A Community of Writers: the essays by Snodgrass, Philip Levine, and Robert Dana

In a commemorative book titled A Community of Writers, the essays by Snodgrass, Philip Levine, and Robert Dana have captured the unique interaction, enabled by the Writers’ Workshop, among the great poets who taught there in the early 1950s and the talented students who worshipped them and later, when they became great poets in their own right, took a critical eye at their teachers. Excerpts from these essays are reprinted here with the kind permission of Peg Dana from the Robert Dana Estate.

Iowa City in the early 1950s: incubator of great poets

SNODGRASS:

Once, at a party given for Robert Penn Warren, Paul [Engle] shocked everyone by telling his recurrent nightmare. He was a prisoner, he said, in a concentration camp where he'd been singled out for a specially degrading punishment. Along the camp's outer rock wall, about six feet off the ground, was a series of holes or depressions. Brought out naked before the massed prisoners, he had to bend over and grasp his ankles, then hoisted by the guards, put his feet in two of those depressions. The guards and prisoners jeering at him, he must then draw out one foot at a time, moving it on to the next hole and so proceeding around the wall like a fly. But, he said, after a while he found he could do this surprisingly well—better, in fact, than anyone had ever done it. In time, he was simply whizzing around the wall while guards and prisoners, no longer jeering, looked on with amazement and admiration.

We were astonished not only by the horrors of this dream but also that he would recount it at a party where many (Warren not least) would understand. If only his poems had offered such revelations! At parties, though, horrors were not scarce: one evening I was met at the door by Engle's wife who, though approaching derangement, still seemed appealing. "Well, Mary, how's it going?" I asked. "Oh, I don't know," she said in the hearing of everyone, "I love him but it's so awful!" A few moments later she went on, "I went over and had most of my plumbing out last week. He might as well have that; he's had all the rest." Such scenes moved us sometimes to sympathy for Engle, sometimes for her, but we all knew either sympathy could be dangerous.

For years, Engle was very generous toward me, then without informing me suddenly cut off my fellowship. I had recently been divorced and had support payments to meet; this could have put me in serious trouble. Fortunately, another teacher, Rhodes Dunlap, warned me, then added me to his list. When I had so many to feel grateful toward—such scholars as Victor Harris, Rhodes Dunlap, and John McGalliard, not to mention, for the moment, my writing teachers—it was sad to leave with bitter feelings toward the very person who had, chiefly, made this possible. I think it fair to note, though, that my feelings were reciprocated. When I attended a reunion some years later, Paul, as master of ceremonies over a vast luncheon, was able to recognize and introduce to the group every person in the room—Industrialists, legislators, teachers, former students. There was a gratifying wave of laughter when he had to ask who I was.

Engle's absence had one splendid side effect: substitutes. Ruthven Todd, the Scottish poet, came during my first year, though I only got to know him later—relieved to escape his rocky upland farm in Scotland, he seldom left his stool in a local bar. Later, there were Reed Whittemore, Karl Shapiro, Robert Lowell, John Berryman—besides those who came for shorter periods: Warren, Brooks, Tate, Ransom, Ciardi, Dylan Thomas, Jarrell.

When I first heard Lowell was coming, I scarcely dared believe it. Soon after I'd started in Iowa, I fell in love with the poetry of William Empson, author of Seven Types of Ambiguity and of our most intensely ambiguous, highly intellectual poems. Having written several villanelles in imitation of Empson's, I then moved on to Lowell. Lowell's early poems—Lord Weary's Castle had recently won the Pulitzer Prize—had overwhelmed young readers, much as Swinburne's had an earlier generation in England. I cannot say we understood them. I cannot say I understand them now—or even that Lowell understood them. But, after the dry, etiolated language and attitudes of Eliot, we were ravenous for their vigor. A Lowell poem seemed like some massive generator, steel jacketed in formal metrics against its throb of rhetoric and imagery. Even before we'd heard he was coming, I'd been writing like him.

Until his arrival, he was the one topic of conversation: the time he had done as a conscientious objector, his periods of madness, his past violence. We were surprised to find that, though tall and powerfully built, he seemed the gentlest of mortals, clumsily anxious to please. Talking to you, he'd lean one cheek on his fist, or rest his chin on the back of one straightened hand; the elbow that supported that hand and head, though, often rested on empty air. Meantime, his free hand, its wrist cramped at a sharp angle, the first two fingers pointing, made jabs and clashes in the air. This broken wrist—often associated with weakness or effeminacy—seemed in him to betoken almost an excess of force, leashed but undiminished.

DANA:

When I was a student at the now much praised and often maligned writing program at the University of Iowa, I was just that—a student in a poetry workshop. The writing program at Iowa was, at that time, the only one of its kind anywhere in the world, small, and not yet a point of focus for much of anyone except Paul Engle and a handful of graduate students. Lowell's class numbered about twenty-five. John Berryman, Lowell's successor, cut the class to a core of thirteen. The survivors included W. D. Snodgrass, Donald Justice, Donald Petersen, Jane Cooper, Shirley Eliason, Philip Levine, Paul Petrie, Melvin Walker LaFollette, William Dickey, Henri Coulette, and me. We certainly had, at the time, no sense of ourselves as anything special.

Our aims as fledgling poets were modest: to learn to write poetry well, and later to find a job somewhere, probably teaching literature. We were savvy. No poet we knew of, not Frost, not Auden, not Williams, had made a living from his art. We didn't, like later generations of workshop students, expect to go out and teach courses in creative writing. And we certainly didn't expect to be employed at prestigious and powerful universities.

One of my workshop peers, Philip Levine, claims in his essay in praise of John Berryman that Lowell behaved like a Boston Brahmin, was bored to death with all of us and our poems, and played favorites in the classroom. I must have been even farther from the center of the action than I knew, because I recall neither his boredom nor overt acts of favoritism. If anything, Lowell permitted, whether from generosity or sloth, a wider range of what might be called "amateurism" than Berryman would allow later. In fact,

Donald Petersen's description of Lowell's classroom manner seems to me entirely accurate. ". . . he praised what he could in our poems and diffidently suggested that we consult other poets' works, to see how it was done this or that way. He seldom suggested any specific revisions."

LEVINE:

To say I was disappointed in Lowell as a teacher is an understatement, although, never having taken a poetry workshop, I had no idea what to expect. But a teacher who is visibly bored by his students and their poems is hard to admire. The students were a marvel: we were two future Pulitzer Prize winners, one Yale winner, one National Book Critics Circle Award winner, three Lamont Prize winners, one American Book Award winner.

