I didn’t know the video above existed, of my not-so-secret sensei JB.*, so excuse me while I catch my breath. I’ll wait, too. while you catch yours; here’s the heartrending poem he’s declaiming in that Irish-Woody-Allen accent. But that’s not the John Berryman poem I’m thinking about today.
I’ve never been a fan of Dream Song 23, below For the most part, Berryman at his best stayed away from explicit political references. But I’m staring at the Song now for clues, as I try in what I’m writing to evoke for 30 seconds an era I never lived through — wishing I’d never lost that great book The Dark Ages, assigned by my beyond-brilliant Binghamton prof Sarah Elbert.
I also know that I’m relying far too much on the Bayard Rustin phrase that David McReynolds taught me: Bayard spoke, he said, about the era’s rigidity as “a large piece of sheet steel, 50 feet wide and 50 feet tall, and one inch thick – and if you hit that with a hammer at one corner, the entire sheet would reverberate.” (The Dark Ages referenced chronicles how under that steel, subversive elements like jazz and the Beats were gathering, though it makes almost no reference to any of my soldiers.)
Grasping at cultural straws of all kind, I thought I’d try again. After all, Berryman was friends with WWII veteran Randall Jarrell (right) and in 1946 was teaching at Princeton, which like Yale had a front-row seat on the rest of my WWII story.
I know Berryman was spun by Hiroshima, and get the easy Joe Stalin bit, but what else is inside? Please comment on what you see? (You don’t have to be a Cold War baby to speculate.) I do think that the first verse, with its intimation of old-style TV static, comes closest to Rustin’s sheet of steel.
This is the lay of Ike.
Here’s to the glory of the Grewt White—awk—
who has been running—er—er—things in recent—ech—
in the United—If your screen is black,
ladies & gentlemen, we—I like—
at the Point he was already terrific—sick
to a second term, having done no wrong—
no right—no — right—having let the Army—bang—
defend itself from Joe, let venom’ Strauss
bile Oppenheimer out of use—use Robb,
who’ll later fend for Goldfine—Breaking no laws,
he lay in the White House—sob!!—
who never understood his own strategy—whee—
so Monty’s memoirs—nor any strategy,
wanting the ball bulled thro’ all parts of the line
at once—proving, by his refusal to take Berlin,
he misread even Clauswitz—wide empty grin
that never lost a vote (O Adlai mine).
Michael Erard of the Texas Observer had some thoughts about it last year – apparently Ike was about as articulate as Shrub, and he compares all the line-breaking to Ike’s speech. I think Erard doesn’t recognize the purity of JB’s self-created syntax, though his comparison to the great “Mr. Bones” sections is probably apt. Still, what is the poem saying about that sheet of steel and who it silenced? Or should I be looking to the far-greater Dream Song 10 (Ike is 15) for my answer? However things hurt, men hurt worse.