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.
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