I am sure there were others among the thirteen [selected later by Berryman] who were excited by Lowell as a teacher, for Lowell was one to play favorites. No matter how much they wrote like Lowell, some of the poets could do no wrong; in all fairness to Lowell, he praised them even when they wrote like Jarrell. Needless to say, I could write nothing that pleased Lowell, and when at the end of the semester he awarded me a B, I was not surprised. Along with the B he handed me a little card with scribbled notes regarding my poems and then told me I had made more progress than anyone else in the class. "You have come the farthest, " he drawled, which no doubt meant I had started from nowhere. "Then why the B?" I asked. "I've already given the As out," he said. This was at our second and last fifteen-minute conference—which did not irritate me nearly as much as our first, when he accused me of stealing my Freudian insights and vocabulary from Auden. "Mr. Lowell," I had responded (I never got more intimate than Mister and he never encouraged me to do so), "I'm Jewish. I steal Freud directly from Freud; he was one of ours.“ Mr. Lowell merely sighed.

 

Lowell was, if anything, considerably worse in the seminar; we expected him to misread our poems—after all, most of them were confused and, with very few exceptions, only partly realized, but to see him bumbling in the face of "real poetry" was discouraging. The day he assured the class that Housman's "Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now" was about suicide, Melvin LaFollette leaned over and whispered in my ear, "We know what he's thinking about."

His fierce competitiveness was also not pleasant to behold: with the exceptions of Bishop and Jarrell, he seemed to have little use for any practicing American poet, and he once labeled Roethke "more of an old woman than Marianne Moore." He was eager to ridicule many of our recent heroes, poets I for one would have thought him enamored of: Hart Crane and Dylan Thomas. Still, he was Robert Lowell, master of a powerful and fierce voice that all of us respected, and though many of us were disappointed, none of us turned against the man or his poetry. As Don Petersen once put it, "Can you imagine how hard it is to live as Robert Lowell, with that inner life?"

During the final workshop meeting he came very close to doing the unforgivable: he tried to overwhelm us with one of his own poems, an early draft of "The Banker's Daughter," which appeared in a much shorter though still-hideous version six years later in Life Studies. Someone, certainly not Lowell, had typed up three and a half single-spaced pages of heroic couplets on ditto masters so that each of us could hold his or her own smeared purple copy of his masterpiece. He intoned the poem in that enervated voice we'd all become used to, a genteel southern accent that suggested the least display of emotion was déclassé. I sat stunned by the performance, but my horror swelled when several of my classmates leaped to praise every forced rhyme and obscure reference. (The subject was Marie de Medici, about whom I knew nothing and cared less.) No one suggested a single cut, not even when Lowell asked if the piece might be a trifle too extended, a bit soft in places. Perish the thought; it was a masterpiece! And thus the final class meeting passed with accolades for the one person present who scarcely needed praise and who certainly had the intelligence and insight to know it for what it was: bootlicking.

DANA:

I can't claim to have known either Robert Lowell or John Berryman except in terms of what used to be called, rather chastely, the student-teacher relationship, a phenomenon which has pretty much been erased from workshop life. I was the poetry workshop's marginal man. I think I still am.

The fall Lowell arrived was marked by a sense among us that the ante had definitely been upped, that the workshop was moving onto a higher level. The mood was one of excited uncertainty, a sense that we were about to be seriously challenged. Not that the workshop had not been staffed by accomplished and highly recognized poets before—Karl Shapiro was still editor of Poetry magazine, in fact, when he commuted in from Chicago by train for his workshop classes. Perhaps our sharply heightened sense of anticipation was due to the fact that Lowell's fame was still very fresh and because he was known to be a complex and difficult man. He had completed a hospital stay only months before, recovering from one of the psychopathic episodes that continued to plague his life to the end. Of course, he had "the added cachet of his Harvard background; of having camped out in a Sears tent, in his student days, on the lawn of Allen Tate's house in Tennessee, until the Tates took him in; and of having studied with John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College.

 

In addition, he was a Boston Lowell, related to both James Russell and Amy, a fact that probably played differently with each of the students in the workshop. Some of us—like Paul Petrie, Henri Coulette, and myself—were not long out of the military; and had odd, mongrelly backgrounds distinguished more by luck and tenacity than by bloodline or old school ties. Without the GI Bill, we would probably not have come this far, or to this particular place. Our reactions were probably less matter of fact than, say, Donald Petersen's (who'd known Lowell at Indiana), or Donald Justice's or Jane Cooper's—more a mixture of curiosity, amusement, and awe.

Lowell's classroom demeanor was thoughtful and scholarly and marked by irony, offhandedness, and occasionally, dogmatism distilled to arrogance. "Looking at things a different way was always difficult for him," Paul Petrie recalls, "though he sometimes made a visibly painful effort to do so." Certainly, there was none of the all-out, energy-charged passion sometimes crossing the border into the histrionic that was later John Berryman's trademark. Lowell was deliberate, almost ponderous on occasion. He would lean forward across the wooden desk, his ever-present cigarette sending up its slender ribbon of smoke, waiting for our comment or reply. Other days he was more relaxed. "At that time," Jane Cooper remembers, "Lowell still hadn't done much teaching, and he seemed like an amateur in the best sense. Studying with him was like listening to inspired gossip, full of brilliant almost casual observations of how a poem could be made. .. . He always stressed what was most human in the work of contemporary and modern poets, most of whom he knew personally." His knowledge of poetry was broad as well as deep and his admiration for certain European poets, Rilke chief among them, was rivaled only by his respect for Virgil and Catullus. It may have been partly Lowell's influence that caused Henri Coulette and others to enroll in courses in the classics department, and which caused me later to undertake a translation of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. He had a way, however indirectly, of pushing you.

Perhaps I made of Lowell and of Lowell's poems what I needed to. I was a Boston boy myself, and carrying all the bad psychic baggage of my mother’s early death, my father's desertion, and the string of foster homes I ran away from. Like Lowell, I was damaged goods. And still full of confusion, rage, and need, I read his poems as texts of anger and lamentation. I had only recently dumped all the constricting prejudices of my lace-curtain, Irish Catholic upbringing, rejected the church, and was living in free fall: Lowell had desperately embraced the faith I had cut myself loose from and then abandoned it, apparently as disappointed as I had been with its dogmas. Perhaps, in some way, I was the adopted son of his spiritual searching.

