Interviewer: Mr. Berryman, recognition came to you late in comparison with writers like Robert Lowell and Delmore Schwartz. What effect do you think fame has on a poet? Can this sort of success ruin a writer?
John Berryman: I don’t think there are any generalizations at all. If a writer gets hot early, then his work ought to become known early. If it doesn’t, he is in danger of feeling neglected. We take it that all young writers overestimate their work. It’s impossible not to—I mean if you recognized what shit you were writing, you wouldn’t write it. You have to believe in your stuff—every day has to be the new day on which the new poem may be it. Well, fame supports that feeling. It gives self-confidence, it gives a sense of an actual, contemporary audience, and so on. On the other hand, unless it is sustained, it can cause trouble—and it is very seldom sustained. If your first book is a smash, your second book gets kicked in the face, and your third book, and lots of people, like Delmore, can’t survive that disappointment. From that point of view, early fame is very dangerous indeed, and my situation, which was so painful to me for many years, was really in a way beneficial.
I overestimated myself, as it turned out, and felt bitter, bitterly neglected. But I had certain admirers, certain high judges on my side from the beginning, so that I had a certain amount of support. Moreover, I had a kind of indifference on my side—much as Joseph Conrad did. A reporter asked him once about reviews, and he said, “I don’t read my reviews. I measure them.” Now, until I was about thirty-five years old, I not only didn’t read my reviews, I didn’t measure them, I never even looked at them. That is so peculiar that close friends of mine wouldn’t believe me when I told them. I thought that was indifference, but now I’m convinced that it was just that I had no skin on—you know, I was afraid of being killed by some remark. Oversensitivity. But there was an element of indifference in it, and so the public indifference to my work was countered with a certain amount of genuine indifference on my part, which has been very helpful since I became a celebrity. W.H. Auden once said that the best situation for a poet is to be taken up early and held for a considerable time and then dropped after he has reached the level of indifference.
Something else is in my head: a remark of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges. Two completely unknown poets in their thirties—fully mature—Hopkins, one of the great poets of the century, and Bridges, awfully good. Hopkins with no audience and Bridges with thirty readers. He says, “Fame in itself is nothing. The only thing that matters is virtue. Jesus Christ is the only true literary critic. But,” he said, “from any lesser level or standard than that, we must recognize that fame is the true and appointed setting of men of genius.” That seems to me appropriate. This business about geniuses in neglected garrets is for the birds. The idea that a man is somehow no good just because he becomes very popular, like Robert Frost, is nonsense, also. There are exceptions—Thomas Chatterton, Hopkins, of course, Arthur Rimbaud, you can think of various cases—but on the whole, men of genius were judged by their contemporaries very much as posterity judges them. So if I were talking to a young writer, I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.
From “The Art of Poetry No. 16” in The Paris Review. While on a fellowship at Cambridge University in the late 1930s, Berryman met, among other poets, W.H. Auden and W.B. Yeats. He published Poems in 1942, the biography Stephen Crane in 1950, and Homage to Mistress Bradstreet in 1956. At the age of fifty-seven in 1972, Berryman committed suicide by jumping off a bridge onto the ice of the Mississippi River.
Back to Issue
As You Sow So Shall You Reap
In other words, you shall harvest what you plant, spiritual or natural, as God said he was not mocked, for if you sow the flesh, you shall the flesh, reap corruption, but if you sow the spirit of love for all, you shall reap life everlasting.
If you role a stone, you know to hurt someone, it will turn and roll back on you all sand so if you dig a pit for someone, you will fall in it yourself. God is the great paymaster, we are His workmanship, we are the clay and he is Potter so do something for the God who made you and He will not forget the things that you do but you shall receive your pay, good or bad.
The theory of Karma is spoken about in many of the sacred texts of all the religions in the world and in implied in the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The implication: as you treat others, so you will be treated. What is difficult to grasp about Karma is when it is actually playing a role in your life. The survivor of abuse, who may not have eve hurt anyone in his/her life, the same soul was the perpetrator of abuse. Then the promise of Karma would be in force. On the other hand, perhaps the soul “accepted” the abuse because it possesses the strength to survive, learn and stop the cycle of abuse. Another more obtuse application of Karma might be young adult who finds him/herself bound to a wheelchair from a hit by a driver. Why did it happen? Perhaps in previous life, this soul was a corrupt judge who imprisoned those who would not bow to his corrupt ways. This unjust imprisonment of others has resulted in the seemingly unjust imprisonment of their body in their current incarnation. Not every tragedy we live through is the result of some terrible wrongs we did in our past life. A child who dies of an illness at an early age, for example, might simply have chosen to experience the birth and young adult stages of life before deciding what they wanted to do with his life as an adult in his next incarnation.
Karma is inescapable. Your actions do return to you. it may not be in this lifetime, but it certainly will return in some way. How you deal with the return of this karmic energy determines whether or not you bring your soul further into balance or create more karmic energy that must be death with at a later stage. If you seek to learn from the seeming injustices in your life, chances are that you will be balancing your karmic books rather than increasing your karmic debt.
It is helpful to look at Karma as a sort of credit card. Each time we do something in our lives motivated by love, we are “paying off” some of the Karmic debt we have built up over our many lifetimes. Each time we act in selfish interest, we are charging something else to our credit card. The goad is not to have a credit due to us because in doing so it would mean that someone, somewhere still owed some debt. The goal is to get our balance to zero. To pay off our karmic credit card an make no more charges on it. Then we will have reached our goal and there evil be no need to return to this physical plane and we will once again be reunited with the Divine.
Karma is often thought about as being some debt we are repaying from a past life. But karma can be “paid” in the same lifetime it is created. We can read in many sacred texts that what you so is what you reap, what you give comes back to you three time over as you do so it shall be done to you. all of these are speaking of karma. Even Jesus spoke of “Karma when he said we should do unto others as we would have it done unot us since that is exactly what will happen.”
“As you sow, so shall you reap” has relevance in today’s competitive market place as well as in the timeless arena of human relationships. At every juncture, in all times, this theory of karma is well respected and well observed. Rightly said, “By someone, “Do good, find good”.