Here’s the last paragraph of Adam Kirsch’s article on John Berryman ‘That thing on the front of your head’ from the Times Literary Supplement, Feb 6, 2015:
Randall Jarrell wrote that a poet was someone who stands outside in storms hoping to get struck by lightning. Berryman, who spent so many years waiting for genius to find him, eventually lured it by making the waiting around, with all its attendant boredom, guilt and vice, the very subject of his poetry. In 77 Dream Songs, he used every technique of artificiality — in diction, syntax, allusion, rhythm — to create a voice of shocking honesty and directness; and by achieving this paradox, he liberated himself from the impersonality (itself, perhaps, no more than ostensible) of high Modernism. If we have no poets like John Berryman today, it is because we are less ingenious than he is, but because our poetry seems to have so much less at stake.
How necessary it is to think of the poet as somebody who has prepared himself to be visited by a dæmon, as a sort of accident-prone worker to whom poems happen — for otherwise we expect him to go on writing good poems, better poems, and this is the one thing you cannot expect even of good poets, much less of anybody else. Good painters in their sixties may produce good pictures as regularly as an orchard produces apples; but Planck is a great scientist because he made one discovery as a young man — and I can remember reading in a mathematician’s memoirs a sentence composedly recognizing the fact that, since the writer was now past forty, he was unlikely ever again to do any important creative work in mathematics. A man who is a good poet at forty may turn out to be a good poet at sixty; but he is more likely to have stopped writing poems, to be doing exercises in his own manner, or to have reverted to whatever commonplaces were popular when he was young. A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.The mathematician referred to is the Cambridge mathematican G. H. Hardy who wrote in his 1940 book A Mathematician's Apology:
I do not know an instance of a major mathematical advance initiated by a man past fifty. If a man of mature age loses interest in and abandons mathematics, the loss is not likely to be very serious either for mathematics or for himself.The image of the poet standing in a thunderstorm also puts me in mind of another figure from Cambridge: Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose explanation to his sister of his choice to be a primary school teacher after not only beginning to gain a reputation as one of the world's foremost philosophers, having already published his Tracatus, but also having given away one of Europe's largest personal fortunes which he had inherited from his father. As Norman Malcolm explains in a London Review of Books article from 19 November 1981, "Hermine Wittgenstein tells of the bewilderment of the family over Ludwig’s determination, immediately upon his return home at the end of World War One, to rid himself unconditionally of his whole fortune; and of her own dismay at his decision to become a country schoolteacher. She protested to him that his teaching in an elementary school would be like ‘using a precision instrument to open crates’. She was silenced when he replied ...
You remind me of somebody who is looking out through a closed window and cannot explain to himself the strange movements of a passer-by. He cannot tell what sort of storm is raging out there or that this person might only be managing with difficulty to stay on his feet.
|The very young Ludwig Wittgenstein|