We never discussed any of this, of course. At least not beyond the surface details. I think I may have told him about my brief career, after my mother died, as an eight-year-old, would-be hooligan in the care of my aunt and uncle in Charlestown. I was from the wrong side of the river, of course, but he'd been something of a thug himself in grade school. And there is a sense in which evasiveness, rage, and rebellion, those poisons that leak from the wounded soul, are the same no matter what side of the river you're from. Perhaps he saw in the sometimes strained language of my student poems—he was an exceptionally alert reader and, as the result of his own troubles, heavily into Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis—a tension akin to his own. Perhaps, in these sessions where nothing particularly noteworthy seemed to be going on, I was learning what could be done with the fear and inconsolable grief, the miserable knowledge, that come with too much pain experienced too soon.

SNODGRASS:

However high the expectations, almost no one was disappointed by Lowell's teaching. He came, one semester each, for several years and usually taught at least one course in masterpieces of English poetry. For each session he picked a poet or even a single poem, then for several hours would free associate to that work. Wyatt, Raleigh, Milton's "Lycidas," Landor, Tennyson's "Tithonus" week after week we came away staggered under a bombardment of ideas, ideas, ideas. None of those works would ever look the same again; neither would our estimation of an adequate response to the work of art.

His workshops were, if anything, more powerful. When Lowell "did" your poem, said one student, it was as if a muscle-bound octopus came and sat down on it. Then, deliberately, it would stretch out one tentacle and haul in mythology; a second for sociology, a third for classical literature, others for religion, history, psychology. Meantime, you sat there thinking, "This man is as mad as they said; none of this has anything to do with my poor, little poem!" Then he began tying these disciplines, one by one, into your text; you saw that it did have to do, had almost everything to do, with your poem.

My friend neglected to say that two days later you would run into Lowell on the street and he'd say, hunching over you with a concerned smile, "I've been thinking about that poem of yours—you know, the one with the rather grand language—and I was all wrong about it. Now, what it's really about is ..." and he was off again, hauling you with him through new galaxies of idea and association. Who could feel less than grateful for a mind so massive, so unpredictable, so concerned?

No less exciting was the Greek poetry workshop—taught jointly by Lowell and Gerald Else, then the leading American classicist. The students were poets from the workshop; none of the others had taken any Greek. (I had taken beginning Greek twice and Homer once, but none of it had taken.) We moved through the Iliad at exactly six lines per meeting, taking apart every sentence, each and every word, to identify its root, the nature of any suffixes and prefixes, additions, eccentricities of Attic or Ionic speech, departures from normal syntax or usage. This two-hour class followed an unvarying format: for the first hour, Lowell went through our six lines throwing out incredibly provocative, far-reaching theories about their meaning and implications; for the second hour, Else went through the same lines telling what they really meant. The class seemed almost a liberal education in itself; even Else said that doing the Iliad so slowly taught him things he'd never noticed.

This incredible force and extension of Lowell's mind seemed to me frighteningly involved with his extreme personality changes, his manic-depressive episodes. Little by little, month by month, the reach and power diminished, area after area of that mind were sealed off. Finally only a weary, gray shadow remained. Then, as that dammed-up force began to reassert itself, he might grow fiercely destructive to himself and others.

In his writings, Lowell intimates that if his wives were hectoring or slighting to him, that recalled his earlier situation with his mother; he felt that the nature of affection. Once, in some conversation, I started, "Oh, marriage is always ..." He, no doubt reading my probable truism, concluded, ". . . a rat-fight." When he could endure his situation and its concomitant depression no longer, he usually got a new girlfriend and broke into manic violence. I knew he could not have been easy to live with, that he had chosen and contributed to his situation, yet that made it no less painful to observe. I still felt something close to awe for him and found it hard to be friendly to anyone who was less than deferential to him.

Fortunately, he had no violent episodes at Iowa; I was never present when he did. There, I met his wife only briefly—if I recall, five times, of which she was in bed, three. She was apparently ill quite often; sometimes, after he had talked with some of us downstairs, or brought us home from some party, we might be received in her bedroom. Usually languid and exhausted, she once or twice became so excited at the mention of an absent acquaintance that she would get out of bed to "do" them. These imitations were exquisite, crackling with energy, but you never wanted to leave the room for long.

In time, I came to be one of the senior workshop members; my work was liked by Lowell and others—not merely, I think, because it resembled his. I did not care to recognize how exact, how exacting, that resemblance was, apparently content just to win a place among writers and teachers whom I revered.

DANA:

Lowell’s poetry and teaching have carried over into my life in a way he could not have guessed and might not even have wanted it to, a way I never realized until I began to write about it. Wouldn't it be curious, if, of all of his students at Iowa, I was after all the one uniquely equipped by a wretched childhood to benefit from the full panoply of what he had to offer? It's even possible I was so involved in this silent dialogue of souls that I never noticed what others saw as his faults.

What I learned from him technically now seems to me of another order of importance. For example, after several decades of writing, I ditched uniqueness of idiom as a literary value, much as Lowell himself did in Life Studies in response to the urging of William Carlos Williams to use common speech. The early 1950s were a period of intense literary formalism in poetry presided over by Frost, Tate, and Ransom, as it had been earlier, by Yvor Winters. But in truth, during my time in the Writers' Workshop, I never felt entirely comfortable with rigidly defined poetic forms. I appreciated them and practiced them for their beauty and music, but I also felt that I was repeating the past, repeating work already done and done better by the masters of those forms. Whitman and Williams called. And the formal demands of my own spirit.

At Iowa in 1953, I was somewhat aware, as I think most of us were, that Lowell was struggling with a similar disaffection, that he had begun to find rhyme and scansion a "hurdle," an impediment "to what you want to say most forcibly" as he wrote Williams later. And it would be four more years before he published his first relatively unmeasured verse. It would be even longer before I would make my own small revolution in Some Versions of Silence. My work over the last decade, while it shares Lowell's late passion to say clearly "what happened," has also moved yet further away from his in the direction of an often wholly improvisational method.

LEVINE:

[Lowell’s] parting words were unqualified praise of his successor, John Berryman, not as poet but as one of the great Shakespearean scholars of the age. And then he added that if we perused the latest issue of the Partisan we would discover the Mistress Bradstreet poem, clear evidence that Berryman was coming "into the height of his powers," a favorite phrase of Lowell's and one he rarely employed when speaking of the living. In fairness to Lowell, he was teetering on the brink of the massive nervous breakdown that occurred soon after he left for Cincinnati to occupy the Elliston Chair of Poetry. Rumors of his hospitalization drifted back to Iowa City, and many of us felt guilty for damning him as a total loss.

