Saturday, July 21, 2012

John Berryman and the Poetry of “Irresistible Descent”


“The penal colony’s prime scribe.”

“Will power is nothing. Morals is nothing. Lord, this is illness.”
—John Berryman, 1971

A year before he committed suicide by jumping off a Minneapolis bridge in 1972, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet John Berryman had been in alcohol rehab three times, and had published a rambling, curious, unfinished book about his treatment experiences. Recovery is a time capsule. If you think we have little to offer addicts by way of treatment these days, consider the picture in the 60s and 70s. In Recovery, treatment consists almost entirely of Freudian group analysis, and while there is regular talk of alcoholism as a disease, AA style, there is no evidence that it was actually dealt with in this way, after detoxification.

Best known for “Dream Songs,” Berryman taught at the University of Minnesota, and was known as a dedicated if irascible professor. Scientist Alan Severence, Berryman’s stand-in persona in the book, comes into rehab hard and recalcitrant, despite his previous failures: “Screw all these humorless bastards sitting around congratulating themselves on being sober, what’s so wonderful about being sober? Great Christ, most of the world is sober, and look at it!” And he is suffering from “the even deeper delusion that my science and art depended on my drinking, or at least were connected with it, could not be attacked directly. Too far down.”

Berryman was a difficult man, and knew it. He quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald: “When drunk, I make them pay and pay and pay and pay.”

Alcoholics, writes Berryman, are “rigid, childish, intolerant, programmatic. They have to live furtive lives. Your only chance is to come out in the open.” Berryman catches the flavor of group interaction after too many hours, too much frustration, and too much craving. One inpatient lashes out: “You’re lying when you say you do not do anything about your anger. You get bombed. It is called medicating the feelings, pal. Every inappropriate drinker does it. Cause and effect. Visible to a child. Not visible to you.”

Berryman was a shrewd observer, a singular writer, and, after all, a poet. He is extraordinary on the subject of alcoholic dissociation: “I found myself wondering whether I would turn off right towards the University and the bus home or whether I would just continue right on to the Circle and up right one block to the main bar I use there, and have a few. Wondering. My whole fate depending on pure chance…. as if one were not even one’s own actor but only a spectator.”

Berryman puts it all together in a horrific capsule description of the “irresistible descent, for the person incomprehensibly determined.”

Relief drinking occasional then constant, increase in alcohol tolerance, first blackouts, surreptitious drinking, growing dependence, urgency of FIRST drinks, guilt spreading, unable to bear discussion of the problem, blackout crescendo, failure of ability to stop along with others (the evening really begins after you leave the party)… grandiose and aggressive behavior, remorse without respite, controls fail, resolutions fail, decline of other interests, avoidance of wife and friends and colleagues, work troubles, irrational resentments, inability to eat, erosion of the ordinary will, tremor and sweating… injuries, moral deterioration, impaired and delusional thinking, low bars and witless cronies….

Berryman had no illusions about his failed attempt to hide behind the mask of a social drinker: “It seems to be loss of control. Unpredictability. That’s all. A social drinker knows when he can stop. Also, in a general way, his life-style does not arrange itself around the chemical, as ours does. For instance, he does not go on the wagon…”

In the end, he was "pleading the universal case of hope for abnormal drinkers, for all despairing and deluded sufferers fighting for their sanity in a world not much less insane itself and similarly half-bent on self-destruction…”

As the head nurse in the facility tells the group: “You are all suffering from the lack of self-confidence… often so powerful that it leads to consideration of suicide, a plan which if adopted will leave you really invulnerable, quite safe at last.”

And as Saul Bellow wrote in the introduction to Recovery: “At last there was no more. Reinforcements failed to arrive. Forces were not joined. The cycle of resolution, reform and relapse had become a bad joke which could not continue.” Berryman agreed. Toward the end, he wrote: “I certainly don’t think I’ll last much longer.”

“There’s hope until you’re dead,” a woman tells him during his final stay in rehab. Sadly, that hope ended a few months later.


Photo posted by Tom Sutpen for the series: Poets are both clean and warm

4 comments:

The Peak Oil Poet said...

come to me oh Irish and do what you do well
i've hunger for your amber ways and with you i would dwell
i've many reasons good and bad with you to share some time
and you have never let me down but that's true of your kind

so come and make me what i'd be and let me pain forget
and we will up and down a spell - you'll be my best friend yet
i've never known the likes of you to fall below the mark
though emptiness between us both has drowned my vital spark

your heavy crystal friendship often finds me at my best
or worst maybe but that's just half and you provide the rest
i guess that's why i've loved your ways each time we've done our dance
there's nothing that looks quite as good as that which you enhance

so let us do our best to make an effort to forget
and drown our troubled souls with what with you i always get
and so it seems my life will be as well it might or stop
but you my friend will always be, upon my shealth, the top

Dirk Hanson said...

Well all right, a poetic comment indeed.

Zach Dayhuff said...

Really insightful and eloquent post. I'm glad I found this.

I think Berryman's tortured relationship with alcohol is nowhere in better evidence than the famous Paris Review films. He is visibly, unapologetically quite drunk in them, and his behavior is at turns combative, flippant, maudlin, and ecstatic. Even a huge admirer like myself cannot help but pity the interviewer. Yet when Berryman reads his poetry, he takes on an almost trancelike sensitivity to the rhythm of his language. I've seen no poet read like he does, and have learned from his readings more than from any other. And I'm certain he would have credited that sensitivity to his drunkenness.

I think it was Bunuel, speaking in the heyday of Freudian analysis, who opined that the artist resists therapy and treatment because he fears that his art is conceived in his sickness, and without his sickness his art will dwindle. Of course, modern medicine knows this isn't true, and a great many writers and artists--Raymond Carver or Anne Lamont, for example--produce beautiful work in recovery, but the alcoholic writer continues to entangle his disease with his work.

What I'm really curious about is how much our culture enables, even celebrates, this delusion. It is not unique to artists--most addicts convince themselves that they function better intoxicated--yet when an electrician or a doctor shows up to work drunk, we fire him; when John Berryman shows up drunk, we do the interview anyway, and talk romantically about the tragic and intractable relationship between addiction and art.

Dirk Hanson said...

I'm interested in the perpetuation of this delusion as well. I agree with you that an artist often fears that art "is conceived in his sickness, and without his sickness his art will dwindle. Of course, modern medicine knows this isn't true...."

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