and offered the master a fag, which he took,
accepting too a light
to Henry’s lasting honour. Time abates.
Humourless, grand, by the great fire for a look
he set out his death in twilight.
The goddamned scones came hot.
He coughed with his sphincter, when it hurt
Henry, who now that fierceness imitates.
Empires fall, arise semi-states,
Kleenex improves, clings to its own our dirt
the foul same. The last of the girls had gone
half in despair on.
He starved & flung him on ‘em. Fat then, free,
he make a lukewarm wooer. All this hell of flesh—
not so bulk’, after all—
keeps him from edge, as forever he will be—
how rottenly the prize collapse from fresh—
a taller man than, we thought, tall.
In the spring of 1937, Berryman, then 22, was in Dublin, so he decided to look for William Butler Yeats. Yeats happened to be in London and found out about it. He sent B. a note inviting him to London for tea next day, though he could only spare an hour from 4 to 5. B. took a train and boat to London, which of course he would do. He met Dylan Thomas beforehand, who got him drunk before the appointment with Yeats, but B. took a cold shower and sobered up. Yeats was 71and would die two years later. So the great Nobel Prize-winning modernist poet had tea with the budding young confessional poet. B. lit his cigarette for him and never forgot it. Yeats was not in good health, and now B. looks back and sees himself in the same twilight state of health, enduring the same fierce coughing fits (we now know very well what cigarettes do to the body): “Empires fall, arise semi-states.” Exactly. Young Bill Clinton once shook hands with President John F. Kennedy.
This poem takes a strange turn. The tea with Yeats would be immensely important, and there’s an almost apocryphal significance to it. But memories of coughing fits from the ill Yeats turn B.’s attention to the frailty of his own ill body, Kleenex and snot, and from there to sex and the fact that his philandering days are forever over. So what’s more important here? When your body is failing, you pay attention to your body. Pain trumps your brush with history.
I don’t think it’s one of the great Dream Songs, it’s not even a really good one, but it’s still interesting in that as much as any of them, it addresses how important, how mentally consuming is awareness of the body and one’s physical health. We’ve all heard our uncles and grandparents tell us, “When you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything.” That’s not true, exactly. We might be broke, destitute, heartbroken, anguished, victimized, incarcerated, depressed, or totally confused, and still be in the pink of physical health. What Uncle means is that health is the foundation of our potential for happiness. It won’t make you happy. There are ways to deal with pain and loss of health, but for many of us, the non-self-actualized, lack of health will make you unhappy, or at least make you start thinking about who you are, what you’ve done, and what your death will mean. For B., whose immortal reputation, for whatever it was worth, was established—check that off the list—it now mainly meant that he wasn’t getting laid any longer. A physically washed up old guy with a dense white beard, booze on his breath, and a deep, hacking cough? Famous or not, he ain’t the sexiest guy in the bar, let’s face it. Only—if I could have tea with him, or light his cigarette, or sleep with his reputation—well, that might be a story worth telling some day. But he’s past even that. Like so many of the later Dream Songs, despair fumes out of it like smoke off a cigarette. It puts me in mind of the last work written by Mark Twain. After a literary career imagining the boyish adventures of Tom Sawyer, the wit and humor of a California jumping frog and a blue jay determined to fill a hole in a cabin roof with acorns, the great—great—Huckleberry Finn, Twain ended up writing horrifying, suffocating stories about Satan’s role on earth and the utter, self-imposed degradation of the damned human race. Twain’s late work, written from the dregs of a bitter depression, is as hard to swallow in its way as Naked Lunch, which Burroughs wrote from the dregs of heroin addiction, or Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, written from the dregs of a fatal alcohol addiction. Throw in cigarettes and the mix is toxic, and the literature written from a place like that is toxic too, unless we read it as personal warning, or more broadly, as a metaphor for something like late industrial capitalism’s addiction to money, consumerism, war, and oil. If the metaphor holds, we can expect similar societal and environmental outcomes. If we’re paying attention, we will see that the frailty and ill health are real, and they’re growing: the whole Earth is developing a deep, hacking cough.