As person and teacher, John was an extraordinary contrast to Lowell. To begin with, he did not play favorites: everyone who dared hand him a poem burdened with second-rate writing tasted his wrath, and that meant all of us. He never appeared bored in the writing class; to the contrary, he seemed more nervous in our presence than we in his. Whereas Lowell always sprawled in a chair as though visibly troubled by his height, John almost always stood and often paced as he delivered what sounded like memorized encomiums on the nature of poetry and life. Lowell's voice was never more than faintly audible and always encased in his curiously slothful accent, whereas Berryman articulated very precisely, in what appeared to be an actor's notion of Hotspur's accent. His voice would rise in pitch with his growing excitement until it seemed that soon only dogs would be able to hear him. He tipped slightly forward as though about to lose his balance, and conducted his performance with the forefinger of his right hand. The key word here is "performance," for these were memorable meetings in which the class soon caught his excitement. All of us sensed that something significant was taking place.

Beyond the difference of personal preferences and presentation was a more significant one. Lowell had pushed us toward poetry written in formal meters, rhymed, and hopefully involved with the grief of great families, either current suburban ones or those out of the great storehouse of America's or Europe's past. We got thundering dramatic monologues from Savonarola and John Brown that semester. For Berryman it was open house. He found exciting a poem about a particular drinking fountain in a bus station in Toledo, Ohio. Lowell certainly would have preferred a miraculous spring in that other Toledo—though, now that he was no longer a practicing Catholic, sainthood seemed also to bore him. Berryman was delighted with our curious efforts in the direction of free verse, on which he had some complex notions concerning structure and prosody. He even had the boldness to suggest that contemporary voices could achieve themselves in so unfashionable and dated a form as the Petrarchan sonnet. To put it simply, he was all over the place and seemed delighted with the variety we represented.

Their contrasting styles became more evident during the second meeting of the class. Lowell had welcomed a contingent of hangers-on, several of whom were wealthy townspeople dressed to the nines hugging their copies of Lord Weary's Castle. Now and then one would submit a poem: Lowell would say something innocuous about it, let the discussion hang in midair for a moment, then move on to something else. Berryman immediately demanded a poem from one of this tribe. The poem expressed conventional distaste for the medical profession by dealing with the clichés of greed and indifference to suffering. (We later learned it was written by a doctor's wife.) John shook his head violently. "No, no," he said, "it's not that it's not poetry. I wasn't expecting poetry. It's that it's not true, absolutely untrue, unobserved, the cheapest twaddle." Then he began a long monologue in which he described the efforts of a team of doctors to save the life of a friend of his, how they had struggled through a long night, working feverishly. "They did not work for money. There was no money in it. They worked to save a human life because it was a human life and thus precious. They did not know who the man was, that he was a remarkable spirit. They knew only that he was too young to die, and so they worked to save him, and, failing, wept." (It turned out the man was Dylan Thomas, but Berryman did not mention this at the time.) A decent poet did not play fast and loose with the facts of this world, he or she did not accept television's notion of reality. I had never before observed such enormous cannons fired upon such a tiny target. The writer left the room in shock, and those of us who had doubts about our work—I would guess all of us—left the room shaken.

SNODGRASS:

John Berryman, who came one semester, was more sympathetic. Reading these poems about my daughter [Heart’s Needle, the Pulitzer Prize winning book], he seemed, if not wildly enthusiastic, encouraging. Several lines, there, still contain revisions he suggested.

By that time, however, my life was in such turmoil that I saw rather little of Berryman. I was working, first, in a grubby small hotel, then at the Veterans' Hospital. My impression is that his classes were no less stimulating than either Lowell's or Jarrell's. He is harder, though, to sum up: not quite so ponderously intellectual as Lowell, nor emotionally brilliant as Jarrell. Full, though, of startling insights. He took us through the ending of A Winter's Tale and selected passages of "Song of Myself." Reading the miraculous last section of the Whitman, he looked up and said, "You know what that proves? That proves most people can't write poetry."

His writing classes were especially valuable, partly because he made specific assignments to a roomful of already highly accomplished students. When they handed in their assignments one day, he sat a moment leafing through the papers, paused to look at one, then glared at the class. "It just is not right," he said, "to get a sonnet like that as a classroom assignment." He was looking at Donald Justice's poem about how the angels, driving Adam and Eve from Paradise, raise above the closed gates their dazzling and fearful wings. Later, he assigned us to write a poem in stanzas about a death; I wrote about a patient I had looked after at the Veterans' Hospital, "A Flat One." I later had to comb Lowell's language out of this piece, as well as its symbolist stasis, but felt grateful to Berryman for a poem it wouldn't have occurred to me to write.

He once said that the poet's career should consist of, first, finding who they were, finding their own voice. Then, though, they would have to set about finding their opposite—the thing and voice that they were not. Finally, they would have to make a synthesis of these oppositions. This has a relation—never an easy one—to his own career and his effect on students. He tended to jolt you out of any easy definition of yourself or your limits. The poem was for him, more than either Lowell or Jarrell, a leap into the unknown.

Meantime, his own career seemed stalled. Sometime before, he had published Homage to Mistress Bradstreet which won multiple awards and which many had said was the great American long poem. By this time, no one was saying that. No one was reading his little pamphlet His Thought Made Pockets and the Plane Buckt, which contained a number of concentration camp poems and several sketches toward the loopy brilliance of the Dream Songs—his finest achievement. All the cockeyed fancy dance and fireworks of those poems was now going into talk at cocktail parties, bars, all-night drinking sessions. If he didn't seem to be involved with any women just then, made passes at none of his students, he made up for that. Once he'd had a few drinks, you could not get away; if his monologues couldn't stop you, he would grab your arm or would sing—surely the worst I ever heard. Unlike the quiet little man who walked about campus wearing a pork pie hat, this Berryman was frightening; I started avoiding him. He got into a fight with his landlord, thence into jail, and finally out of town with the semester unfinished. He was already into the drunken wallow of his later years.

