Saturday

Oct. 25, 2008

Prodigy

by Charles Simic

I grew up bent over
a chessboard.

I loved the word endgame.

All my cousins looked worried.

It was a small house
near a Roman graveyard.
Planes and tanks
shook its windowpanes.

A retired professor of astronomy
taught me how to play.

That must have been in 1944.

In the set we were using,
the paint had almost chipped off
the black pieces.

The white King was missing
and had to be substituted for.

I'm told but do not believe
that that summer I witnessed
men hung from telephone poles.

I remember my mother
blindfolding me a lot.
She had a way of tucking my head
suddenly under her overcoat.

In chess, too, the professor told me,
the masters play blindfolded,
the great ones on several boards
at the same time.

"Prodigy" by Charles Simic from Charles Simic: Selected Early Poems. © George Braziller, 2000. Reprinted with permission (buy now)

It's the birthday of the artist Pablo Picasso, born in Malaga, Spain (1881). He said, "I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it."

It's the birthday of poet and scholar John Berryman, (books by this author) born in McAlester, Oklahoma (1914). His mother was a schoolteacher. His father, who was a banker, committed suicide when John was 12 years old. A few months later, his mother married a man whom she'd been having an affair with for the past year. They moved to New York, and Berryman went to a prestigious boarding school and then to Columbia University. He was an excellent student — a good poet and passionate about Shakespeare. He earned a grant to study Shakespeare at Cambridge in England. When he came back to the United States, he tried to get a job in advertising, but instead he went into academia. He became an "academic nomad" over the next decades, teaching at many different schools before settling at the University of Minnesota.

His personal life was tumultuous. He struggled with alcoholism and mental illness, and he was a chronic womanizer. One summer, two years into his first marriage, he fell in love with the young wife of one of his graduate students, and they began a passionate affair, which he chronicled in a cycle of 100 Petrarchan sonnets.

He made his name with Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956), a dialogue between Berryman and the 17th-century poet Anne Bradstreet. He worked on the project for five years, and it was so consuming that it led to the end of his second marriage. But critics thought the work was brilliant.

Berryman sought treatment for his mental illness, and part of his psychotherapy regimen was to keep a log of his dreams. Many of these dreams made their way into his poetry cycle Dream Songs. The poems were an enormous critical success.

He described his 385 Dream Songs as "essentially about an imaginary character named Henry, a white American in early middle age, sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss." He said, "These Songs are not meant to be understood. … They are only meant to terrify & comfort."

The first of the Dream Songs begins:

"Huffy Henry hid the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point, — a trying to put things over.
It was the thought that they thought
they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
But he should have come out and talked."

Berryman was also a great scholar of Shakespeare. For decades he worked on a critical work on Shakespeare. Before publishing the book, he committed suicide by jumping off a bridge on the University of Minnesota campus on a January morning as students walked to class.

He wrote: "It is reassuring to consider that Shakespeare wrote four failures, plays that few have ever cared to produce and mostly scholars read. These failures are The Two Gentlemen of Verona, King John, All's Well That Ends Well, and Timon of Athens. The reasons for his failure in each case were different, but at least he was always capable of failure, and it is pleasant to know this."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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