“Whitman on his tower” is a reference again to Charles Whitman, who in 1966 climbed a tower at the University of Texas with a rifle and other weapons and started shooting. He killed 14 people from the tower and had killed his wife and mother earlier. Some 30+ were wounded. He was eventually gunned down by a policeman who climbed up the tower to take him out. Whitman’s name ought to be forgotten, and it mostly is, but B. brings it up here—fresh after the incident, obviously—because of the comparison he makes between Whitman and his father.
B.’s father, of course, died when B. was 11. Suicide was the official conclusion from the police, and B. is careful all through The Dream Songs to call it only that and gauge his heavy emotional responses accordingly. But the details pretty clearly point at something else, a murder, either by B.’s mother, or her boyfriend, or both. It happened on the day they were to finalize a divorce, that B.’s father didn’t want—his mistress had stolen all the money she could get from him and taken off—and the night before they had had a loud, angry fight. She was most certainly afraid of him, for herself and for her children, because he had threatened to drown the boys and had been carrying a gun around. It seems quite plausible that the mother or her boyfriend took action and put a stop to the threats. Berryman must have known all this on some level, and in psychotherapy, this possibility had come out and was discussed. So he did know, but chose not to address it in the work.
There is an odd sense of empathy for the shooter in the tower, that arrives through a sense of empathy with the father he is being compared with. One can imagine that Hitler, in the last days of the war he started, cowering in his Berlin bunker with the Russian army approaching from one side and the British, French and American armies from the other, was absolutely terrified. Doesn’t change what we think of him one bit, does it? Not after what he caused. Empathy, forgiveness and understanding, even as the noble and necessary emotions they are, still get overwhelmed by a comprehension of the evils that led to the predicament that sparks the empathy. Empathy for such a monster’s suffering is tough to maintain. B. does it for just a moment, noting how bad the shooter in the tower must have felt, even as he kept murdering. The father is separated from this by the simple acknowledgement that he didn’t do what he had threatened. The sons lived on, to deal with the wreckage left behind. That shooter in the tower knew he was on a suicide mission; he just tried to do all the damage he could, inflict all the woe he could, while he could. And, gosh, he must have felt pretty awful about it.
The stance of the poet here is that the father did what he had to do, which included taking out himself before he accomplished something even worse. To not swim into the Gulf with his sons in his arms arises as an act of love, and B. seems to be treating it that way. The real situation, that B. doesn’t treat at all, tells a different and actually less complicated story. The father didn’t stop himself. He got stopped.
I’m aware at the moment of how much literature has taught me. I don’t deal with wretchedness all that much in my life. I’ve been afraid, I’ve experienced pain that exhausted me so that I couldn’t resist any longer, and I’ve had to face the consequences of my bad behavior and bad choices. But that’s just being human. I’ve always experienced this as something that will go away if I take action, or wait it out, or get help, because nothing bad enough can really get below the root of my self-esteem or my sense of well-being. It’s the gift a more or less healthy body and a loving family. These sufferings are anomalies. I know that this could change. But I have known people in genuine distress, several who have come to the edge of suicide, and some who have gone over the edge. That was all just baffling. Books have taken me, myself, over. Stories of real people, characters made up, poems. Well, here is a story of a real person. Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus struck me so hard when I read it in college, with its characterization of the suffering of the damned in hell manifesting as laughter. Not a mirthful chuckle, obviously, no gleeful belly laughs here. The manic, crazed laughter of the tormented who can never even dare hope for relief, not even through death. That’s an extreme, melodramatic conception, and I fear something facile about relating it to any real life, but I think Berryman plays that conception out in his work. Probably it’s deliberate. The strategy seems to have worked.
I can’t pin down something, and I’m not sure I can articulate the question. If you only approach the poems from the inside, then they tell one story: My father committed suicide when I was a boy, the psychological and emotional blow was so severe that my subsequent emotional development was stymied, causing me to fuck up my life and at the same time I have used the pain as a wellspring for championship books of poetry. I live at both extremes. But when we readers poke around outside of the poetry, into the life that ostensibly supports it in pretty fine detail, we find a different story. Clearly, the hurt is real. The father is dead. Don’t people get over it after 40 years, though? No, not get over, but emplace it, build a fence around it, cover it in wax like honeybees do with the invading mouse they stung to death. But, this story has some shelf life, so he runs with it instead, and to justify it, he doubles down, time and again through questionable behaviors. People live out artificial personas all the time. His eased the way into emotional crimes. It greased one outrage after another and one triumph after another.
This is the problem that adheres to all autobiography. Even the most boring life is too complex to fit into a book, or series of books, or 385 desperate poems. So the author chooses to include this and exclude that, and so in the process rewrites his life—he isolates a thesis, chooses to support it, leaves out details that don’t support it. I teach exactly this to developing writers every day. So, this is what we have to expect. St. Augustine, John Stuart Mill, Dorothy Wordsworth, Rousseau—just a few of the great autobiographers—choose their details carefully, honestly, and derive a compelling thesis from them to which readers respond. Thomas Wolfe, D.H. Lawrence, others, fictionalize it, which gives them a bit more room for creative invention. I tend to think that B. probably goes even a bit further, and I think he knew it. So how seriously do we take the psychological insights that arise from the work? To the same extent we respond to fiction: Since a thinking human being wrote it, somehow, there will arise something of value if it’s any good and if we recognize it. I’m to the point now where questions of whether the psychological insights are real or not need to subside. Do they resonate with a reader? Great! Join company with Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary and, as well, Jean Jacques Rousseau. Makes no difference. Does it feel like horse hockey? Okay, well: Has Dick Cheney written an autobiography yet?
The poems are tight, or not, often they’re linguistically inventive and clever, and they engage with a broader world that has receded into history now. Vietnam, the Soviet Union, the Civil Rights Movement, Eisenhower and the Kennedys—history. Lots to learn there. About the poet’s emotional, psychological struggles and social missteps? If something valuable seems to arise, cool. If not, there’s no point worrying about it. And if Dick Cheney does write an autobiography, I have no intention of reading it, because a liar lies, and who cares about that? Unless it’s well done, and the liar is honest about his lies, like all fiction writers, then okay, show me what you’ve got. In the end, I don’t think we have a liar of Dick F***ing Cheney’s grandmaster caliber here. It doesn’t seem that way, if for no other reason than that the work has an almost irresistible draw. I’m hardly the first person to feel it. I know also that the subject matter of the poems has put off some friends—the sexism and racism in one case, and the desperate tone of the struggling in another, and the just the general obscurity in several friends who don't feel the need to summon the patience for poetry it takes to open up some of these. But I find them gripping and sometimes a bit repulsive, but not enough to make me turn completely to writing poems about butterflies every day.
So, I’m not quite sure where this ramble led, exactly, only that I’m not taking the “confessional” poet so much at his word anymore. You’re not fooling me, John Berryman! But show me what you’ve got anyway, and we’ll see. And I’m not getting suckered, and I don’t have to get sucked in. I declare that I will write butterfly poems in response to your suicide poems if that’s what I feel like. At any rate, this poem ends Book V of The Dream Songs. Something different may yet arise!