Love Fame & Existential Despair

I first learned about 20th century American poet John Berryman from Louise Gluck’s book Proofs and Theories; Gluck was impressed with the way Berryman swung through personas, effortlessly transitioning between one and another. She quoted a book titled Love & Fame, so obviously, I had to get my hands on any book with an ounce of merit and such a seductive title.

LoveFame5Love & Fame by John Berryman was much less self-indulgent than I had anticipated. It is a self-proclaimed non-autobiography in verse divided into four sections. The first section covers the poet’s college career and young romances. He spends this section making fun of his youthful narcissism and disillusions about romantic relationships and the romance of the life of the writer. The second section carries though his lonely time as a student in England. There are no flighty romances in this section; the poet refers to himself as a “monk” more than once. This section ends when the poet meets a woman. To her, he states a reoccurring idea in the final poem in this section: he is not yet a good poet, but he is certain he will become one: “I wasn’t much of [a poet] yet but probably would be”. In this section, he spends a lot of time writing about doing very little; it carries the narrative between sections I and III, but it was overall very dull.

Section III begins with an existential crisis, which is not revealed as a mid-life crisis until the second poem. This is after the poet had achieved fame and tried his hand at love (he states that he had three failed marriages). Since both fame and love have failed to lead him to happiness, he begins this section with a spiritual search. There is a leap in the maturity level of the speaker in sections II and III. Section IV only contains one long poem split into separate meditations called “Eleven Addresses to the Lord”.

When I opened the package containing Love & Fame, I disappointed at the condition of my copy, the 1972 re-print of Berryman’s 1970 book. As far as I can tell, this book was only printed twice and was republished as an e-book in 2014. My copy has yellowed pages, and the paper of the front and back covers flakes onto my lap while I was read; it smells like old book, but I got used to all of that after a while. Eventually, I started to enjoy it, having a dialogue with the pencil markings of the woman who owned this book before me. In the book, in between pages 56 and 57, she left a stub from an old credit card guest receipt—the kind that gets torn off from the restaurant copy like a movie ticket with everything hand-written. On one side, it has initials and a phone number, and on the other, written in all caps, IF IT’S NOT COMPLICATED IT MIGHT NOT BE THAT INTERESTING.

By “complicated” the previous owner is referring to the way Berryman swings through personas, the way new information effects the interpretation of what has been previously read, the names he drops throughout the book, few of which were recognizable to me. She is also probably referring to the way Berryman plays with words and punctuation throughout the book. The way he plays with punctuation is incredible, and I might write about that a different day. However—this is an unusual thing for me to say—I found the true beauty of this book to be in the whole rather than the details.

The title Love & Fame is somewhat misleading since the story the poet tells is more the story of his ego than a chronicle of flings and marriages or his journey to fame. Rather than leading to self-actualization, this journey leads to emotional destitution and utter helplessness.

After a the first few poems, I was reminded of an idea Freud presented in his essay “The Creative Writer and Daydreaming”. He states that the purpose of day dreaming is wish fulfillment for those who are unsatisfied in their lives; these daydreams fall into two main categories he calls ambitious and erotic. An ambitious daydream would be one about finding success or “elevating one’s personality”. An erotic daydream would be about sex, love, or a combination of the two. These categories often appear in the same dreams and represent our major desires.

Love & Fame is, in part, a book about daydreams and past events through the foggy perceptual lense of the poet. However, as the book continues, it goes from an immature egotistical reinforcement of Freud’s idea to a critique of it. His fantasies may represent his major desires, but as they are fulfilled, he realizes that they will not lead to happiness. He veers further away from Freud’s material world and deeper into a search for deeper meaning. Becoming more self-aware, he grows increasingly critical of his past selves. He acknowledges the pain he caused others and his failure to find fulfillment. However, he grows, not into self-actualization but deep shame. He looks to the spiritual realm to redeem himself and ends the book in the emotional destitution of feigned faith.


John Berryman

The poet’s early fantasies are shown in the first poem, “Her & It”. “Her” refers to one of the various women mentioned throughout the book; he expresses this ambiguity further in “Images of Elspeth”: “My love confused confused with after loves/ not ever over time did I outgrow,” (lines 9-10). The “It” in the first poem refers to his writing. He describes the success he has found as a writer and states that he wishes he could show her how successful he’s become. He says that he wishes she would read his book. He wishes he would find a letter from her in his fan mail. Here, the poet has already found success, which doesn’t seem to please him all that much, but the erotic day dream is clear.

This poem leads into the rest of the first section, which is about his undergraduate career. The section starts with utter arrogance. He describes his success with women, his interest in great literature, his popularity. However, by the final poem in this section, his pride has fallen. He has been rejected by women and publishers. He almost failed to graduate from Columbia. In the fall he would take a fellowship at Cambridge. “Recovery” takes place in the period between. The poem opens:

I don’t know what the hell happened all that summer.

I was done in, mentally. I wrote nothing, I read nothing.

