CRF Blog

Interview of the Day: John Berryman

by Bill Hayes

Today marks the 97th anniversary of the birth of the American poet John Berryman (1914–1972). About a year before his death, the Paris Review interviewed Berryman.

An excerpt from that long interview:

INTERVIEWER: What was it like to take high tea with William Butler Yeats?

BERRYMAN: All I can say is that my mouth was dry and my heart was in my mouth. [Dylan] Thomas had very nearly succeeded in getting me drunk earlier in the day. He was full of scorn for Yeats, as he was for Eliot, Pound, Auden. He thought my admiration for Yeats was the funniest thing in that part of London. It wasn’t until about three o’clock that I realized that he and I were drinking more than usual. I didn’t drink much at that time; Thomas drank much more than I did. I had the sense to leave. I went back to my chambers, Cartwright Gardens, took a cold bath, and just made it for the appointment. I remember the taxi ride over. The taxi was left over from the First World War, and when we arrived in Pall Mall — we could see the Atheneum — the driver said he didn’t feel he could get in. Finally I decided to abandon ship and take off on my own. So I went in and asked for Mr. Yeats. Very much like asking, “Is Mr. Ben Jonson here?” And he came down. He was much taller than I expected, and haggard. Big, though, big head, rather wonderful looking in a sort of a blunt, patrician kind of way, but there was something shrunken also. He told me he was just recovering from an illness. He was very courteous, and we went in to tea. At a certain point, I had a cigarette, and I asked him if he would like one. To my great surprise he said yes. So I gave him a Craven “A” and then lit it for him, and I thought, Immortality is mine! From now on it’s just a question of reaping the fruits of my effort. He did most of the talking. I asked him a few questions. He did not ask me any questions about myself, although he was extremely courteous and very kind. At one point he said, “I have reached the age when my daughter can beat me at croquet,” and I thought, Hurrah, he’s human! I made notes on the interview afterward, which I have probably lost. One comment in particular I remember. He said, “I never revise now” — you know how much he revised his stuff — “but in the interests of a more passionate syntax.” Now that struck me as a very good remark. I have no idea what it meant and still don’t know, but the longer I think about it, the better I like it. He recommended various books to me by his friend, the liar, Gogarty, and I forget who else. The main thing was just the presence and existence of my hero. [more]