The Poetic PracticenJohn Haffenden: The Life of JohnnBerryman; Routledge & KegannPaul; Boston.nWorking Papers: Selected Essaysnand Reviews by Hayden Carrutij;nEdited by Judith Weissnian; Universitynof Georgia Press; Athens.nby Thomas H. LandessnIt is tempting to say that everynfamous man ends up with the biographernhe deserves. At first glance such angeneralization seems true: good mennlead lives that appeal to good men;nscoundrels behave in such a way as to attractnthe admiration of scoundrels; wittynpoets interest witty commentators; thendull fascinate the dull. Or so it mightnseem. But it just isn’t so. For example,ntake Henry James. As a man he led a colorlessnand decorous existence. As a fictionnwriter he carefiilly avoided creatingncharacters that could be understoodnwith reference to some narrow intellecmalnschema, whether philosophical ornpsychological. Who would have predicted,nthen, that the telling of his lifenwould fall to a Freudian like Leon Edel?nOn the other hand, John Berrymannmay have gotten just what he deserved.nThere’s slight doubt because John Haffenden’snflaws as a writer may not relatendirectiy to Berryman’s flaws as a humannbeing, but there is, I think, a connectionnbetween the two. Haflfenden is not,nhowever, a man of limited imagination,nunable to grasp the full complexities ofnanother human being. To the contrary,nhe seems to be a perceptive personnwhose imagination is equal to the task ofnpiecing together the tissue of complicatednrelationships that formed Berryman’snunhappy life. Generally hisnaccount is factual and detailed. Thenconcrete stuff of the life is there: Berry-nProfessor Landess is on leave from thenUniversity of Dallas.nS4inChronicles of Culturenman’s mother-ridden childhood; hisnmediocre academic career, studdednhere and there by brilliance; his love affairs;nhis alcoholism, depression, andnhospitalization; his literary stru^es andnsuccesses; his trying friendships withnother poets and critics; his final capitulationnto a lifelong obsession with suicide.nAll of these details—^many sordid, a fewnfescinating—are rendered with a devotionnto the particularity of events that isngenuine and admirable.nOf course Haflfenden’s narrative isnheavily supplemented with interpretationsnof action and character. However,nhis glosses are seldom simplistic or undulynbiased. He tries to give his readernevery possible viewpoint, and he takesnsides only after doing justice to all thencompensate to himself by adopting anradically different pose during thenholidays. It seems altogether surprisingnfor such a slight, studious boy whonfelt demoralised and grey at school,nbut altogether characteristic of thenyoung Berryman, that at home he pulsatednto fashion and jumped at anynchance offered to flirt his person beforennumberless girls in the glitteringnpromise of New York City.nOne might reason that the author’sninsights are valuable and even accessible,ndespite the veil of prose behindnwhich they hide, but does Berrymannreally deserve such imperfect treatment,negocentric and difficult though henmay have been? In Working PapersnHayden Carruth su^ests an atiswer ton”I’I’lhis excellent and harrowing account of John Berrman’s life … is very much tonJohn Haffenden’s credit.”n—The New Republicnalternatives—^a rare quality in a biographer.nAs a result, no one is tempted tonthink that John Berryman was either anholy innocent or a Freudian monster.nThrough his penetration Haffienden hasndiscerned a real human being—selfish,nunpleasant, brilliant, entertaining, mad,nmaddening. Sometimes Haffendennmakes this visible in his honestly conceivednportrait.nThe trouble with this portrait is that itnis rendered in words, and Haflfendennoften has trouble with the Englishnlanguage. For instance:nHe inspired lasting and incomparablenrespect among many of his formernstudents and friends, but an equalnunease, if not fear, among an unlikensector of the student body who werenaccustomed neither to such a personalitynnor to the ordonnance that henpracticed South Kent Schoof, withnits spartan routine of sports andnstudies, inhibited and humiliated him,nbut he took every opportunity tonnnthis question while commenting onnBerryman’s poetic gift, which he definesnas: “His ability to wrench syntax out ofnevery convention while remaining,nthough barely, within the bounds of possiblengrammar. He is famous for this, ofncourse, but it has nothing whatever tondo with metric, it has damned littie to donwith poetry in general, and I confess 1nsee nothing else in his work.” As for Berryman’snuse of words, Carruth speaks ofnthe poet’s “well-known colloquial cuteness,”n”his deliberate archaisms, inversions,nthe use of fiisty words like ‘moot’nand ‘plaint,'” “Archness, what we usednto call sophomorism,” and his “verbalnbizarrerie.” Like subject, like biographer?nI suspect that Haflfenden wasnheavily under Berryman’s influence duringnthe time he was writing, and as anconsequence he adopted some of thensame tricks. Thus Berryman does get thenbiographer he deserves after all—^that is,nif Carruth’s appraisal of Berryman’snpoetry is sound.n