I spent a pot of money, not being used to money

I forgot on what, now. I felt dazed. (lines 1-4)

This summer, he doesn’t think about women or his future. If daydreams are about mentally fulfilling desire, the poet had no desire that summer. He describes himself as not “unhappy”, but not “anything”, which I take to mean depressed. However, this poem leads us into what seems to be a deep unhappiness that permeates nearly every poem in the rest of the book. It taints his fantasies. After “pulling [himself] out reluctantly together at last,” (line 28), he kisses his mother and another ambiguous girlfriend goodbye and gets on a ship to the Old World.

Cambridge University applications

The vast and vacant campus of Cambridge. No wonder he was lonely.

The second section primarily describes interactions with people he met while traveling; the emphasis on the inner life of the poet has diminished. Most of the poems are dull; they describe a young man fluctuating between an unvalidated sense of superiority and a total loss of self-esteem. He elaborates on this point in “Monkhood”, one of just two poems I truly enjoyed in this section.

I suffered a little from shyness, which was just arrogance

Not even inverted.

I refused to meet Eliot, on two occasions,


I knew I wasn’t with it yet

& would not meet my superiors. Screw them.

Along with my hero worship & wish for comradeship

Went my pride, my ‘Satanic Pride’. (lines 22-28)


The title of this poem refers to his “unwilling monkhood”, and the majority of the poem describes a friend who apparently superior to the poet at this point. He has two mistresses, and he is reading voluntarily reading Conrad. However, the two women he is sleeping with are his landlady and her daughter, and he lives in constant fear that one will find out about the other. A full set of Conrad was one of two things he was left after his divorce with his wife. He uses his skills at darts as an excuse for drinking constantly. Meanwhile, the poet is just celibate, lonely, and excessively self-critical. They are presented to be equally unhappy.

The other poem I enjoyed was the final poem in the section, “Tea”. This poem marks the end of his monkhood, and introduces a glimmer of hope towards a relationship rooted in genuine happiness and fulfillment rather than self-gratification. In this section, he describes his first date with a former ballerina, current actress—a woman who has, by the next section, vanished but for a mention that he once knew a dancer who he should have married. I don’t have much to say about this poem other than that it brightens the book. It removes the reader from the poet’s egoism and deep unhappiness just like it removes the reader form the poet’s head. He describes the events, the conversation, the woman without describing his thoughts. He is outside self-consciousness. But of course, this only lasts a page.

The third section was my favorite, possibly because he alludes to and briefly mimics Robert Lowell’s “Life Studies” between spurts of spirituality. The first poem, “The Search” opens: “I wondered ever too what my fate would be,/women & after-fame become quite unavailable,/or at best, unimportant,” (lines 1-3). The poet toys with the idea of suicide throughout the book, but his existential crisis doesn’t truly begin until after he has a dream that he died. He wakes up and begins to feel that he must live because a higher power is invoking him to write. He starts searching for this higher power, beginning with the Gospels, but not limited to Christianity. However, his doubt is never released. He ends this poem by jumping from his search to Einstein’s disbelief in the final quatrain. Einstein calls God an unlosable friend. At this point, an unlosable friend is the poet’s greatest fantasy.

In “Dante’s Tomb”, he describes, during sex with an unnamed woman, his fear of the future both for himself and humanity.

We don’t know. Hundreds & hundreds of little poems

Rolled up & tied with ribbons

Over the virgin years, ‘unwanted love’.

And Miss Bishop’s friend has died. (lines 13-16)

The first sentence in this quatrain refers to nothing directly in the poem. Nothing above, nothing below; it’s simply a cry. He reflects on his past foolishness, then makes a cognitive leap to the “death” of Miss Bishop’s friend, Robert Lowell, who didn’t die until seven years after this was published. The death is not a physical death, but a death inside the self, a death of an emotional and spiritual power that, once is killed off, cannot come back. It is a death of hope for life to be better. This is important to contextualize the following poems, which occur in a mental hospital. Not only does he point to Lowell, but he adopts his use of prosody to drive madness. It begins in the first two quatrains of this poem, where he beings a patternless alteration between end rhyme and internal rhyme, beginning with slant rhymes and building to perfect masculine rhymes. He leaves the hospital at the end of this section.LoveFame4

The fourth and final section of Love & Fame is constituted of one poem, “Eleven Addresses to the Lord”. The poet writes to his unlosable friend with ceaseless doubt and utter helplessness. He blames himself, not only for his own failures, but for the failures of his friends, for the failures of humanity as a whole. It’s hard to find words to write about this section. It strikes too deep a chord in my soul. It gives no answers, no relief.

So I will leave off with the eleventh and final address. The poet is lost in faith twisted with irony. Lost in the want to believe. The search for the unlosable friend.


Germanicus leapt upon the wild lion in Smyrna,

Wishing to pass quickly from a lawless life.

The crowd shook the stadium.

The proconsul marveled.


‘Eighty & six years have I been his servant,

And he has done me no harm.

How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’

Polycarp, John’s pupil, facing the fire.


Make too me acceptable at the end of time

In my degree, which then Thou wilt award.

Cancer, senility, mania,

I pray I may be ready with my witness.


One thought on “Love Fame & Existential Despair

  1. Pingback: How the World Wars Unmade God in the Late Poems of Djuna Barnes | An Atmosphere of Glass

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