This is not quite my favourite Edward Thomas poem, but it’s probably his most famous, and maybe his most “Thomasian”. It shows his gift for counterposing the barest of statements – “It was late June”, “Someone cleared his throat” – with something rather stranger-sounding. Would anyone say “one afternoon / Of heat” rather than “one hot afternoon”? But would anyone argue that “one hot afternoon” is better? If the adjective “hot” rarely packs much of a punch, the noun “heat” still stirs the senses; you can feel it rise off the platform, off the page.
Then we have “Unwontedly”, which plays eye off against ear. For me, it’s homophonous with “unwantedly”, and to the audience at the poetry reading, that makes perfect sense. No one likes it when a train stops for no obvious reason; it’s a thing unwanted. But “unwontedly” – and for all I know Thomas may have made an aural distinction (unwohntedly?) – is a peculiar word, never used now, if it ever was. I suspect that it sounded old even in Thomas’ day. “The train was not wont to stop there” we might still say, but there’s something about “wont” that resists being applied to a machine. This range of timbre is widespread in Thomas’ poetry. He often sustains a fairly neutral tone before lurching back in time with an archaism, as in that flaccidly Georgian line here: “No whit less still and lonely fair”.
There are two other quintessentially Thomasian qualities to this poem. One is the furtiveness of the form. I first read “Adlestrop” in my AS Level English class, and nobody pointed out that it rhymed. I can easily believe that no one noticed. I certainly didn’t, and the reason is because Thomas’ rhythms work against his line breaks. He doesn’t go pounding to the end of a line; he rarely hits the rhyme hard. In the first stanza, “heat” absorbs some of the stress from “afternoon”; later “name” springs straight into “willows”. Thomas lived in an age of poets who wore their forms on their sleeves, like sergeant’s stripes, while the mechanics of his poetry often seem accidental, or better, organic. Thus “Adlestrop” approximates the rhythms – if not the vocabulary – of a real human voice.
But what really defines “Adlestrop” as a Thomas poem is its mystery. You can see the shimmering mirage generated by the “afternoon of heat”. Why has the train stopped there? No one seems to know; the throat-clearing smacks of embarrassment. We picture the terrible awkwardness among passengers when something out of the ordinary occurs: eyes are not met, words are not exchanged, everyone looks stiffly forward or down. If the poem is to be believed, train travel in Thomas’ day was not much more sociable than it is now. Even moving, trains are eerie things. The driver is unseen and almost always unheard. But there’s another mysterious person in the frame, or just out of it: who is the speaker speaking to? Who, and what, is he answering with that ‘Yes’?
The poem is a picture of stillness and tension in a haze of summer heat. And somehow, Thomas conjures that stillness with sharp, precise verbs. Most English writing, at some point or other, falls back on that dreadful, nasally -ing suffix, be they present participles, gerunds or continuous forms. “Adlestrop” doesn’t contain a single -ing. After the initial “I remember”, it has only the past simple: “drew”, “hissed”, “cleared”, “left” “came”, “saw”, “sang”. Sharp verbs, crisp as a winter’s morning; yet soft, apart from the always-sinister “hissed”. They don’t disturb the stillness; they slice straight through it.
What mars it, just a touch, is the last line. “Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire” locate the poem in a way that it didn’t need; gives us a point of reference that checks the bewilderment. The reader isn’t meant to know the name “Adlestrop”; the speaker doesn’t seem to, when the train draws up. It’s like Porlock: one of those places whose fame rests solely on a work of literature, otherwise not quite of this world. Knowing that Adlestrop lies in Oxfordshire or Gloucestershire spoils – ever so slightly – the riddle.
I’ve owned this slim little book for nearly seven years, and it still has the paper price tag on the back: £3.99. Those were the days. I bought it after a night of undergrad boozing chez my friend Tristram, whose bookshelves I had combed in conspiracy with another friend, Thea. Thea pulled out this very edition of John Berryman – I remember being struck by the stack of shot glasses on the cover – and told me that I had to read him. The Dream Songs especially.
And though 58 Dream Songs (chosen from 385 of them) make up about three-fifths of the book, it was Berryman’s sonnets that I first latched on to. At this point in life I was devoted to poetic form, slavishly so, and that devotion struggled to find a place for The Dream Songs’ histogrammic six-line stanzas, sometimes rhymed and sometimes not. The sonnets attracted me by virtue of their shape – time was when everything I wrote was a sonnet – but they were sonnets with a voltage that I had rarely felt:
All we were going strong last night this time, the mots were flying & the frozen daiquiris were drowning, supine on the floor lay Lise listening to Schubert grievous and sublime, my head was frantic with a following rime: it was a good evening, an evening to please, I kissed her in the kitchen – ecstacies – among so much good we tamped down the crime.
The weather’s changing. This morning was cold, as I made for the grove, without expectation, some hundred sonnets in my pocket, old, to read her if she came. Presently the sun yellowed the pines & my lady came not in blue jeans & a sweater. I sat down and wrote.
For years I wished that the book gave me more than a tiny window onto Berryman’s sonnets (21 out of 115), but over time I have come to think Michael Hofmann’s selection near-faultless. It’s surpassed only by his introduction, possibly the finest poet-to-poet preface that I’ve ever read. Hofmann admits that “any selection of Berryman has, to some extent, to oppose itself to the worst tendencies of the poet. There will be a little denial in it, and a little false innocence”. Otherwise one gives too much space to Berryman’s most irresponsible speech-acts, like this:
The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business… being knocked in the face, and thrown flat, and given cancer… I hope to be nearly crucified.
