POETS IN THEIR YOUTH by Eileen Simpson

POETS IN THEIR YOUTH

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Eileen Simpson married John Berryman in 1942, the ""perfect"" wife for a young poet: ""The combination of mere ignorance (no wrong-headed notions to be dislodged), eagerness to learn (from what better teacher?), an exalted view of his craft and the promise of devotion, suited John admirably in a companion."" She learned quickly about Berryman's agony over his father's suicide at 40, his mother's adulterous tendencies; she realized, very early on, that she would be a ""netholder,"" and that she would never be able to hold that not long or firmly enough. So, informed by this clear-eyed realization, Simpson's memoir of the years of her marriage to Berryman (they were divorced in 1956) takes on a certain detachment: Berryman's friends who moved through those years--Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, R. P. Blackmur, Theodore Roethke, Allen Tate--all come across, like Berryman, as inherently damaged goods, given to alcoholism and self-destruction and a crafty careerism (drawn carefully within the confines of academia). The focus is of course mostly on Berryman: truly a flayed man, using his tortured-over work both as a scapegoat for his foibles and as a weapon against his wife. Simpson captures this well--and she's good, too, at remembering the other suffering wives: touching portraits of Caroline Gordon (scorned by Allen Tare), of a recovering Jean Stafford in Payne-Whitney. But, despite a few grand anecdotes--Theodore Roethke, in his cups, grabs newly-introduced Edmund Wilson by one of his jowls and asks ""What's this? Blubber?""--there's little insight into the other figures, most of whom have been well-chronicled in recent biographies of Schwartz and Blackmur, in posthumous stories by Jean Stafford, in Bellow's Humboldt's Gift, and elsewhere. And Simpson's own story isn't strong enough to hold the best pieces together. An only intermittently involving book, then--but a first-line document of the times, with a built-in appeal to literary curiosity.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1982
Publisher: Random House