LEVINE:

Much to my horror, my Petrarchan sonnet was selected for discussion. (I believe the poem no longer exists; I had the good luck never to have had it accepted for publication.) Actually, it was not that bad: it was about food, which had been an obsession of mine for several months; I was running out of money and so ate very little and very badly. To be more precise, the poem was about my mother's last Thanksgiving feast, which I had returned home to participate in; since my mother was a first-rate office manager and a tenth-rate cook, the event had been a disaster. John discussed four poems that day. The first was not a Petrarchan sonnet, and as far as he could determine had no subject or any phrasing worth remembering. The second did have a subject, but John went to the board to scan its meter. "This is NOT iambic," he said. After getting through four lines, he turned and headed directly toward the cowering poet, suspended the page over his head, and finally let it fall. "This is metrical chaos. Pray you avoid it, sir." I was next. Much to my relief, John affirmed that, yes, this was a Petrarchan sonnet; it was iambic and it did possess a fine subject—the hideous nature of the American ritual meal become a farce. He paused. "But, Levine, it is not up to its most inspired moments—It has accepted three mediocre rhymes, it is padded where the imagination fails. If it is to become a poem, the author must attack again and bring the entirety up to the level of its few fine moments." In effect John was giving us a lesson in how poems are revised: one listened to one's own voice when it was "hot" (a word he liked) and let the "hot" writing redirect one toward a radical revision. "No hanging back," he once said. "One must be ruthless with one's own writing or someone else will be." (I tried but failed to improve the poem. Even at twenty-six, I had not learned to trust the imagination.)

It was clear that, among those poems considered, mine had finished second best, and for this I was enormously relieved. What follows is the best, exactly in the form we saw it on that late February

Monday in 1953:

SONNET by Donald Justice

The wall surrounding them they never saw;
The angels, often. Angels were as common
As birds or butterflies, but looked more human.
As long as the Wings were furled, they felt no awe.
Beasts, too, were friendly. They could find no flaw
In all of Eden: this was the first omen.
The second was the dream which woke the woman:
She dreamed she saw the lion sharpen his claw.
As for the fruit, it had no taste at all.
They had been warned of what was bound to happen;
They had been told of something called the world;
They had been told and told about the wall.
They saw it now; the gate was standing open.
As they advanced, the giant wings unfurled.

After reading the poem aloud, John returned to one line: "As for the fruit, it had no taste at all." "Say that better in a thousand words," he said, "and you're a genius." He went on: "One makes an assignment like this partly in jest, partly in utter seriousness, to bring out the metal in some of you and to demonstrate to others how much you still need to learn. No matter what one's motives are, no teacher has the right to expect to receive something like this: a true poem." Class dismissed.

In spite of his extraordinary sense of humor, the key to Berryman's success as a teacher was his seriousness. This was the spring of the Army-McCarthy hearings, the greatest television soap opera before the discovery of Watergate. John, as an addicted reader of the New York Times, once began a class by holding up the front page so the class might see the latest revelation in the ongoing drama. "These fools will rule for a while and be replaced by other fools and crooks. This," and he opened a volume of Keats to the "Ode to a Nightingale," "will be with us for as long as our language endures." These were among the darkest days of the Cold War, and yet John was able to convince us—merely because he believed it so deeply—that nothing could be more important for us, for the nation, for humankind, than our becoming the finest poets we could become. And there was no doubt as to how we must begin to accomplish the task; we must become familiar with the best that had been written, we must feel it in our pulse.

"Levine, you're a scholar," he once roared out at me in class. "Tell us how you would go about assembling a bibliography on the poetry of Charles Churchill." A scholar I was not, and John knew it, but he had a point: that poets had to know these things. The ignorant but inspired poet was a total fiction, a cousin to Hollywood's notion of the genius painter who boozes, chases girls, and eventually kills himself by falling off a scaffold in the Sistine Chapel. "Friends," John was saying, "it's hard work, and the hard work will test the sincerity of your desire to be poets." He rarely mentioned inspiration, perhaps because he assumed that most of us had been writing long enough to have learned that it came to those who worked as best they could through the barren periods, and this was—he once told me—a barren period for him. So we knew how to begin the task of becoming a poet: study and work. And how did it end? Here John was just as clear: it never ended. Speaking of the final poems of Dylan Thomas, he made it clear they were merely imitations of the great work of his early and middle period. "You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you're merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that's always the easiest." And suddenly he burst into a recitation of "The Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London," ending:

Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

"Can you imagine possessing that power and then squandering it?" he asked. "During our lifetime that man wrote a poem that will never be bettered."

No doubt his amazing gift for ribaldry allowed him to devastate our poems without crushing our spirits, that and the recognition on his part that he too could write very badly at times. He made it clear to us from the outset that he had often failed as a poet and for a variety of reasons: lack of talent, pure laziness ("Let's face it," he once said to me, "life is mainly wasted time."), and stupid choices. "There are so many ways to ruin a poem," he said, "it's quite amazing good ones ever get written." On certain days he loved playing the clown. One Monday he looked up from the class list sent to him by the registrar and asked Paul Petrie why he was getting twice as much credit for the course as anyone else. Paul said he wasn't sure. "Perhaps," said John, "you're getting extra units in physical education and home economics. I'd like you to arrive twenty minutes early and do fifty laps around the room and then erase the blackboard. You might also do a few push-ups or work on your technique of mixing drinks." He then discovered my name was not on the roll. (The truth was, lacking sufficient funds, I had not registered.)

He asked me if I thought the registrar was anti-Semitic. No, I said, just sloppy. "You realize," he said, "that until your name appears on this list you do not exist. Tell me," he added, "does anyone else see this Levine fellow? Sometimes I have delusions." As the weeks passed my name continued not to appear on the roster, and John continued to make a joke out of it. "Levine, should I go see the registrar and remedy this hideous state of affairs?" I assured him it was unnecessary, that it was just a meaningless slipup, and I wasn't taking it personally. "You're quite sure it's not anti-Semitism, Levine? These are dark times." Indeed they were for many Americans, but for the young poets in this workshop they were nothing if not glory days.

"Levine," he said another day, "when was the last time you read your Shakespeare?" "Last week," I said. "And what?" "Measure for Measure." "Fine. I've noticed you consistently complain about the quantity of adjectives in the poems of your classmates." This was true. "Is it the number that matters or the quality?" I failed to answer. "Remember your Blake: 'Bring out number, weight, & measure in a year of dearth.'" I nodded. "'Thy turfy mountains where live nibbling sheep.' Two nouns, two adjectives. Any complaints, Levine?" I had none. "Who wrote the line?" "Shakespeare," I said. "What play?" Again I was silent. His long face darkened with sadness. LaFollette answered, "The Tempest." "Levine, do not return to this class until you have reread The Tempest. I assume you've read it at least once." I had. "'Fresher than May, sweeter/Than her gold buttons on the boughs ...' Recognize it?" I did not. "There is great poetry hiding where you least suspect it—there, for example, buried in that hideous speech from The Two Noble Kinsmen, Act III, Scene I." Much scratching of pens as the class bowed to their notebooks. "We must find our touchstones where we can."

