Part of the joy of Suppose a Sentence lies simply in encountering, or re-encountering, the gems Dillon has selected. Here’s Annie Dillard on seeing a total eclipse: “This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds.” And here’s Charlotte Brontë in Villette, describing with brilliantly strange grammar the effects of laudanum: “The drug wrought.” But the real pleasure lies in Dillon’s close readings. Early on, he offers this sentence from Sir Thomas Browne: “Time which antiquates Antiquities, and hath an art to make dust of all things, hath spared these minor monuments.” Then Dillion is off: quoting Virginia Woolf on Browne (“Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, but those who do are of the salt of the earth”); noting Browne’s polysyllabic music that, midway, gives itself up to “a plain array of ten monosyllables...of frankly biblical clarity”; describing Browne’s strange afterlife (his skull was stolen from its original burial place and sold) before offering his own rhapsodic summary of Browne’s legacy (“Sentences that live on, deathless—for every sentence written is a sort of ghost—in the face of universal forgetting”). He gives final word to a different Browne sentence: “Oblivion is not to be hired: The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the Register of God, not in the record of man.” It’s a dizzying and dazzling performance. Like his favorite sentences, Dillon’s essays “keep it together,” just barely, and they’re all the more stylish for it.
Dillon declares that he isn’t after a “general theory of the sentence,” nor does he want Suppose a Sentence to be a how-to manual. Rather, it’s a book about noticing: about the things great sentences have noticed and about the things Dillon has noticed about these great sentences. One of my favorite sentences comes from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: “‘For those who like that sort of thing,’ said Miss Brodie in her best Edinburgh voice, ‘that is the sort of thing they like.’” For those who love sentences, Suppose a Sentence is the sort of thing they’ll love.
One way of describing the genius of John Berryman’s poems and the tragedy of his life is to say that he kept it together, barely, until he couldn’t. Berryman, who was born in Oklahoma in 1914 and committed suicide in Minnesota in 1972, led a vital, sad, and frantic life. His peripatetic years were filled with drink, depression, productivity, and intimacy of various kinds. (Great friends with Saul Bellow and Robert Lowell, he was also a shameless cheater on his three wives.) Berryman also wrote at least one masterpiece: the long confessional poetic sequence, comprised of three hundred and eighty-five short poems, called The Dream Songs.
Berryman’s Dream Songs possess a jittery, manic energy that is just kept in check, largely through formal compression. (Each poem consists of three sestets, though he occasionally breaks this structure.) Take “Dream Song #14”:
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,
who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.
The poem begins with two short sentences in a single line, offering the assurance of the depressed. This is a man who’s seen through things addressing a reader who he believes has seen through things, too. And yet the rest of the poem is, of course, anything but boring: that caustic adverb “repeatingly”; the Shakespearean hauteur (“I am heavy bored”) giving way to childish petulance; that final long sentence, stretched out over six puzzling lines (the dog has absconded into the sky?). Even in this poem, which describes the speaker’s acedia, there’s music and vim.
This poem, and Dream Songs more generally, stage how an unstable self might be kept together. The “I” of the poem, who in many ways resembles Berryman, addresses himself as Henry, his primal, unsocialized self. In other poems, he inhabits a separate, more problematic alter ego named Mr. Bones, a character who speaks in Black dialect. (One cringey example: “Henry sats in de bar & was odd, / off in the glass from the glass, / at odds wif de world and its god.”) As the poet Kevin Young puts it, “Instead of a cult of personality, we have a clash of personalities—the poems’ protagonist Henry speaks not just as ‘I’ but as ‘he,’ ‘we,’ and ‘you.’” This isn’t self as chorus; it’s self as crowd, with style shifting mid-line, sometimes mid-word. Berryman’s poem offers a song that is as slippery, and multiple, as the self it sings, simultaneously profane (“Among the last, / like the memory of a lovely fuck, / was: Do, ut des”), childishly satiric (“—I can’t read any more of this Rich Critical Prose, / he growled, broke wind, and scratched himself & left / their fragrant area”), and beautiful (“He dropped his voice & sybilled of / the death of the death of love”). The self is kept together, when it is, through the “ruined poise” of poetic style.
The publication of The Selected Letters of John Berryman (Belknap Press, $39.95) allows us to see Berryman trying on different personae, speaking in different styles and, in doing so, holding his many selves in vibrant, tensile relation. There’s the teenager at boarding school, apologizing for not writing Mom enough. There’s the swaggering Columbia student, bragging about coed conquests and complaining about deadlines. There’s the would-be scholar, asking for fellowship money. (Berryman worked on but never finished various Shakespeare projects, including an edition of King Lear and a critical biography.) There’s the poet-on-the-make, looking for someone to publish his short, Yeats-inspired lyrics. There’s the prize-winning poet, writing to other writers, sometimes complimenting and sometimes offending. (After Richard Wilbur beat him for the 1957 National Book Award, Berryman sent the poet a sour-grapes wire, for which he then wrote an apology, where he insulted Wilbur yet again, describing his earlier work as “skillful industrious effortless & fireless.”) Finally, there’s the broken man, shuffling in and out of rehab, drafting suicide notes, struggling to stay alive.