On John Berryman’s Sonnets
In 2016, for my 21st birthday, I received Berryman’s Sonnets from the girl I was then dating. It was a thoughtful gift, one given by a person who cared for me deeply, and I didn’t respond with the gratitude she or it deserved. Things ended about a month later, for reasons we had been aware of since our start. I put Berryman’s Sonnets, still uncracked, aside. The idea of yearning for another so strongly—the idea of inhabiting a (perhaps one-sided) love, turning it over, polishing that longed-for albatross around one’s neck—repelled me. I was above all that sentimental dreck. I could exist alone.
Cut to May of 2021, when I opened Berryman’s Sonnets, pen in hand, and began to read. There’s a pair of lines in the punk band Spanish Love Songs’ “The Boy Considers His Haircut” that go, “… I’ve lived my whole life so afraid of getting hurt / that I’ve never really been hurt.” In a quarter-century of survival, a decade of falling in and out of longing, few statements have expressed so completely my experience of love. It’s not that I don’t feel—quite the opposite, I’ve found. It’s that I feel too strongly, with an illogic that’s otherwise uncharacteristic of me. I seize upon a handful of commonalities, a shared sense of humor, a basic kindness, a proportionate ambition, a quarter-smile in a slanting half-light—and, in my mind, I build a life. The problem with this, of course, is that such a project is statistically doomed. And thus it is better not to try. Or to try only rarely. To try for a year, and to be unsurprised when the thing I’ve tried to build goes up in flames. And then to pick up Berryman’s Sonnets in the aftermath of the end I knew, from the beginning, was on its way. To read it with the aim of making meaning from my grief. To take notes on turning this ache into art.
It speaks to a bias toward newness—mostly my own, but also that of most people on this planet—that the poems at the beginning and end of Sonnets are the sequence’s best. It’s here, after all, that things are changing: in Sonnet No. 1, Berryman’s affair with the pseudonymous “Lise” is beginning; by Sonnet No. 100, as Berryman and we always knew it would, this relationship is ending. We gravitate to the infatuated fever of Sonnet No. 28, in which Berryman writes, paradoxically, of his creative paralysis: “Immobile me, my poem of you lost / Into your image burning.” We are equally familiar, though, with the resignation of Sonnet No. 96, in which Berryman looks ahead, anticipating a time after the two of them have cut ties, despairing in advance at Lise’s absence: “Strangest, and sad as a blind child, not to see / Ever you, never to hear you, endlessly / Neither you there, nor coming…” There is a reason so many songs are about falling into or out of love, and so few about being in love. Hope and despair are romantic, exciting tropes; the messiness of domesticity stands no chance.
Berryman is at his weakest in the sequence’s middle, in which the aforementioned ambiguity muffles some of the poems’ emotional effect. Lise is absent, and Berryman is pining. Or: Lise is there, in which case Berryman continues pining, taking her in, capturing every aspect of her presence, aware of the impermanence of their liaison. In both cases, he is painfully self-aware of how embarrassing such yearning, if expressed poorly, can be. And so he undercuts the effective—because simple—line in Sonnet No. 77 “Her sun-incomparable face I watch” with an allusion to Glaucus, of Greek mythology. The confessional mode that is his invention and strength takes a backseat to a more formal, less honest tone. And if he’s aware of this tendency—as he seems to demonstrate in Sonnet No. 88, in which he speaks of ignoring his “blue conviction she will now not come” and losing himself to the music of Monteverdi, the quests of Don Quixote—it doesn’t make up for this habit’s dampening effect. Honesty, on its own, is enough. Its power is lessened when he leans on the works of others in an attempt to elevate it to something more.
If there’s a lesson for a writer to take from Berryman’s Sonnets, I think it’s this: do not apologize for feeling. Sentiment is not synonymous with schmaltz. Caution is warranted, and certain safeguards should be set in place, but using your intellect to place you above all that mush and mess is not one. (Humor, I think, is one. Simplicity is another.) And if there’s a lesson for a reader, I think it’s one far simpler (and perhaps more timeless) than Berryman intended: others have been there, too. He too has been there. I have been there, too. Love is the most wonderful thing in the world, until it’s not. Then it’s just hard. Then it’s over, and you grieve. And then you do your best to move on.