Literary daybook, Jan. 7

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published January 7, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Jan. 7, Orlando first sees Princess Stanilovska Dagmar Natasha Iliana Romanovitch (Sasha).
-- "Orlando" (1928)
By Virginia Woolf

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1972 American poet John Berryman committed suicide, at the age of 57. His "77 Dream Songs" won the 1964 Pulitzer, and the writing of some 300 more over the subsequent years earned Berryman international fame, but his personal problems kept pace. These seem to stem from the severe trauma of his father's early suicide; whatever the cause, living became a volatile and destructive mix of compulsions -- work, alcohol, sex, four packs a day. Berryman wrote openly about all this -- he hated and scoffed at the label of "confessional poet" -- and sometimes optimistically: When asked in 1970 about his poetic direction Berryman talked of his "secret hope" that he might be visited by something like Beethoven's deafness or Milton's blindness, thus becoming the "extremely lucky" artist "who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him." The poems written over the last 18 months reveal the raw, downward trail of his unluck, and a gradual giving up on religion, writing, teaching, marriage and change. From the rehabilitation center in May 1970, this pledge:

"Under new management, Your majesty:
Thine. I have solo'd mine since childhood, since
my father's suicide when I was twelve
blew out my most bright candle faith, and look at me ..."

From another stay in rehab that autumn, still hanging on:

"Surely he has a recovery for me
and that must be after all my complex struggles: very simple.

I do, despite my self-doubts, day by day
grow more & more but a little confident
that I will never down a whiskey again
or gin or rum or vodka, brandy or ale.

It is, after all, very very difficult to despair
while the wonder of the sun     this morning
as yesterday & probably tomorrow.
It is, after all, very simple.

You just never drink again all each damned day."

From the spring of '71, back teaching at the University of Minnesota:

"... I'm glad we don't
on x or y depend for Your being there.
I know You are there. The sweat is, I am here."

From a few weeks before his suicide, dry now for 11 months, but in despair after having judged his novel-in-progress, "Recovery," worthless, and his research book on Shakespeare pretty much the same:

"I've had to give up somewhat here,
illusion on illusion, big books long laboured, a power
of working wellness to some, of securing this house,
the cocktail hour, --
but I am not without a companion: there's left Fear."

The fear must have left soon after: Berryman started drinking again on Jan. 5, and jumped from Minneapolis' Washington Avenue Bridge two days later.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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