W. H. Auden said that a great book reads you. Eileen Simpson’s beautiful, recently reissued memoir of her doomed marriage to the poet John Berryman, “Poets in Their Youth” (1982), read me twice, just a few weeks ago and about 30 or so years before that, when I was in my early 20s. I might well have been two different people.
Back when I was green and carefree — to borrow a phrase from Dylan Thomas, who makes several appearances in the book — I was in awe of Simpson’s poets. Berryman numbered among his most intimate friends Delmore Schwartz, Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell. I was convinced these figures were heroes of modern life.
“What the hell is happiness?” Simpson quotes Berryman saying to her “with a happy laugh” when they had been married just a short time. Then, she writes, he asks “more uneasily, ‘Should a poet seek it?’” I thought that was a question worth pondering.
I grew older, bade farewell to the romantic notion of the accursed genius at war with society, and became aware that life spares no one. Still, for a long time I could not shake the belief that these poets, all of them dead before their time from madness, self-neglect or suicide, paid a noble price for their pursuit of truth and beauty. For the artist, self-destruction was a commonplace peril, just as injury or death was the risk run by firefighters and soldiers. There were people who worked with measurable particulars — most of humanity — and then there were artists, who labored at nothing in the realm of nothing. Mental and emotional disintegration into nothingness was the price they paid for creating intangible and invisible certainties out of nothingness. That was heroic.
I don’t think that anymore. Now, it’s Simpson herself who seems to be the hero.
Simpson had just graduated from Hunter College when she met Berryman at a New Year’s Day party in 1941. They married the next year and stayed together for 11 more. During that time the couple endured near penury as Berryman went from one low-paying teaching position to another, at one point taking a hapless job trying to sell encyclopedias in impoverished Harlem. It was not until 1956, the year of their divorce, that he broke through to wide acclaim with the publication of his long poem “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet.”
By then, he had destroyed the marriage with infidelities and drinking, keeping Simpson from leaving him with threats of suicide. Earlier in the marriage, he had overwhelmed her orphan’s heart — Simpson lost both her parents when very young and was raised with her sister in a convent — by fainting at moments of stress or conflict.
Berryman’s father, a failed banker, shot himself when Berryman was a child. His vain and manipulative mother sometimes introduced her two sons to other people as her younger brothers. Hysteria is often considered a re-enactment of childhood trauma, and it was Berryman’s hysteria that seemed to bind Simpson to him, as she relived, again and again, her own childhood shock and grief through Berryman’s bouts of helplessness and panic. Referring to his infidelities, she writes that “the anguish I felt at what I suspected was happening was soon smothered by the fear that he would have a breakdown.”
It was an old story: A weak man shrewd enough to know that he needed a woman who would throw him a lifeline out of her own wounds. Simpson observes that the poets in Berryman’s circle “had been torn between a powerful mother and an ineffectual father.” The result was that they asserted their power by remaining eternal children; perhaps that is also the way they kept early memories eternally present, a freshly abiding personal past being art’s principal source. Berryman refused to grant Simpson’s wish for a child, adamantly preferring to play her only son, while proving his manhood to himself with other women.
Simpson, who became a psychotherapist and went on to publish several books, writes with an almost uncanny clemency and a kind of cerulean objectivity. Where there might have been bitterness there is, instead, compassion. There is also a sort of unresolved wonder and gnawing grief at what really happened between her and Berryman. “I was unable to read verse for some years,” she confides toward the end of the memoir.
Yet underneath the tenderness and wonder, another level of meaning winds through the book. As the poets achieve their dreams even as their lives start to crumble, Simpson is slowly building a life for herself as she fulfills her own dreams. She takes secretarial jobs to support Berryman and herself, enrolls in psychology courses, then starts to work at a clinic in Princeton, where her husband is teaching.
“Poets” is part of her journey into autonomy. Its very composition is a quiet act of unfolding triumph; it’s both a memorial to the men Simpson admired and an admonitory epitaph on lives lived at often false and ugly odds with their own aspirations toward truth and beauty. Read now, it seems like a fitting herald of our own time, when blustering male declarations of high moral principle are giving way to more convincing portrayals of social relations from women artists like Sheila Heti, Miranda July, Lena Dunham and Elena Ferrante, among many others. What the hell is happiness? It is somewhere in the way people actually live.