He always wanted more work from Robert Dana, though, when Dana finally gave him a poem of ninety-eight lines, he mused over it for a time and finally noted two good images. His parting words were, "If you're going to write something this long why don't you try making it poetry?" Meeting after meeting produced the same advice: "Write everything that occurs to you; it's the only way to discover where your voice will come from. And never be in a hurry. Writing poetry is not like running the four hundred meters. Coulette, do you remember what Archie Williams said his strategy was for running the four hundred meters?" (Coulette, the resident sports maven, did not know. Williams had won the gold at the

'36 Berlin Olympics.) John went on: "Archie said, 'My strategy is simple; I run the first two hundred meters as fast as I can to get ahead of everyone, and I run the second two hundred meters as fast as I can to stay there.' Now, that is NOT the way we write poetry, we are not in a race with anyone, but all of us are getting on in years and we'd better get moving." In other words, go as fast as you can but don't be in a hurry; we had a lifetime to master this thing, and with our gifts it would take a lifetime.

Even Justice got mauled. John found his "Beyond the Hunting Woods" a bit too refined, a bit too professionally southern. Those dogs at the end of the poem, Belle and Ginger, all they needed were a Jew mint juleps.” And Levine? Levine got his. According to John, Levine's best poem that semester was "Friday Night in the Delicatessen," in which a Jewish mother laments the fact that her sons are growing away from her, becoming Americans, becoming—you should forgive the expression—goyim. At one point she describes them with "hands for fights and alcohol." "Hands for fights, yes," said John, "but hands for alcohol? No. We drink alcohol, Levine, as I know you've learned—we absorb it through the digestive system. The fact we hold a glass of whiskey in our hands is not enough. The parallel structure is false, but this is an amazingly ambitious poem." (I lived on that word, "ambitious," for weeks, even after a friend said, "He forgot to add, 'Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.''') Again I had finished second best. This poem was written to fulfill John's assignment for an ode, and the clear winner was "A Flat One," by De Snodgrass, a poem of enormous power that depicted the slow and agonizing death of a World War I veteran, and the vet's relationship with a hospital orderly who must kill to keep him alive. Even in this earlier "static semi-Symboliste version" (Snodgrass's description), it was a startling poem. (Although Lowell is generally credited for being the mentor behind the poems of Heart's Needle ["A Flat One"] actually appears in De's second book, After Experience], De now claims that Lowell discouraged the writing of those poems, and quite forcefully. "Snodgrass, you have a mind," he'd said to him. "You mustn't write this kind of tear-jerking stuff." Berryman never found the poems sentimental; he tried to move De's writing further from traditional metrics toward something—as De put it—“more like his own experiments at the time ... more like regular speech ... less like the poetry being written at the time.")

What became increasingly clear as the weeks passed was that, although John was willing on occasion to socialize with us, he was not one of us; he was the teacher, and we were the students. He had not the least doubt about his identity, and he was always willing to take the heat, to be disliked if need be. In private he once remarked to me that teaching something as difficult as poetry writing was not a popularity contest. "Even a class as remarkable as this one," he said, "will produce terrible poems, and I am the one who is obliged to say so." He sensed that the students had themselves developed a wonderful fellowship and took joy when anyone of them produced something fine. Whether or not he took credit for any of this I do not know. To this day I can recall Bill Dickey studying a Justice poem almost with awe. "Do you see those rhymes?" he said to me. "I'll bet this is the first time they've been used in all our poetry!"

SNODGRASS:

For a long time I avoided Lowell—partly to keep my language and poetic practice free of his. But also, conversely, because he had written me that he was taking my poems about my daughter—which might never have been published without his support—as a model for his own. I found this, in one I had nearly worshiped and whose style had so dominated me, hard to live with. I even became afraid—perhaps mistakenly, though not without evidence—that he might be influenced by some of the destructive elements of my own life and behavior. When I did visit, his wife and I became steadily less friendly. If I did not see him during any actual attack, I did just before and shortly after; the changes were appalling.

Once, I visited his class at Boston University. It seemed this couldn't be the same man; I have seldom encountered anyone duller. I struggled to inject some life into the class, but my deference to him, my unfamiliarity with the students' work, my shock at his state—all conspired against that. As we left the building, he hovered over me much as before, saying, "I always feel you should be as numb as possible in class—not say too much that's interesting. You ought to give the students a chance—not just obliterate them."

During that same weekend, though, we had one splendid evening: in his study we stayed up working on his translation of Rilke's "Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes. At the time Lowell was influenced by the late poems of Ford Madox Ford—which he'd read me at length during the day—and was moving on from the Life Studies poems toward an even prosier style. I was astonished both at the liberties he took with the original and at the flatness and slanginess of his renderings. I have never held a brief for literal translation, but it hadn't occurred to me that one might take the original simply as a springboard into a related, but different, poem. Jarrell had once said, about his own splendid translations, "I would never try to second guess Rilke!" I had agreed. Now I had to rethink my positions after all, what was good enough for Wyatt in his version of Petrarch just might be good enough for us. If my poems had once pushed Lowell toward a simpler surface, he had now moved into areas of language I wouldn't have dared. For instance, in that poem's ending:

Far there, dark against the clear entrance,
stood some one, or rather no one—
you'd ever know. He stood and stared
at the one level, inevitable road,
as the reproachful god of messengers
looking round, pushed off again.
His caduceus was like a shotgun on his shoulder.

I recall that I had qualms about "no one you'd ever know" which now seems, however un-Rilkean, brilliant. I still don't know what to think of that shotgun in the last line. In any case, though I'm glad there are more literal versions, I still see no reason to regret the existence of Lowell's.

We must have worked for three or four hours, until around two A.M., when Stanley Kunitz came in. Kunitz, who was usually unfriendly to me and many of whose opinions I had thought foolish, now worked over the same poem with Lowell while I took a lesser role. I remember being surprised by the quality and cogency of Kunitz's practical criticism. I came away drained but exhilarated; if someone had had a tape recorder, they could have produced a marvelous document on the poetic process.

