Berryman, the despair of

by on Jan.08, 2012

On January 7th, 1972, John Berryman jumped off the Washington avenue bridge at the University of Minnesota campus to his death.

Lucas de Lima and I visited the bridge, which we often cross mindlessly, and watched a potato make ripples in the water in homage to Berryman:

He wrote once, “It seems to be dark all the time. / I have difficulty walking.”

It reminded me of Justine of Melancholia, who was frightened of her inability to “walk right.”

They sank into dark earth.

Recently, a friend sent me a quote from a Dylan Thomas letter. The following is excerpted from her email:

“This is from a 1934 letter in which he takes up the voices of several people including a bumpkin poetess, and a tramway union (?) but this, as far as I can tell, is back in his own voice:

Some sweet little child will develop a sore throat one of these days, or suddenly his lung will break up like a plate (not a Bell plate.) So much for the carnivorous. One day I shall undoubtedly turn into a potato. You won’t like me then. And, on that day of Transformation, I certainly shan’t like you, salt rasher of bacon!”

To devolve, turn into vermin, lose the use of legs and retreat into planthood, inanimation is to Utter.

Despair  ~John Berryman

It seems to be D A R K all the time.
I have difficulty walking.
I can remember what to say to my seminar
but I don’t know that I want to.

I said in a Song once: I am unusually tired.
I repeat that & increase it.
I’m vomiting.
I broke down today in the slow movement of K. 365.

I certainly don’t think I’ll last much longer.
I wrote: ‘There may be horribles.’
I increase that.
(I think she took her little breasts away.)

I am in love with my excellent baby.
Crackles! in darkness H O P E disappears.
Lost arts.

Walt! We’re downstairs.
Even you don’t comfort me
but I join your risk my dear friend & go with you.
There are no matches

Utter, His Father, one word

9 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    Craig Dworkin’s just-released book, Doggerel for the Masses, contains as Appendix a satirical essay that targets me. It’s written somewhat in the style of Adam Kirsch, titled “After the Concept and the Confession,” and there is some stuff about Berryman in there. Dworkin actually presents the rest of the book as written *by* me (thirteen poems with extensive footnotes and four other extensive prose pieces!). It’s all meant as a send-up, of course, a kind of payback for my DAY appropriation of Goldsmith, I assume, but I’m quite honored by the whole thing. Here is a footnote on Berryman from the essay.

    [1] . The intersection of Confessionalism and Post-structuralism took a literal turn on the University of Minnesota campus on March 26, 1971. As part of his first and only trip to the US, Roland Barthes was presenting a lecture that he would later revise as Le plaisir du texte. John Berryman was in attendance and, by all accounts, already in his cups, yet he took meticulous notes and, according to one observer, asked a number of perceptive questions. Following the reading, the two chatted briefly and went to Neumann’s Bar in North St. Paul, where Barthes suddenly told the poet that he was fascinated by the range of voices and styles in The Dream Songs. A surprised and delighted Berryman watched as Barthes began an impromptu recitation of “Dream Song 40.” Less than a year later, Berryman jumped from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis. With that in mind, is it possible than in 1980 Roland Barthes thought of Berryman and Mr. Bones as he watched the approach of the laundry truck?

  2. Kent Johnson

    I forgot to ask the main thing I wanted to ask! Does anyone know if the story of Berryman and Barthes is real, or is that part of Dworkin’s Conceptual fiddle-faddle here, assuming it was CD who wrote the accompanying essay (there’s an obvious pseudonym attached to it)? Place and Goldsmith blurb the book, so I guess it could have been one of them, too.

  3. Carrie Lorig

    plop is our word king
    our duck butt of sound
    that’s what the potato said before it hit the river
    with berryman’s soul inside of it

  4. Feng Sun Chen

    thanks for the comments, all! thanks, carrie, for the tasty tater.

    Kent, I do not know about the story of Berryman and Barthes. I’m very intrigued.

  5. Johannes Göransson

    Mary, I used to think about Berryman every time I walked over that damned bridge, especially in the bitter cold of winter when you have to walk inside that shelter in the middle.

    Kent, don’t you think that’s a parody of your Koch/O’Hara conjecture?


  6. Jeffrey Pethybridge

    The Barthes anecdote doesn’t appear in Haffenden’s The Life of John Berryman, or in Mariani’s Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman.

    I think Johannes’ intuition about it being a parodic gesture is right.

    I’m heading up to the Berryman archive and will keep my eyes peeled for the “meticulous notes.”


  7. Henry Gould

    Interesting post. I’ve walked across it many times. You can look out the window of the little Frank Gehry art museum there & see the bridge.

    I think Kent J. may have a copy of a long poem of mine called “Forth of July”, in which among other things I do a sort of Ojibwa “resurrection dance” for Berryman and for my cousin Juliet, who jumped off the Golden Gate bridge exactly one month before Berryman (she, & I, were 19 at the time).

  8. Henry Gould

    p.s. here’s a photo of Juliet & me back then :

    In the spring of ’72 Edwin Honig enlisted me to organize a marathon reading in memory of Berryman at Brown U. (where he had taught one year in the 60s).