Tuesday, February 1, 2011

For John and Janis, Poetry and Purses

When I was in college, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I found the raw emotions of poets like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Randall Jarrell, and John Berryman to be enticing in a don't-stand-too-close-to-the-abyss sort of way. I even wrote a bit of confessional poetry myself. When I was a sophomore and sophomoric was aptly applied, I would take the occasional stroll with one of these folks, through their poetry, eventually flinging myself headlong into the emotional maelstrom from which their work seemed to have been created. It was an attempt to shake up my little world, I suppose, and pretend for awhile that I belonged to this august bunch of sad sacks whose work seemed so very important.

Looking back at Berryman's 77 Dream Songs the past two days, all I can conclude is that I'm so very glad that part of my human experience is over. 

Berryman's narrator, Henry, who more than likely was his alter-ego, had his struggles, struggles that garnered Berryman both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, along with pretty much every other award and accolade handed out for such things. But, the accolades didn't keep his demons at bay and the awards didn't fill the emptiness that surely accompanied him from his home to his office on the campus at the University of Minnesota where he taught, until one cold morning in early January, 1972, he walked to the Washington Avenue Bridge, swung both legs over the railing and dropped into the icy river below. The demons moved on, emptiness won. At least, in that moment.

I am not judging what I myself once found so appealing, and Confessional poetry surely still appeals to many people, particularly the young who so often seem to struggle while finding their way in the world. I do understand. But there is a part of me that has trouble understanding why we so often celebrate this frank, emotion-laden poetry. Is the human condition that difficult to navigate?  And the bigger, more pertinent question is, does it need to be, or do we create the need? And, if that is the case, how can we do better?  How can we help create a world where people, young and old, suffer less at the hands of life and celebrate it more?

So, what brought this up? I'd been thinking a bit about Berryman, as I mentioned in my last post. Then this morning another casualty of creativity showed up in the news: Janis Joplin. It seems there's a new book and film coming out in which the contents of Ms. Joplin's purse becomes a topic for discussion. I was never particularly taken with Janis Joplin and her music, just not my cup o' tea, nor am I particularly taken with the contents of her purse as described in the article in the Huffington Post. It seems pretty typical, not completely unlike my own purse contents: movie stubs, a notebook, a couple of pens, an eyebrow pencil (only one for me, as opposed to her bunch gathered in a rubber band), bits of paper, business cards, chewing gum and sunglasses. No Southern Comfort bottle, no hip flask, no hotel room keys (glad those days are behind me, and I'm not referring to my current travels), and as much as I liked Nancy Milford's biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, I would not want to tote that tome around with me.  Ditto the Thomas Wolfe.

And what does this have to do with John Berryman? Well, I recalled a dream I once had (mine are not numbered), about fifteen years ago. I dreamed I was standing on the Washington Avenue Bridge and I opened my purse, turned it upside down, and let the contents fall into the icy river below. Now, for a nature-loving girl, I've also had a life-long fascination with purses, so this was not an easy thing for me to do and seemed fraught with meaning, a meaning I'm sure I gave some thought to at the time, a meaning that has been lost to that river.  And for that I'm grateful. Because that means that I no longer want to dance with the devil and I no longer want to fall into the emotional abyss. I like it right here, thank you very much, far from the edge, far from maudlin pursuits and pajama parties.

Does this mean I'm an adult?  Finally?

I get to answer that. And my answer is Yes.

John Berryman, at the top.

Janis Joplin, in the middle.

And me, about the time I dreamed of the Washington Avenue Bridge.


  1. This is an especially meaningful post for me, who struggled in my mind for decades even while I lived a fairly typical middle-class life on the outside. It might have been of some consolation to read these writers when I was in a place that resembled theirs, but my misery never led me even close to a tragic end. Instead, I outgrew it as I got older.

    I was lucky, I guess. Or more sensible. Or something.

  2. Teresa,
    What a great photo of you...I actually really liked Sylvia Prath during my 'darker days' and it is still at times intriguing.
    I guess it is just a reminder how troubled some individuals are unable to overcome.

  3. I went through those Minnesota U days a little later and longer as I went to school for a long time. My Poetry Purge days (not purse) too. Can't believe I sat through all those poetry readings. That's a sexy and raw photo of the little "Ya betcha" girl. hummmm
    Love and Peace

  4. I see a benefit of confessional poetry, for others to read and realize that others may be going through the same or similar, or perhaps as a catharsis for the one writing it. It's all in the scales and what one finds acceptable on their scale. I wouldn't want to return to my distant past, but a few years off my aging body wouldn't be bad.

  5. 'How can we help create a world where people, young and old, suffer less at the hands of life and celebrate it more?' You ask an excellent question.

    I enjoy the parallelism in your post.

    Falling into the emotional abyss is hard to avoid at times; hopefully they are short in time span and the light always appears at the end of the tunnel.

  6. Confessional poetry, both reading and writing, meets a need. It's the need I wish we could address better and make certain no one believes the Bridge, any bridge, is the answer - the ultimate tragedy.

    Thank you all for sharing some thoughts about this.

  7. I just wish I knew then what I know now...

  8. I like poetry that makes me smile or carry a good thought along for the day.My first intro to poetry class was a disaster, being 17 and wondering why I didn't see as others did what was all around me in text.Janis was hefty at the time watching her live, but my music stays within other realms now.

  9. Lynn, Yes, me, too. It has been an interesting ride, thus far...

    Steve, Yes, a desire to see the beauty in the world outweighs all else. For me, being an "adult" means releasing any desire for drama, choosing peace every time.

  10. No longer dance with the devil. I think we might have all done it in some way. Your dream about dumping the contents of your purse in the river seems like things I throw in the garbage pail, not wanting to have them around to weigh me down. I like your personal photo, Teresa. Your posts are always so deep.

  11. Jack, Yes, an unburdening of the self. Thank you for your remarks. Always appreciated.