And old magics could be reborn. Once, at the New York City Ballet (an evening when Villella had been especially breathtaking), I ran into Paul Engle during intermission. Much of my rancor had abated; he seemed changed. His wife had been committed, then died; he had remarried a Chinese lady whom everyone adored and who adored him. He had lost the workshops at Iowa; taking his funds with him, he had initiated, instead, an International Translations Center, something quite unique in the academic world. Yet that serious defeat, and surely the change in his affectional life, had made him humbler, more humane. We agreed to meet later for a drink.

Coming out of Lincoln Center together, we ran into Lowell on the street. Their enmity, too, seemed to have faded. On my book jacket Lowell had described Iowa—in a sharp slash at Engle—as the "most sterile of sterile places." I later discovered that, several years before, Engle had been suddenly hospitalized while in New York. Lowell had visited him there and they had grown friendly again. Each now seemed thoughtful of the other's feelings: Engle carefully stepping around difficult subjects; Lowell, in his heavy-handed way, blundering into painful areas but turning quickly to put an apologetic hand on Engle's sleeve or make a counterbalancing compliment. Lowell suggested we go to his place at the Dakota for a drink; when I said that my wife, Camille, was coming in on a plane around midnight, he suggested that I pick her up and bring her there.

When we arrived, they were busily conjuring up the greats of the past generation—Engle recalling that after Robert Frost's son had killed himself, Engle walked the beaches of Cuba with Frost, talking him out of suicide. "How little good," Frost had said, "my health has ever done for anyone dear to me."

Lowell told of being with Pound when he first heard of Eliot's death. Pound responded in three statements, each delivered, after a pause, in a different voice: first, the official pronouncement,

"My oId comrade in the arts is dead." Then, the voice of personal loss and half-humorous complaint, "Now, who will understand my jokes?" And finally, a rush to generous acknowledgment and praise, but in the voice an Idahoan would use speaking of a horse trainer or auto mechanic: "Well, you've got to admit he was one hell of a poet!"

It was one of the evenings of a lifetime. It was punctuated, however, at roughly forty-five-minute intervals by the appearance of Lowell's wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, on the balcony above their two story living room. Once again, she was in nightgown and socks and would peer over the railing like a figure on some medieval clock tower, calling, "Cal! Cal! Don't you know the time? You'll be an absolute wreck!" Camille, Engle, and I would get up, embarrassed, and tiptoe for the door. But as soon as she was out of sight, Lowell would wink and whisper us back for just one more drink. Even knowing how difficult Lowell could be to himself and, surely, to his wife, who could resist such talk and such company? There we would be for the next incarnation forty-five minutes later.

That was not the last time I saw Lowell, but things were never so rich again. Gradually, I thought, his work was losing force and direction. Above all, he seemed unable to find the feel of his own passions, became as gray and indecisive as that father he describes in his poems. With the passions went the voice—he showed me poems which tried to recapture the wildness of the earliest poems, the clarities of Life Studies, or just any defined voice. Meantime, he became the center of an industry; surrounded by sycophants or those who founded careers on his. Acclaim grew as the poems diminished and he declined, I thought, into a public figure.

After our last meeting, there were a few letters—chiefly about his divorce and remarriage to Caroline Blackwood in England, a life which he detailed rapturously. It seemed improbable this could last. Back in New York again, he died shortly before his taxi reached Hardwick's apartment. In the meantime, he had used her private letters in his poems—an act which many, I among them, thought execrable. It is no doubt a failing that I have never ended a marriage amicably—love converts too easily into hatred—but I, too, would have died before going back into the apartment of someone I had once loved, then had so profoundly injured.

DANA:

Robert Lowell may have disliked his days in Iowa City. In fact, he commented openly on the "sterility" of the Midwest on the dust jacket of De Snodgrass's Pulitzer Prize-winning Heart's Needle. But if he found life in Iowa City "a pretty dormant, day to day thing, a rather rustic pastoral after Europe," he also found it remarkable for its "light, space, and cleanness." And in at least one letter to Allen Tate he wrote that his students were pretty good. Whatever else may be true, twenty years later, Lowell remembered this period of his life with pleasure and a certain amount of pride.

That evening in 1974 Lowell entered the Queen's Elm Pub in South Kensington in the company of half a dozen people. One woman, thin, pale skinned, and aristocratically beautiful, stood out. It soon became clear she was Lady Caroline Blackwood, his third wife. In her full-length fur coat she seemed out of place amid the scruffy audience of students and writers crowding into that dim, tiny meeting room above the bar. About thirty folding chairs had been arranged in several rows. And there were one or two other odd pieces of furniture, including a straight-backed chapel pew. The event had been virtually unpublicized, and it was clear the Writers Action Group wasn't expecting a large audience. Lady Caroline paused a moment beside her husband, and then took a seat in the back, at some distance from two silver-haired matrons of the Empire properly gloved and hankied who'd arrived early. Lowell had aged greatly since I'd seen him last. He was partially bald now and wore the remaining hair, now pretty thoroughly silvered, long in the back and on the sides in a kind of lanky tonsure. He seemed overweight and tired, or at least languid.

After a few minutes had elapsed and he was seated, I went over to speak to him. I hadn't expected him to remember me, and at first he didn't. Or if he did, it was only as part of a moment buried deep in the past. But then, his memory seemed to clear, and he began to speak warmly of his days in Iowa City and his class of aspiring poets, asking about Donald Petersen and recalling Phil Levine ("he had a little diary about Spain, didn't he? Rather nicely written, didn't you think?"). As we sat talking, we were interrupted by a young girl from Radcliffe who wanted him to sign a book for her. By way of introducing me, he said, "This man was a student of mine at Iowa almost twenty years ago. That was a great place. Only twenty students—all of them good. Most of my students from there have published books, you know." Then, turning to me, he said, "That was a golden time, wasn't it?" I hesitated a moment in mild shock, because like many others I'd shared for years the general myth of his unhappiness at Iowa. I don't know what I'd expected him to say; but it wasn't that. Then I laughed and said, "Yes, it was."

That night Lowell read only translations: of Villon ("After hearing Villon in the original French, I have a strong desire to revise it."); of Dante ("I'm going to skip the next six lines; it's prophecy and obscure."); of Leopardi ("Someone once said that, in his poems, the splendor of the writing overcomes the misery of the subject."). The group that had accompanied him to the reading were friends who'd assisted him with the translations, and they preceded him, reading the poems in the original languages: ancient Greek, Italian, French, German, and Russian. He himself read well, punctuating and emphasizing his commentary with what my wife later characterized as his "little boy gestures." A young writer friend, an American, who accompanied us to the reading that night, said that Lowell's brief introductions to each poem had struck him like "whole semesters of coursework;" and the poet himself, as "a broken man, a felled giant." Lowell's voice was the same low, melancholy voice I'd heard for the first time nearly twenty years earlier, back in those converted steel barracks by the Iowa River, still strong if tired and a little slurred perhaps by drink or medicinal drugs.

