wrote something particularly special. James knew that Adelle and I had been singing a slightly parodic version of the old waltz, “Sweet Rosie O’Grady.” Adelle ended the song with a little tap dance—a bit of waltz clog. James asked me to rewrite the words of the song to introduce him on the stage of the Castro Theater in San Francisco. I tried to catch a bit of the feeling of Cole Porter—whom we both admired:


Sweet Jamie O’Broughton
Our bountiful James
It’s he that we’re toutin’
He’s water and flames
We’ll go to his movies
(We’re taking the bus!)
We love sweet Jamie O’Broughton
And Jamie O’Broughton loves…(worried) somebody else?
(emphatic) No!
Jamie O’Broughton loves us!

Adelle did her tap dance and James came onto the stage to thunderous applause!

On June 28, 1990, Adelle and I read at Cody’s Books in Berkeley with James. We decided to imitate each other’s styles for the reading. James wrote a choral piece—his only one—for him and me to perform together. It begins,

A Hymn to Herm
(Duet for Tenor and Baritone)

This wonder this wonder
this prize this surprise
this secret this skyrocket
this wonder your wonder
my wonder our wonder
my steering gear my takeoff
my sword my songbird
my bird in hand my flying carpet

Your wonder O wonder

The entire poem is included in ALL: A James Broughton Reader. For my part, I wrote a fanciful prose piece, “Broughton Fountain,” in which I heard his voice clearly. It was full of quotations from James’s work and began:

The Master stood on the edge of the cliff. He asked which of his disciples would thrust himself over the side, plunging into the mouth of a horrible and certain death. “I,” said one, eager to get a running start.

“Wait,” said the Master. “Do you think I’m some sort of idiot? I was only raising an abstract question. I need all the disciples I can get—and besides, it’s a long way down the side of that cliff.” “True,” said the eager disciple. “But wouldn’t you always honor the name of the disciple who died for you?” “Well, I might,” said the Master, “but really it all depends on whether I’ve written it down. My memory’s a little shaky these days, and I can’t seem to locate my pencil.”

“Master,” said the disciple, “I would be the one who died for you!” “Well, go ahead if you must,” said the Master, fumbling in his pockets for a piece of paper. “But I’m not guaranteeing anything. Oh, where is that pencil!” “Thank you, Master. Aieeeee!” said the disciple as he leaped over the edge. “What was his name?” said the Master. “I suppose,” said another disciple, “there isn’t much left of him now.”

It ended,

—My name is James.

There is nothing

But the indestructible sweetness


Everything! Follow your weird.

I knew James in the last years of his life, as he began his witty, deep, courageous meditation on the fact of his own mortality (“I am / a moony old vessel, / I have / garbled many a hanker”). The thought of Death began very early in his work, but the notion of it changed as he grew older. In the end, Death became the greatest lover of all—propelling James into whatever eternity might await him.

James’s work stands by itself and stands high and tall. (I’m sure that James would remark to that, “Hermes bird!”) To those who were, like me, lucky enough to know him personally, he offered the image of another sort of manhood. He was a gay man, I was a straight man—yet we simply accepted each other and loved each other just as we were. He had his fears and anxieties—explored especially in the early work—but he kept the feeling of child-like wonder alive in his consciousness throughout his long life. He once wrote, “People don’t grow up. They just get taller.” How do you describe the sun?


My life since James’s death is not dissimilar to what it was when he was alive. I continue my writing and my performing—both of which are undoubtedly improved because of my knowing James. I feel very strongly still the sense of his multiple selves: “You are your own twin and your own bride and all your gods.” I put together ALL: A James Broughton Reader because I felt the need of a book in which the various aspects of James’s work could all join together in a chorus and sing to one another. I’m very proud of the result. I am currently writing a long history of poetry in California from 1940 to 2005. It will probably be published next year. James’s work is an immensely important element in that history. I feel his presence as I write this, as I re-read his work, as I turn my mind towards the amazing man he was.

Jack Foley