42. (John Berryman)

For whom, among those who turn and return to literature, is the memory of adolescent boredom not fresh? Probably it is not a coincidence that many find poetry worth reading, seeking out, for the first time is adolescence, when that sense of monotony and flatness is richest and most sweltering; those who do not find much interest in poetry might be the ones who find it most easily in the other parts of life, on terms of their own. Which is to say that it’s all about attention: that poetry, novels, the good stuff in those categories, does communicate, and from a position of often pained isolation, a fascination with life (so the understanding of the Romantics that takes them to communicate feelings is wrong; they communicate fascination with feelings)—which is an intensity of attention, like love (itself a sustained, often sadly unsustainable, outward-looking fascination, as Auden knew; maybe these words are too nearly synonymous to make sense of one another). Perhaps the effort to communicate successfully is coterminous with an author’s effort to convince oneself that the fascination is justified, warranted; some of the worst moments of art, when we feel failure, is when we feel that attention and fascination has been misdirected by prurience or gratuitous satisfactions; in such cases, the justification fails. Getting it right might mean getting right the case made on behalf of fascination in the first place: that there is not only value there, but value that pertains, that is worth us. And perhaps the need to communicate in the first place, to set something down whether or not it is read, is the need to believe that an ideal reader might exist, who can share in the fascination, and thereby validate it by their acceptance or approval. The writers who are greatest seek only to communicate, and to communicate purely, that fascination itself.

Some of the great mid-century poetry, of Berryman, Plath, and Lowell, is poetry that is fascinated with depression—of which that glaring boredom is an aspect. But Berryman, of the three, stands out as the poet most fascinated with boredom itself.  The contrast should be with Lowell, who is most search, and self-searching, in his reflections on what is really ‘acedia,’ his post-Catholic spiritual torpor, akin to the Baudelairean malaise of ennui. Berryman’s boredom is more mundane, more professedly adolescent (though the profession is a false confession, an unwarranted self-loathing, warranted by the poetry’s diagnosis, and scrutiny; it becomes a source of vitality, ironically since the boredom is a symptom of the genuine depth of depression that Berryman experienced).

The magum opus of depressive confessional poetry is The Dream Songs. But the real feat of the volume is that it can return to boredom again and again with fascination: many have been fascinated by the drama and melodrama of 1960s depression—but 1960s boredom, not spiritual, not cultural, but boring boredom, has made for fewer keen prospective audiences or readers.

The anthologized poem, and the poem that provoked this entry, is Dream Song 14–“Life, friends, is boring”:

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.

Reading Berryman as a teenager meant at least finding fascination with boredom, as I could not, whine and prance through mine as I did, on my own.

In a misguided plan, I brought it into the classroom recently, a demonstration of a difficult poem. It was one in a series of misguided plans; or perhaps misguided steps in a sound plan; or misguided steps in a wholly misguided plan. At any rate, after spending the past month confusing a host of adolescent minds—and at times quite likely boring them too—it has at least been personally profitable, even if the lecture I had thought I could want to give, with prophetic fire, is best expelled as a smoke-puff in a dingy corner of the internet (here): the immensely obvious realization that what I’d like to get across to others is that literature fascinates me at least (and I feel confident universalizing across all of those who already feel the same way) because it is an experience of fascination: reading means entering into another person’s persuasive, validating, justified fascination with life—filling a void, or deficiency of my own.

The sense remains that the fascination, for Berryman, for all good authors, turns, at some early point in the struggle to communicate, with a fascination not solely with life (its absurdity and awfulness alike), but at the same with how words are capable of revealing and recovering fascination with life—-and so the close-reading thing, the knowing that the fascination with language cannot be skirted if the attention is to be properly followed, if their fascination is to be shared.

But dinner calls, my attention wanes; the language of the poem for another time—it’s an old friend anyway, a good companion, a dog, leaving behind the criticism: wag.


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