I haven’t used the word “pity” too often yet, much less “pitiful,” in referring to John Berryman. Both words have the same root but have taken on somewhat divergent meanings. Both deal with a healthy, safe or non-suffering person who looks to someone suffering. “Pity,” especially to “take pity,” is to have empathy for the sufferer. The more common contemporary English use of “pitiful” has taken on a healthy measure of contempt rather than empathy. There are people out there who cultivate pity as a kind of interpersonal psychological tactic, though it can be pushed to the extent where it becomes counterproductive. He complains about his aching back, or she cries about the love relationship she screwed up, or he bitches about how unfair the boss at work treats him. It presents you as undeserving victim, with the expectation of a gift offered as compensation, out of pity. The gift is usually some kind of stroke—a kind word, a reaffirmation of value. Maybe money. The film Slumdog Millionaire has this shocking scene where a young beggar, working in slavery for a villainous kind of beggar’s pimp, suffers having his eyes put out with a hot spoon in order to maximize the pity he attracts, which presumably will increase the beggar boy’s earnings. It’s a testament, I guess, to the power of pity. The problem with too much pity, or the also contemptible “self-pity”, is that it can shade over into pitiful, and whatever persuasive influence it has is undercut.
The first line of this poem hopefully provides some justification for my treatise on the power of pity. “I dangle on the rungs, an open target.” So: target = victim ∴ Pity me! Offer me some approbation! Tell me I’m not rightfully suffering, that I don’t deserve it!
Because everything is going to pot. When the auto breaks down, and it’s beyond hope, park it and walk away. I did that once. My 1968, 2-door Chevy Impala, that my brother gave me, oxidized silver with two white doors, drove at an angle because of the twisted frame, it broke down for the last time. I emptied the glove compartment of the paperwork, took the license plate off, and walked home. If I had a gun I might have put a bullet through the radiator, but nah, I just left it on the street. It disappeared a week or two later. “Henry is dying.”
So it’s a poem that begins with an appeal for pity, flirts with the pitiful, lays out a list of the world’s broad, insufferable woes, gropes toward suicide—“jump at monsoon dawn”—confirms the mess with a quick synopsis of his life, conflicts and relationships: “They have all waited / the foes fierce, others whom Henry baited, / a forest of bottles.” There it is. Messed up. Pitiful. What are you supposed to think when you look back on your life and this is what you see? It’s pathetic.
“—Mr Bones, you a clown.” And this is the perfect, the perfectly apt, finale. This redoubles the whole sad tale. All this pain and failure, and the subsequent triumph resulting from the pain and failure, is not even something you can take seriously. It’s all been the Vaudeville soft-shoe of a dancing clown, a twisted joking performance. When you’ve gone to Las Vegas with $100,000 in your wallet, and you lose $99,900 in one epic night at the craps table, in front of a noisy, drunken, admiring crowd thrilled at the spectacle, men in sharp suits patting you on the back and shaking your hand, their breath smelling like the olive from a dry martini, the pit boss bringing you good, strong, well-mixed Manhattans, gorgeous women in sparkly gowns leaning on your shoulder, openly caressing you with their sequined breasts, whispering in your ear exactly what’s going to happen upstairs in about a half hour because your ruin has been so sexy and so spectacular, and losers of your caliber are so exotic and unusual—what’s left to do but fold your last C-note into a little moustache, tape it to your upper lip, and jump up on the table and sing out loud, with heartfelt passion, “What Kind of Fool Am I”? What a sordid ridiculous clusterfuck. But, hey, if that’s where you’ve led yourself, might as well go ahead and down another Manhattan real quick, take two of the girls upstairs, and just hope your stomach is strong enough to make it through without puking. When one night you can’t, then it’s over. You’ve burned up your fuel, nothing left but ashes, everyone waiting patiently for you to get it over with, put an end to it, but please hurry it up. This is getting pitiful.