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This review is taken from PN Review 225, Volume 42 Number 1, September - October 2015.

To think harder in verse Philip Coleman, John Berryman’s Public Vision: Relocating the Scene of Disorder UCD Press, £32.50/€40

At one point in a critical essay in defence of art’s intellectualism, Berryman rambunctiously exclaims, ‘the popular boys cannot understand this’. In wrenching Berryman’s poetry free from the cant of solipsistic ‘confessionalism’ (‘the C-word’, as Michael Hofmann terms it), locating it at the heart of a public poetics, Philip Coleman’s timely study seems destined to infuriate two cliques of ‘popular boys’. Some might be unwilling to give up their egotistical straw man of seedy intimacy, the kind who beckons (as Berryman mordantly puts it), ‘Come here, Reader, look in my pocket.’ Still others – fan-boys of the louche slurrer on Alvarez’s 1967 BBC documentary, macho braggart and poète maudit – will find this portrait of a publicly-engaged intellectual unrecognisable. Coleman’s study aims at a major rehabilitation of Berryman’s critical standing (coinciding with Berryman’s Fate: a Centenary Celebration in Verse, edited by Coleman). Notwithstanding the ‘communicative deficit’ that always dogged the idea of  ‘confessional’ poetry (as well as Rosenthal’s forgotten caveats in the watershed 1959 review of Lowell), Coleman convincingly establishes the pervasive currency of the term. The first chapter is an exposé of the obtuseness (and at times, critical laziness) involved in its persistence; his assessment of Marjorie Perloff’s influence in ‘the critical marginalisation of Berryman’ is respectful but trenchant.

If the space-clearing task of Coleman’s book is to render virtually indisputable the redundancy of ‘confessionalism’ as a critical shibboleth, its constructive objective is to ‘[relocate] the scene of disorder’, from the tortured individual psyche indecently exposed, to the disquieting fractures of American public ...


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