John Berryman’s Sonnet #87: A Small Act of Subversion

John Haffenden, Paul Mariani, and Charles Thornbury have covered the story of what we used to know as Berryman’s Sonnets, a remarkable sequence on the subject of adulterous love, and we now know that Berryman originally wanted the collection to be known by the name of his paramour. After all, the man was in love. But we were first introduced to her as Lise, a pseudonym. The name change alone was enough to make more than one reader think “OK, why this one-syllable name? It means her real name is also one syllable.” Which narrowed the list somewhat. It was a canny decision, Lise—unusual, maybe even a corruption of Lisa, but in any event a fully functional choice, and for obvious reasons of formal construction it was necessary.

Then there are the wishes of “Lise,” then married to a colleague of Berryman’s. Not even a first name. Still, “Lise” is sonically “close enough to jazz,” near enough to her real name that it doesn’t disturb the poems. As a matter of fact, I even prefer Lise, but there might be a number of reasons for that. The idea of artifice shouldn’t be lost on us, either. The writer needn’t be tied to biographical fact if the poems vector away from biography or would work better with changes. Often, poems can survive it.

So Berryman had solved the quandary. And yet….check out Sonnet 87; it’s a sign he wanted to say her name aloud, with or without her permission. If you’ll scan the left-hand margin, you’ll notice that it is an acrostic: ICHRISANDIJOHN. This was how it was originally printed. I sometimes wonder what caused him to take that decision, because it subverted her stated wish for anonymity, here’s the thing: I stared at that poem a long time without ever realizing. That’s the beautiful thing about acrostics in general—it becomes a way to slip your message into the poem while potentially maintaining what politicians have come to call plausible deniability. Even the Governator apparently uses this technique in his communications with the state legislature. That’s interesting, because historically speaking, it was “subversive” poets making their true political, etc., feelings known in times when such acts could make one jailworthy.

In Berryman’s case we know that he was in no way subverting an antagonist but a former lover. Why? The answer is outside my pay grade, at least until his voluminous diary is published and we all get a chance to discover for ourselves. Was it simply a claim to cleverness? (Doubtful on its own) Was it a risk he was willing to take because he needed to say her name? (Maybe, but he had to know his act of artifice improved the poems) Or was he willing to risk that we the readers would not see it? I’ll cop. I didn’t because I was thinking sonnet, not acrostic. The poem’s already formal in design; it didn’t occur to me until I read Thornbury what Berryman had done. On one hand I thought it was brilliant; on the other, it somehow rang as petulant—”I’ll say your name whether you like it or not—” I leave it to you.

If it’s true that Berryman’s undergoing a re-evaluation by the poetic community, it’s long overdue. True, he was an addict, a womanizer who sometimes behaved as though it didn’t matter. Those are facts, unfortunately. It’s also a fact that no one “versed” like him. No one. You could say it’s like jazz, and of course he was hugely influenced by the angularity of jazz, but there is simply so much in his work for the reader to access, so much reading, such depth of understanding, that he could be a life’s study for anyone. Me, I’ve been reading him since the seventies when I was introduced to his poetry by Jim McMenamin, later of Columbia; it was one of the most fortuitous of meetings, because it changed my writing life in irrevocable ways. Berryman deserves to be remembered as one of America’s finest poets for a number of reasons, and here’s an example of his creative ingenuity at work.


About johnwylam1957

I'm a poet and teacher now living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
This entry was posted in Poetry/Fiction, Writing in General. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to John Berryman’s Sonnet #87: A Small Act of Subversion

  1. anniew3000 says:

    Thanks so much for this blog. I have been studying Berryman for the better part of a year now, and you’ve added to my knowledge. I read “Poets In Their Youth” over the summer, & that answered so many questions about Berryman & his peers.
    I have a copy of his Sonnets, & was delighted (& a bit appalled) by his shenanigans in Sonnet 87. I have a friend whose best friend was a grad school assistant to Berryman one summer. She still trembles when she recalls the way he chased her around the campus and his office, declaring his undying love. He was not, she recalls, a very good catch…
    I’m a poet & novelist, and am finishing a chapbook of 27 sonnets I’m calling Torch Songs, that are in many ways an homage to Berryman, and definitely influenced by the Dream Songs. You’re right that a re-evaluation of Berryman is long overdue. His work is genius!
    Thanks again,
    Alexis Rhone Fancher

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