John Berryman Doesn’t Suck

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You’ll never believe this, but people in poetry programs are passionate about the poets they have loved. I know, I know. Go pick your jaw up off the floor and let me know when you’re back. What was that? You’re ready? Sorry I couldn’t understand you on account of the jaw….

But seriously, too many people in my cohort have an unnatural obsession with John Berryman.

Wait. Wait. Let me rephrase. It’s not that too many people have an unnatural obsession with John Berryman. John Berryman is a totally respectable poet and I thought the stuff I read from in anthologies was cool. It’s just that when someone mentions John Berryman several people in succession get really excited and it all turns into a bit of group-think.

That’s not it either.

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It’s not really group-think because they all arrived at their conclusion about Berryman separately (I think). Let’s say they did. It will cloud the argument if they didn’t because then it might be group-think and that’s not what I’m getting at.

Here is what I’m getting at: it’s hard not to have your confidence shaken in a poetry discussion. When a bunch of people all have a different opinion than you have about something as subjective as poetry, it’s very tempting to think you must be missing something.

Here’s the truth: they could all be totally wrong. Or rather, not that they’re wrong, but you might not be missing anything. It could be that you’re experiencing everything just the way you’re supposed to. It could be that you just don’t resonate with that poet, poem, whatever.

It’s so much easier to write that than to believe it.

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I studied economics as an undergraduate along with English. One of the wonderful things about arguing in economics is the ability to reduce issues to their components and decide on those. It doesn’t always give you hard answers but at least it feels like you’re making progress.

In poetry we often talk in circles. It’s about taste and everyone’s background is so different.

I’m on the editorial board for Columbia Poetry Review right now and I often have to bite my tongue when poems go in that I don’t like. Sometimes I think they’re very bad. I say so but my voice is limited and often I don’t have a chorus of people who agree with me. It’s easier to say you like something than to say someone’s taste is wrong.

Sometimes I end up with a bleeding tongue.

The pictures I’ve included are from poets I like. There’s also a critic there: Harold Bloom (commenting on Wallace Stevens, who I love). Many people don’t like Bloom but he’s one of the major forces that got me into poetry and so I do. My professors at Michigan didn’t care for him and his name is almost a punchline in some circles. I like him.

There’s no point to joining the herd in something as isolated in poetry. It’s easier to write that than believe it. It might not even be true.