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JohnBerryman:Livesof the Poet John Haffenden. The Lzfe of John Berryman. Boston, London, &c.: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.xiii + 451 pp. Eileen Simpson. Poets in Their Youth. A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1982. 272 pp. Robert M. Philmus "[O]nly...very young persons or writers whose work really does bear no relation to their lives, tant pis pour eux," "den[y ]" "the existence of" "those connexions, now illuminating, now mysterious, between the artist's life and his work." The words quoted come from the first sentence of "Marlowe's Damnations," the first essay in an anthology of John Berryman's prose arranged according to his instructions and published posthumously as The Freedom of the Poet (1976). The date to which the editor of that volume, Robert Giroux, assigns "Marlowe's Damnations'' situates it at the moment when Berryman was completing the poem (Mistress Bradstreet) he would later characterize as "an attack on The Waste Land" and not long after the third reprinting (in 1950)of The Sacred Wood. It therefore seems safe to suppose that Berryman was writing with the best known of the essays in T.S. Eliot's book in mind- "Tradition and the Individual Talent"- and that he had a polemical eye especially on Eliot's declaration that "Poetry ...isnot the expression of personality, but an escape from personality." Had Berryman published "Marlowe's Damnations" at the time he wrote it, in the heyday of the New Criticism, its opening statement would likely have struck most readers in the same way that Eliot's argument for literary "impersonality" must have struck practitioners of the Old, Biographical School when his essay originally came out (in 1919). By now, however, paradoxes which Eliot and Berryman did not intend in staking out their antagonistic positions have superseded those they did. Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 16, Number 4, Winter 1985,491-503 492 Robert M. Phi/mus Historical distance has allowed us to see that "Tradition and the Individual Talent," applied to Eliot's own poetic practice, is misleading, and deliberately so. Its prescriptive argument, both by design and in effect, complements his strategies in the poems themselves for deflecting attention away from their "personality." Moreover, their "personality" (in his understanding of the word) is nowhere more operative than when he takes greatest pains to conceal it. It is not nearly the informing presence in the four "Quartets," say, which offer no obvious basis for differentiating their voice from his, that it is in those poems which ostensibly objectivize his perceptions by means of a persona. By the same token, the continuing reputation of Prnfrock and The Waste Land, especially, depends upon their success in suspending our inclination to reject their visions of the world for being directed by a misogyny and a fastidiousness in sexual matters which only speciously belong to Prufrock and Tiresias and not to their author. They therefore fit in with Alan Severance's generalization in Recovery (1973) about what "any writer's...permanent message perhaps ...really" is:"come and share my delusion, and we will be happy or miserable together" (7:54). If the fortunes of those poems of Eliot's, at least, have to do with our acquiescence to their "personality," Berryman's rest with the recognition of his place in poetic "tradition." Thematically, he is heir to the Eliot of The Waste Land, whose central anxiety Berryman evokes (even as he goes beyond it to something perhaps more terrific) when he has Henry, in "Dream Song48," sibyl "of the death of the death of love." Time and again Berryman probes this and other aspects of "the epistemology of loss." (That this phrase names his abiding concern as he saw it should be evident from the fact that "The Ball Poem" [1950],in which it appears, figured in his public readings as late as twenty years after its first publication.) Had Berryman known the version of The WasteLand that Pound convinced Eliot to retrench drastically, and not merely known of it (presumably from conversations or correspondence with Pound), he might also have owed to Eliot's example something of the manner in which he articulates his sense of loss. As it is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 491-503
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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