BootsnAll Travel Network

Boredom and John Berryman

I am bored. If I had the choice I would be leaving for Portland and a new life TODAY. But I don’t have that choice. I have to teach five more classes. I don’t want to, but I must. I am restless, and irritable, and bored, and I want to throw things and break them. Dave wondered if I might be exhausted from revealing so much about myself. No. I’m pissed off because there is nothing more to reveal. I’m living indoors, hiding from a blast-furnace Houston summer, dreading the new semester, cursing and kicking things. So of course I am reminded of John Berryman.

What came to my mind first is a fragment of one of Berryman’s dreamsongs, the one that is probably most familiar, most anthologized, so then I had to look it up. It’s this one:

Dream Song 14

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) “Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no

Inner Resources.” I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as Achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

Yes, that’s just it. I feel as if I’m the wag of the dog who has taken itself away. My trip is over. My next trip is far, far away. It’s back to work, and I don’t want it. [Footnote for those who may be interested: “Henry” is the narrator of the poem. He speaks of himself in the first and third persons. “Henry” is a middle-aged college professor of literature and creative writing very like Berryman–and in some ways like me if the truth be told–but not entirely Berryman (and definitely not me). Also interesting: Berryman composed all these dreamsongs with a rhythm of 5, 5, and 3 beats per line, with near-rhymes. That was the formal task he set for himself. I like the fact that the poems seem to be uttered in a chaotic or unplanned way, but in fact they are very carefully structured.]

Then I tried to remember what I knew about Berryman other than the fact that he was all the rage when I was an undergraduate and he committed suicide when I was pregnant with Seth.

He was a drunk. He was one of those professors who was always banging young girl students. He married over and over, younger and younger women, and he visited upon these women any number of children, but that didn’t solve his problem. He was miserable being a professor of English and took his misery out on his students, insulting them and breaking their spirits if they let him. I remembered that much, but I was curious to know more.

So then, having gone to the internet already in order to get the full text of the poem, I hunted around and found this bit of an interview with him:

[….] I have a tiny little secret hope that, after a decent period of silence and prose, I will find myself in some almost impossible life situation and will respond to this with outcries of rage, rage and love, such as the world has never heard before. Like Yeats’s great outburst at the end of his life. This comes out of a feeling that endowment is a very small part of achievement. I would rate it about fifteen or twenty percent, Then you have historical luck, personal luck, health, things like that, then you have hard work, sweat. And you have ambition. The incredible difference between the achievement of A and the achievement of B is that B wanted it, so he made all kinds of sacrifices. A could have had it, but he didn’t give a damn.[…]

But what I was going on to say is that I do strongly feel that among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement is ordeal. Certain great artists can make out without it, Titian and others, but mostly you need ordeal. My idea is this: the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business. Beethoven’s deafness, Goya’s deafness, Milton’s blindness, that kind of thing. And I think that what happens in my poetic work in the future will probably largely depend not on my sitting calmly on my ass as I think, “Hmm, hmm, a long poem again? Hmm,” but on being knocked in the face, and thrown flat, and given cancer, and all kinds of other things short of senile dementia.

Hilarious. I love it. But poor dumb fuck in a tweed blazer that he was, he didn’t get that secretly-hoped-for ordeal, so in desperation he jumped off a bridge. A horrible detail is that he missed the water below the bridge and instead landed in the mud and suffocated to death. Now there’s an ordeal. Poetic justice of a kind, I guess, because certainly he was suffocating on his life and his addictions. I wonder if he had bipolar disorder and was medicating it with alcohol. Possibly. He was in and out of hospitals with “nervous exhaustion.” What is that?

Anyway, why am I so interested in John Berryman? Because I am heavy bored. I know better than to wish for an ordeal. Life dishes them up without our issuing invitations, so I have enough good sense not to ask for one. It is ordeal enough to have to sit here in Houston and teach five more classes, dammit, when I want to be doing something else. I should be grateful for what I have. I am stupid to be complaining. Look at the comforts I have! Look at the good fortune. I should be trembling with ecstasy in the full realization of the now. This moment. “In this moment,” the zen master famously said, “what is missing?”

Excitement. Movement. Passion. All of those are missing. I am beside myself with the desire not to teach again, not to do again what I have done so many times before. I want to break loose, be wild, roar and holler. And instead I have to prepare my course syllabi. Grrrrrrrrrrrr.


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