At the end of the evening, my wife, my friend, and I said goodbye, and Lowell signed books for us in his almost completely unreadable script. (I've only now figured out why his inscription has remained a puzzle to me all these years. Below the printed "For Robert Dana/With Keen Happy Memories of Iowa/ 1952?" he'd scribbled only his first name, "Robert.") He rose from his chair then and asked how long I'd be in England, and said rather wistfully, or so it seemed, "Well, it would be nice to get together." But I was leaving in a couple of days for the States and he, for Italy. I shook his hand and thanked him for the fine reading. Then, my wife and friend and I separated ourselves from the crowd, descended the dark stairs, and walked out into the chilly London night. I never saw him again.

SNODGRASS:

As for John Berryman, I not merely avoided, I practically fled him—he was too dangerous. After pawing the wife of a well-known younger poet and former student all one evening, he had struck the man over the head with a full whiskey bottle (which could easily have killed him), then jumped on him, breaking a rib. Once, visiting Detroit, he managed to get my lady friend in the backseat of a car, my wife and myself in the front. Instantly alert to the hazards, he began pursuing the lady around the backseat. Hearing her protests, I stopped the car and said, "John, this is a proper lady who does not like to be mauled. "What?" he said, "You mean you don't fuck?" Everyone gasped. "Oh! It's that word. That's what bothers you: the word: P-H-U-Q-Q. I promise never to use that word again." We all dissolved into giggling. Such little-boy naughtiness may be amusing to recount afterward; it might have seriously damaged a number of people, some of them innocent.

I did hazard his company once more; this time, I almost injured him. Arriving in Los Angeles for a reading, I was met at the plane by my oId friend, Henri Coulette. He grabbed me by the arm, glared in my eye and snarled, "Listen, you son of a bitch, try anything and I'll kill you." "Hank, what did I do?" I gasped. "Nothing," he said. "We've had Berryman here for a week and I just can't stand any more trouble." All week, Berryman had refused to sleep or eat, stayed up all night monologuing, collapsed during readings, went to the hospital, propositioned the nurses, roamed the corridors, went back out against doctors' orders, collapsed again. Everyone was frantic. Now he was at the Green Hotel in Pasadena, watched over by students till sufficiently recovered to be shipped home to his wife.

At the door of his room I was greeted by a young woman built roughly like a hydrant, with a great shock of black hair and arms thick as my waist. "Hi," she said in a gravelly baritone, holding out her hand. "My name is Vivian Cienfuegos. I'm lookin' afta John. If he gets outa bed, I belt 'im in the chops! "She knew how funny that was. Tough and savvy, a sociology student who hadn't the reverence for him that literary students felt, she put up with no nonsense. Every time he reared off the bed with some obscene proposal, she laid a massive forearm upon him, delivering him safely to the mat. When he awoke and spoke to me, I, wanting to demonstrate friendship and not realizing how frail he was, thumped him on the chest. He fell back, choking and coughing uncontrollably. She and I looked at each other, terrified. He did recover though and she, in large part, was responsible. He mentions her, gratefully, in a poem but neither he nor the literary world gave her half the thanks she deserved.

In any case, I kept away after that. His case was the most frightening of all. I knew that a great many brilliant men's achievements and problems centered around their attachments to difficult and powerful mothers. Only after I'd read John Haffenden's and Eileen Simpson's books on him did I realize this was even truer for Berryman than for the others. I did know I didn't want to see this splendid man either throwing away his life and energies in childish nastiness or in being rescued and nursed back to life by versions, comic or tragic, of his mother. The only literary lessons left there lay in the print of his poems; the extra-literary lessons were too fierce to learn close by. It is only surprising he lasted so long before stepping off that bridge in Minneapolis.

LEVINE:

Before boarding [John] invited me to send him four or five poems in a year or so, and he’d be sure to get back to me to tell me how I was doing. Having seen an enormous carton of unopened mail in his apartment, I doubted he'd ever answer, but nonetheless a year and a half later I sent him four poems. His response was prompt and to the point, with X's to mark the lines and passages he thought a disaster and checks where he found me "hot," along with specific suggestions for revision; there was not a single line unremarked upon. There was also a brief letter telling me things were going well in Minneapolis and that he was delighted to know I was fooling editors with my "lousy poems." He looked forward to seeing me one day. There was not the least doubt about what he was in fact saying: our days as student and teacher had come to an end. We could not exchange poems as equals in poetry because we were not equals and might never be, and yet I had come too far to require a teacher. I felt the same way. I'd had one great poetry writing teacher, I had studied with him diligently for fifteen weeks. From now on I had to travel the road to poetry alone or with my peers. This was his final lesson, and it may have been the most important in my development.

As the years pass his voice remains with me, its haunting an unique cadences sounding in my ear, most often when I reread my own work. I can still hear him saying, "Levine, this will never do,” as he rouses me again and again from my self-satisfaction and lethargy to attack a poem and attack again until I make it the best poem I am capable of. His voice is there too when I teach, urging me to say the truth no matter how painful a situation I may create, to say it with precision and in good spirits, never in rancor, and always to remember Blake's words (a couplet John loved to quote): "A truth that's told with bad intent/Beats all the Lies you can invent." For all my teaching years, now over thirty, he has been a model for me. No matter what you hear or read about his drinking, his madness, his unreliability as a person, I am here to tell you that in the winter and spring of 1954, living in isolation and loneliness in one of the bleakest towns of our difficult Midwest, John Berryman never failed his obligations as a teacher. I don't mean merely that he met every class and stayed awake, I mean that he brought to our writing and the writing of the past such a sense of dedication and wonder that he wakened a dozen rising poets from their winter slumbers so that they might themselves dedicate their lives to poetry. He was the most brilliant, intense, articulate man I've ever met, at times even the kindest and most gentle, and for some reason he brought to our writing a depth of insight and care we did not know existed. At a time when he was struggling with his own self-doubts and failings, he awakened us to our singular gifts as people and writers. He gave all he had to us and asked no special thanks. He did it for the love of poetry.


Excerpt from Dana, Robert, ed. A Community of Writers. Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Univ of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 1999