Berryman suffered the worst possible ordeal at the age of eleven, when he saw his father walk out into the garden and shoot himself in the head. The sins of the father did not die with him: instead, the son inherited the urge to self-destruct. This translated into alcoholism, the extra-marital affair chronicled in the sonnets, and finally his own suicide, when he jumped from a bridge over the Mississippi.
Those catastrophic tendencies find voice in the Dream Songs’ protagonist Henry, who comes and goes, twirling around Berryman’s own biographical trajectory. But whether writing about his own implosions or the implosions of others, Berryman usually resists (self-)pity, which of course makes him the more harrowing. TheDream Songs include a handful of elegies for Delmore Schwartz, the Brooklyn poet who crashed and burned and became an Adonian martyr figure among Berryman’s circle, inspiring the title character of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. In DreamSong 149, however, grief is “too astray [perhaps in the sense of ‘wild’] for tears”:
This world is becoming a place where I do not care to be any more. Can Delmore die? I don’t suppose in all them years a day went ever by without a loving thought for him. Welladay. In the brightness of his promise,
unstained, I saw him thro’ the mist of the actual blazing with insight, warm with gossip thro’ all our Harvard years when both of us were just becoming known I got him out of a police-station once, in Washington, the world is tref and grief too astray for tears.
I imagine you have heard the terrible news, that Delmore Schwartz is dead, miserably & alone, in New York: he sang me a song ‘I am the Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz Harms & the child I sing, two parents’ torts’ when he was young & gift-strong.
The poem is studded with allusions to the greats. “Can Delmore die?” picks up Shakespeare’s “Can Fulvia die?” (Antony and Cleopatra), while “Harms & the child I sing” grotesquely inverts the opening three words of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Arms and the man I sing” (arma virumque cano). But the poem’s pathos plays along the language of dead platitudes: “I imagine you have heard the terrible news”. And “his promise” – at how many funerals has the inadequate word ‘promise’ been trotted out? Perhaps the saddest thing, which anyone who has read Humboldt’s Gift will recognise, is that Delmore died “miserably & alone”, deserted not only by his friends but also by his talent. “When he was young” he was “gift-strong”, but his gift, like Humboldt’s, abandoned him in later life. In the next Dream Song, #150, Berryman writes “I’d bleed to say his lovely work improved / but it is not so”.
For his part, Berryman pre-empted a similar decline by sabotaging his own poetic praxis. Love & Fame (1970) reads like a man who has given up trying to make sense of life and is content to laugh at it; certainly, he’s stopped trying to shape it to a real form – the book’s quatrains seem token, almost a mockery of the verse tradition. As one Dream Song says, “These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand. / They are only meant to terrify and comfort”, a gloss that probably applies to most of the Berryman corpus. After all, what is there to understand in the opening ‘stanza’ of ‘First Night at Sea’?
I’m at a table with Canadians. He translates Villon. Villon! What Canadian could English make of those abject bravura laments? He says he’ll give me a copy.
But reading with the hindsight of an age when most poets are ‘prosey’ at one point or another, these poems have a power of their own. They involve some cognitive leaps that the reader can only hope to keep up with, but they speak with a plainness alien to much of Berryman’s oeuvre, not least the sonnets. No one could call them disciplined, and my recent purchase of Berryman’s Collected Poems (everything except TheDream Songs) has shown me how uneven his body of work is, an unevenness that Hofmann does a fine job of hiding. When you have access to all the sonnets, you realise that they’re riddled with ellipses, which in my view represents a failure of syntax. Indeed, most of Berryman’s poems smack of something unfinished, unconsummated; however astonishing they are, very few of them invite the word ‘perfect’. One that might, though, is Dream Song 145:
Also I love him: me he’s done no wrong for going on forty years – forgiveness time – I touch now his despair, he felt as bad as Whitman on his tower but he did not swim out with me or my brother as he threatened –
a powerful swimmer, to take one of us along as company in the defeat sublime, freezing my helpless mother: he only, very early in the morning, rose with his gun and went outdoors by my window and did what was needed.
I cannot read that wretched mind, so strong and so undone. I’ve always tried. I – I’m trying to forgive whose frantic passage, when he could not live an instant longer, in the summer dawn let Henry live on.
That brutal, tight-lipped terseness, “did what was needed”. And the compression – not “I’m trying to forgive him / whose frantic passage”; just “I’m trying to forgive / whose frantic passage”. No words more than necessary, as necessity is the argument that Berryman puts for his father, who “could not live an instant longer”. It relieves his father of the guilt of choice, perhaps so the son can lay the questions to rest. All attempts to “read that wretched mind” have failed, though “I’ve always tried”. Is there a poem more simple and devastating?
Well, maybe. Maybe the last poem in this little book:
Age, and the deaths, and the ghosts. Her having gone away in spirit from me. Hosts of regrets come and find me empty.
I don’t feel this will change. I don’t want any thing or person, familiar or strange. I don’t think I will sing
any more just now; ever. I must start to sit with a blind brow above an empty heart.