Saturday, August 14, 2010

What literature is all about

Paul Gruchow, via the Laudator:
At the University of Minnesota, on another spring day, I heard the poet John Berryman fail to lecture on The Iliad to a room jammed with students. He sat down at a table, as was his custom, put on his reading glasses, lit a cigarette, which he held at bottom of the space between his trembling index and middle fingers in the way that drunks do, and began to read to us from the poem in his dark voice, oddly powerful coming from such a frail man, paying as much attention to the stops in the lines as to the accents. He read to us the scene in which Hector and Andromache say farewell to each other. Hector is destined to die and Andromache to be hauled into slavery, and both know this by premonition. When he came to the end of the scene, Berryman was weeping and so, unexpectedly, were we. He made no effort to hide his grief, running from an ancient pen across the long centuries through a modern language into our hearts. He did not even brush away his tears. We sat, stunned, until he got up and left the room without another word, and then we, too, gathered up our books and emerged into the cruel sunshine. I hurried to my office (I was editor of the student newspaper) and locked myself in, and it was an hour or two before I could see anybody. It was the first time, I think, that any of us had ever been taught what literature is all about.


  1. I'm looking for a "like" button! I feel sorry for Berryman's selfslain ghost, and I like him a little more after reading this.

    I wonder whose translation he was reading!

  2. I wish I knew. Judging from Gruchow's age, this was perhaps the late 60s or early 70s, which excludes every translation after Fitzgerald. Would he have read the first one he came to love in his early years? (which is Fitzgerald for me)