Amongst the teachers you had at Iowa were John Berryman, Robert Lowell and Karl Shapiro, with each of whom you spent a term. I believe you thought Berryman the best teacher?
I did think he was the best, yes, and a large part of how good he was had to do with his very character, however much a few have maligned him. He was full of a kind of fervour or fire, in class and out. In class he was a master of detail and care; he was in love with the whole business of reading and writing and of talking about it, in love with teaching itself, though he had not done much of it. I wouldn’t call him a model exactly, not an example, as with others. His chief difference from the other teachers I had was that he was truly interested in what you were doing. Berryman, Lowell and Shapiro were all terribly self-involved – as what poet is not? – but Berryman had room in his capacious heart to become involved in what you were doing as well – and to care about it.
You seem to have made as much of an impression on him as he did on you. Dana, Snodgrass and others have all written about his excited reaction to your work. Snodgrass recalls a day on which all of you had handed in your assignments. Berryman ‘sat at his desk idly leafing through them, then stopped, stared, and read one of the sonnets to himself. His face aghast, he then turned to the class and said, “It is simply not right that a person should get a poem like that as a classroom assignment!”’ The poem in question was ‘The Wall’, and another of the students who met him for a beer later that week – unnamed, but quoted by Berryman’s biographer, John Haffenden – recalls how Berryman ‘immediately began to read [the sonnet] and … marvelled at [its] opening and the explosive pause in the second line. He was deliriously excited and to this day I can hear him recite it: “The wall surrounding them they never saw; / The angels often.”’ Did Berryman’s reaction to your poem strike you as forcefully as it struck your fellow students?
Everyone seems to have his own version of that story. My version, which I think is the true one, is less dramatic. It’s just that Berryman had phoned me the night before the class meeting to tell me how much he liked the poem. Such enthusiasm was unexpected, such kindness. What happened in class the next day I really can’t recall, except for a faint memory of comments he made regarding some sound effects in that sonnet which I had not been aware of and in fact doubted the effect of, though I’m sure I refrained from saying anything to soften the praise I was getting.