Among the nostrums I was taught as an English Lit under-grad, and then a grad student, was the idea that biography had no place in Criticism. This notion arrived with the “New Critics” of the 1930s—some pretty bright lights, actually, who, as the best of us are wont to do, were in rebellion. In their case against the schmaltzy kind of newspaper “criticism” and reviews—especially of poetry—that preceded them. That schmaltzy stuff was all about praising the poet’s “sentiment” or good-heartedness, and it was more often than not aimed at women—the main writers and readers of “sentimental” novels and all-too-flowery and rhymy “verse.”
The New Critics were right to bemoan the flaccid criticism in newspapers and women’s mags, but, as sometimes happens with rebels, they went overboard: throwing out baby with the bath-water and lopping off too many heads.
I reflected on these ideas as I read Morris Berman’s first book of poems. Counting Blessings is a volume of 44 pages with some excellent poems. Try as I might, feasting on heaping dishes of Structuralism and Deconstructionism, I cannot read Berman’s initiatory dance with the Muse… and quite forget his impressive background, his intellectual creds, who the man is and what he has done.
I know Berman principally through his book, Dark Ages America. Published in 2006, it’s a rueful song about the closing of the American mind and heart. It hurts because it’s the story of lost love—the lost love of a culture, of what might have been. Sometimes, it’s even funny—the way George Carlin or Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce could be funny—making you cry and laugh at life’s beautiful-tragic poignancies.
But Berman’s not just a witty heart-yanker. He’s an acute observor and astute commentator. In 2000, Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review. He has been a Professor of Sociology at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and a Professor in Humanities at the Tecnologico de Monterrey, Mexico City. Counting Blessings was written after he moved to a small Mexican town a few years back.
- His themes are exile, isolation, alienation and reconstitution. I don’t mean “reconciliation” by the last because there are some things to which we can never quite reconcile: the death of loved ones; getting old—and getting too old; the loss of a culture which nourished even as it destroyed. So the book is about “reconstituting” oneself, becoming a new person in one’s old skin, acclimating to a very different world in Mexico while remembering—reconstituting—the past:
- By what miracle did I shed the old life
the life of autistic hostility
and emerge, reborn, in a new place, a new time?
Thus Berman inquires of himself—and the Universe—in the first poem, “Identity.”
- His eye for detail and close observation (and his penchant for irony) are nicely measured in “Last Rites”:
- A complicated, delicate insect
crawling along the edge of a pot in my garden
delicate feelers, large green eyes
absorbed in what it was doing.
I can do that, once in a while:
three seconds every month, perhaps.
- In “Light,” this hard-headed social historian recalls his mother’s vision of “a burning bush… just like in the bible.” And, laying his cards on the table, this exemplary rationalist reveals:
- I recall a number of incidents like that in my own life,
some more ‘cosmic’ than others.
- … around age sixty, perhaps a little before,
I saw a pillar of fire—again, as in the bible
and I began to weep.
This time it stuck:
I see it more or less every day now.
Exodus says it guided the Jews through the desert,
but I’m not looking for the Promised Land.
wandering in the desert is the Promised Land.
That’s a fine last line: a bit of cognitive dissonance serving the lie to the Corporate State that bids us tweet back perfect answers to complex questions at the end of the workday—which, more often these days, never seems to end. It’s also a line and a poem likely to drive the psychiatrists and the pharmaceuticalists stark mad. In fact, it turns our whole get-it-do-it-now culture on its noggin. Acceptance… waiting… wandering. …
- At his best, in his conversational style, Berman’s insights can be sharp, startling and true:
- Letting go of love
when you have no choice
is a little like dying without morphine.
And then you realize—though you knew it before, of course—
that the closeness was not about sex
but about being able to take care of someone
without a thought for yourself.
- Of course, first-book poets, especially one of Berman’s intellectual stature, may be allowed some latitude to stretch their muscles and to fall. Ultimately, poets are judged by their best; Keats’ revision of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” for example, falls short of his original (and everyone but Keats seems to have agreed on that). So, in truth, sometimes, Berman’s “conversation” sounds flat:
- The pain of knowing what life could be like
and not having it
is a difficult one to endure.
‘Everything in moderation,’ said the ancient Greeks.
- The death instinct hovers over the United States,’
wrote some journalist a few years back.
It was a bad book with one good idea.
and I think: How did this happen?
- Poetry wants the “best words in the best order” in Coleridge’s phrase. Bald statements like this one need some poetic flourish, some juice:
- It’s no use, finally;
We simply have to find a different way to live.
- All in all, there is wisdom in Berman’s first collection and much that touches us. I hope to read the poems of this astute sextagenerian expat for decades to come. Many of us want to put this sad, violent, hyped-up, exploited and exploiting culture behind us. Berman is one of those who has pointed, and is pointing, a way:
- Hard to get up, get ready for the Creation,
when you know what the next few decades are going to be like.
Not any of us have a choice.
Me, I had to be extracted with forceps.
And yet, I’m in no hurry to return…
There’s so much sweetness in a single day
a single woman
a single hummingbird
a single fountain pen
a single poem.