Berryman, by virtue of the reputation he built, the professional engagements that ensued, and by his shameless (or fearless, to be more charitable) verve, had met most of the great poets of his generation and the one before his, which happened to have been one of the greatest generations of artists ever because they both created and fed off of the changing sociopolitical and art worlds that we call “modern.” “Fortune gave him to know the flaming best, / expression’s kings in his time, by voice & by hand”—the greatest poets of his time. B. alludes to six of them—I can pull out Yeats, Eliot, Frost, I think, and the others don’t matter to me that much. B. is simply expressing gratitude for having met them, and probably also glomming onto their coattails to further enhance his own reputation. This whole thing strikes me a little bit as an exercise in butt kissing, but whatever.
Modernism was about hanging on desperately to, or yearning for, what was perceived to be slipping away, while at the same time hastening its retreat through acts of deconstruction, re-envisioning, or even vandalism. Yeats: “The center cannot hold.” Eliot: “I am old. I am old. I shall wear my trousers rolled.” Stevens: “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” Arnold:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Hemingway: “It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.” Listen to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. And do I even need to mention Picasso? The great Modernist vandal?
Postmodern is the resultant world without a center or solidity, where we are now. My view has always been, from the first moment I started learning about this stuff, that over the course of history, the modern process of disintegration and the postmodern state of disintegration were inevitable in the West once we had en masse forgotten or even rejected our relationship with nature, the stabilizing, centering and eternal meaning-making foundation of our being. B.’s physical disintegration matters in this cycle of poems because it’s such an apt metaphor for the process of the modern crumbling into the postmodern. B. rarely even notices nature, but he does pay a lot of attention to his body, the one mode through which he connects with the natural world. And of course his body is coming apart. The fully postmodern body, I suppose, is a dead one.
So today I read an article about global warming and the rapid, terrifying approach of environmental tipping points past which it will be impossible to halt massive environmental change and mass species extinction. What has happened? In our ignorance of nature, we’ve used and sucked it so hard that we’ve gotten bigger than it, and it is in the beginning stage of collapsing on us. It is rapidly becoming a postmodern nature now. Annie Dillard writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek about an incident she witnessed. For her purposes, it’s meant as an illustration of nature’s a-moral horror show—that is, if we make the mistake of observing nature through the lens of moralistic human values. Maybe it works on another level as well:
He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from him as if snuffed. His skin emptied and dropped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taunt, glistening skin of his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water: it was a monstrous and terrifying thing. I gaped, bewildered and appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away. The frog skin bag started to sink.
I had read about the giant water bug, but never seen one....It eats insects, tadpoles, fish, and frogs....It seizes its victims with these legs, hugs it tight, and paralyzes it with enzymes injected during a vicious bite. That one bite is the only bite it ever takes. Through the puncture shoot the poisons that dissolve the victim's muscles and bones and organs—all but the skin—and through it the giant water bug sucks out the victim's body, reduced to a juice.
I’m afraid that all this attention to reputation, to the longevity of one’s reputation, immortality through fame, is real big mistake. Especially if the world is collapsing like Dillard’s little frog as we keep sucking its juices with all the gluttonous greed at our command. If nature’s solidity upholds our global technoculture like a skeletal support, it appears now to be dissolving like that frog’s bones because of our vicious bite. So B.’s—anyone’s—cultivation of a literary reputation that depends on the long-term persistence of a vast technoculture, because that reputation is embedded within it, has made a mistake. Either the whole system collapses, and we die off, all our effort a bad cosmic joke, or, what seems more likely, we retreat into localized pockets, villages and farms, making do, even thriving, with modest, sun-fueled, photosynthesized resources, without reference to the broad global technoculture—because in this scenario it is also still gone. We may yet find another way—drive our technoculture with energy from less planet-destroying sources. If we can figure it out and summon the will to make it happen, then reputations through history will linger and matter. But it’s touch and go, to the extent that it makes most sense to take care of one’s body, takes care of one’s planet-body, and live embedded in something solid. Write?—yes! Absolutely! But write out of a state of health, and write out of a sense of immediate connection to the local. To hell with the future and to hell with reputation! We may very well have screwed that permanently. Only by living fully engaged with the foundation of the natural solid and the temporal now do we have any hope of saving the future anyway.