February 28, 2014 6:28 pm

In praise of our great poets

‘When the famous die, could we not just commission the best poets of the day to celebrate them?’

I was in the West End for a meeting when it was unceremoniously cancelled, so I decided to be a tourist for a couple of hours. In the National Portrait Gallery, I sought out the portrait of the Queen by Pietro Annigoni (the later of the two) with the very sloping shoulders, looking like a valiant Christian soldier head- to-toe in red. Instead, I found Wallis Simpson by Gerald Brockhurst, trying to appear soft in a slightly informal dress and massive brooch, “a present from the Duke”, luscious lands in the background lightly suggesting, I thought, power and imperial sway.

Afterwards I dawdled in the bookshops of Cecil Court, where I saw a first edition of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet by John Berryman, a poet I love. When published in 1953, Edmund Wilson said it was the most distinguished long poem by an American since The Waste Land. In the poem, Berryman goes back in time to pity and befriend one of the first American poets, Anne Bradstreet, who sailed for America from England in 1630.

I find this seizing of one poet by another down the centuries both moving and exhilarating. The fellow-feeling wrought between the two of them creates a skewed epiphany on the page. Berryman pities Bradstreet for all the dangers she has passed, the dreadful journey from England: the pain of childbirth, illness, loss and separation. Does he fancy that she feels the same towards him?

He pioneers back in time as she moves forward. “We are on each other’s hands who care,” he says. I suspect that hardly any one in England reads this poem now.

I wish they would.

As I was leafing through the small book, a scrap of newspaper fell out, a cutting from The Times in 1972, a few weeks after Berryman took his own life. It was a poem written by Christopher Logue called “A Prayer to Accompany John Berryman on His Way”. I did not know such a poem existed. I read it slowly.

The last lines struck me as especially tender: “You kneel; and in your mind you whisper: Please,/ Sweet sleep, in whom all things find nourishment,/ Most kindly principal who bids us leave/ Our worries in our clothes, be good to me.”

When famous people die, especially in painful circumstances, instead of killing them again with instant, detailed inventories of the worst things they have endured or done; instead of regaling the public with the details of death that are rarely heroic and never any of our business, could we not commission the best poets of the day to celebrate them?

. . .

That evening I met an old friend and, because I was freezing, we sat at a table that had two of its legs in the fireplace where a real fire roared. A small part of my shoe actually melted. We spoke of our precious fathers, lost to us in the recent past. We spoke of the loyalty one feels towards the loved dead, towards their safekeeping, their reputations.

“Sometimes,” I heard myself say, “it seems to me that biographers want to assassinate their own fathers, whom they have tried and failed to impress, and they end up murdering mine, almost by mistake!” I spoke, greedily, of revenge . . . 

Then, because it was painful, our conversation turned to Berryman. We talked of writing a play about him – a play that would bring him back into fashion. We pictured his life and struggles with the human condition, his clumsy grace, his great sympathy and the havoc he wreaked. We recalled his holidays with suitcases stuffed with books not clothes; his love of dancing; his seriousness. (Hamlet was his idea of small talk.)

We thought of Princeton in the 1950s, with its influx of poets. We were, for a moment, super-competent poets’ wives, writing novels and short stories in between crisis management. We admired Berryman’s grit: conscientious to the end, he took taxis from psychiatric hospitals to deliver lectures to his students. We discussed his monumental correspondence with his mother, his sometimes startling Shakespeare criticism, his fondness for the ampersand.

It is Berryman’s centenary this year and I am going to organise a gathering in London for those who love him. We might have a quiz – eg: in what order did Berryman recommend that the novels of Henry James be read? The Bessie Smith records he loved will crackle in the background. We may serve chicken paprika, for in Berryman’s “Dream Song 4,” a woman whom his alter-ego-hero Henry admires is “filling her compact & delicious body” with that dish.

We’ll honour him.

susie.boyt@ft.com, @SusieBoyt

More columns at ft.com/boyt

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