Poets in Their Youth

Recently reissued: Eileen Simpson’s 1982 Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir (Random House), a wonderful recollection of poets John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz and others in their circle (R. P. Blackmur, Jean Stafford, and more).

(On the cover: a young Berryman, Stafford, and Lowell in Damariscotta Mills ME.)

The occasion of the reissue was Berryman’s centenary. About Berryman, from Wikipedia:

John Allyn Berryman (October 25, 1914 – January 7, 1972) was an American poet and scholar, born in McAlester, Oklahoma. He was a major figure in American poetry in the second half of the 20th century and was considered a key figure in the Confessional school of poetry. His best-known work is The Dream Songs.

… Berryman was married three times. And according to the editors of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, he lived turbulently… Berryman [abused alcohol and struggled with depression] throughout much of his adult life, and on the morning of January 7, 1972, he killed himself by jumping from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, onto the west bank of the Mississippi River.

And on Simpson, from an obit (“Eileen Simpson, 84, Memoirist Of Life With John Berryman”) by Dinitia Smith in the 10/24/02 New York Times:

Eileen Simpson, a writer who probed the depths of her difficult early life and, in a well-known memoir, the tumultuous years with her husband John Berryman and their circle of poet friends, died on Monday at a hospital in Manhattan. She was 84.

”All poets’ wives have rotten lives,” Delmore Schwartz once said. Judging from ”Poets in Their Youth” (Random House), Ms. Simpson’s 1982 memoir, he was right.

… As portrayed by Ms. Simpson, the wives were often cast as mothers, nursemaids and muses to their self-absorbed, irresponsible and often abusive husbands. Ms. Simpson and Berryman stayed together for 11 years until, worn out by his infidelities, she left him; they later divorced, in 1956.

… Ms. Simpson’s identity, however, grew far beyond that of a poet’s wife. She obtained a master’s degree in psychology at New York University, became a psychotherapist and, eventually, a writer.

In ”Orphans: Real and Imaginary” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987), Ms. Simpson wrote of loss and dislocation. She was born Eileen Patricia Mulligan in New York City. Her mother died when she was 11 months old. By the time she was 2, her father, unable to care for her, sent Eileen and her younger sister, Marie, to live in a convent in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. He died four years later. Relatives, fearing the girls might contract tuberculosis, later moved them to a ”preventatorium,” in New Jersey, where children were boarded to improve their health.

In school, Ms. Simpson struggled with dyslexia that went undiagnosed. She pretended to be able to read and write, surviving by guessing words and inventing connections between them and sometimes just remaining mute, as she wrote in ”Reversals: A Personal Account of Victory Over Dyslexia,” (Houghton Mifflin, 1979).

The flap copy pronounces the book (quite accurately to my mind) as

remarkable for its acuity and incisiveness; for its objectivity, directness and dignity; and for its profound and affectionate insight into the characters of these remarkable individuals.

There are glowing jacket appreciations from A. Alvarez, Robert Fitzgerald, Alfred Kazin, Harry Levin, and Joyce Carol Oates.


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