Berryman's Shakespeare

Published March 26, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

| John Berryman (1914-1972) spent 30 years writing and lecturing on Shakespeare and working on a life; at first glance, this scarcely coherent anthology is not much to show for all his effort. But fearlessness, always a hallmark of Berryman's best poetry, shines brightly enough through the book's cracks to make our own effort worthwhile. A confessional poet whose search for self involved adopting a succession of poetic personae (notably Anne Bradstreet and Huffy Henry), Berryman was well-suited to climbing into the competition's skin. Rough-hewn as his writings on Shakespeare are, they show that his capacity for creative sympathy flowed freely between poetry and prose, the self and the other.

"Rilke," Berryman tells us in "The Dream Songs," "was a jerk." Stevens -- a "grandee crow ... lifted up among the actuaries"-- was "better than us" but "less wide." Never afraid of climbing into the ring with heavyweights, Berryman the poet was a remarkably compact, contentious and imaginative critic, and so he is in the best essays in this book, "Shakespeare at Thirty" and "The World of Action." Take a line like "He is thirty years old today, and few enjoy this jolt from decade to decade." The syntax is recognizably Berryman's, and so is the sentiment; the jolt lies in hearing Shakespeare spoken about so directly and engaged so actively. When Berryman delivered this lecture at Princeton in 1951, with shaking hands and sweat-drenched shirt, the audience was enraptured. Nearly 40 years later, it's easy to see why. He hits on every aspect of Shakespeare's development -- the historical and social context and the gradual shift from simile to metaphor, chance to agency, surprise to expectation -- in order to paint a full picture of the artist and the man. Berryman must have come remarkably close to conjuring Shakespeare on the podium; the effect isn't much diminished on the page.

Unfortunately, it isn't sustained. Eighty pages of "Berryman's Shakespeare" are taken up with a rather tedious textual analysis of "King Lear," which, even enlivened as it is by an exchange of letters between Berryman and other scholars, will be of limited interest outside the academy. Berryman's psychoanalytic reading of "Hamlet" has aged rather poorly, and the late essay "Shakespeare's Reality" is weighed down maddeningly by details. Essays on single plays read like occasional pieces, addressing one point (as often as not an academic one) at the expense of all others. Those who buy this book to read about Shakespeare will find much of it musty and inconsequential.

But they will be looking for the wrong things. As with Joseph Brodsky on Frost or Ted Hughes on Shakespeare, "Berryman's Shakespeare" has less to do with the ostensible subject than with the writer himself; the pleasure it affords is admission to an agile mind -- tragically dulled by drink and melancholy, perhaps, but still grappling and coming to terms with a great master of the form they share. It's sad to see Berryman shadowboxing through much of the book (though it's unlikely he'd have gotten much further had he lived -- poetry was the sexier calling). But when he's hot, sparks fly off the page and illuminate aspects of Shakespeare that only a poet's eye could catch.

By Alex Abramovich

Alex Abramovich is an editor at Feed.

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