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  • John Berryman at Midcentury:Annotating Ezra Pound and Teaching Modernism1

While he was teaching at Princeton University in 1947, John Berryman began drafting a short story that depicts a professor preparing to teach John Milton’s Lycidas.2 In the published version, titled “Wash Far Away” (1957), Berryman introduces his protagonist as “a systematic man”: “He opened his Milton and read the poem thoughtfully, twice, before he laid out side by side two other Miltons … and began to work his way through the editors’ notes.”3 The professor’s close reading subsequently entails annotating his text: “Both times he was gently moved by the exquisite melancholy of a semi-couplet. … He wrote ‘exquisite melancholy’ in the margin the second time” (FP, 372). For many readers and teachers, this scene is familiar. Inscribing his copy of Lycidas, the professor’s observation will remain there to return to in class or while writing.

The annotated book itself presents an object of study, and the personal libraries of postwar writers like Berryman are vital resources for modernist studies. As H. J. Jackson observes, annotation is a genre with an academic history, particularly as readers often learn to annotate texts in school.4 Annotations and other forms of commentary also reflect the critical approaches of readers’ time periods; this is particularly true at midcentury, when New Criticism changed academia, curricula, and marginalia. As we will see, marginalia and other manuscript materials, including teaching notes, record the particularity of postwar writers’ responses to modernism, and the libraries and teaching notes of midcentury poets record modernism’s postwar institutional history. The reading and teaching strategies of Berryman and [End Page 507] his contemporaries illustrate that modernism is not a discrete literary period but a discourse that is the result of institutionally situated processes.

This redefinition of modernism as a discourse formed in academic institutions should be as familiar to professors and students of literature as are the types of annotation that this essay considers. Teachers inscribe texts with commentary, explications, and definitions; their notes inform the material they present to students. Students subsequently inscribe in blank texts the contents of their own observations in addition to the information teachers provide. Yet as David M. Earle has argued, “[Few] scholars … have taken into consideration how modernism was defined and canonized by academia.”5 Mid- to late-twentieth-century poets’ academic reading reflects the extent to which close reading strategies developed in response to texts from the first half of the twentieth century. As Robert Scholes observes, “[A]ttending Yale just before the midcentury, I was more or less indoctrinated into the New Critical account of aesthetic value, which I see now as a distinctly Modernist account.”6 As students, teachers, and critics, postwar poets engaged with trajectories at play in midcentury academic discourse in their private and public negotiations with literary texts.

The language of midcentury academic institutions shaped—and at times was inseparable from—postwar poets’ understanding of modernism and poetry. During his final lecture at the University of Cincinnati in 1952, Berryman paused to note the following:

I must say something about the famous difficulty of modern poetry. Most first-rate modern painting, architecture, music, is difficult. The difficulty of modern poetry is not isolated. What Matthew Arnold predicted has now taken place: modern art, including poetry, has to carry the job once done by religion and philosophy. … This makes the poet a priest.… Priests have … made themselves clear. … Oracles are obscure. Human personality is obscure. The audience imagines that the poet writes for the audience. This is not even economically the case. Universities, foundations, publishing houses, support the poet. … Milton’s Lycidas describes a blind fury—really a fate called a fury in anger. It takes knowledge and wit to know it is a fate. But less knowledge is to be found in the modern audience, and this causes a reaction in the artist.7

When Berryman gave this lecture, part of the reason that the difficulty of modern poetry had become so well known was the critical assessment that Scholes recalls. By returning to Milton’s subtlety, Berryman emphasized not only that recent critical approaches had overlooked this kind...


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