“He would do that. He would come back”: Teaching high school with David Berman

I wrote this essay in August 2019, a tribute to David Berman (R), singer-songwriter, poet, and Greenhill alumnus from the class of 1985.  The title quotes the penultimate line from “The Double Bell of Heat”, the closing poem in his poetry collection Actual Air.

By the time Erica & I decided that a long-distance relationship wouldn’t work, I had already taken possession of her John Lennon poster. I first saw it while stretched out on her futon in the West Campus house she shared with three other guys. John was mounted on foam board and resting on top of her low bookshelf. You’d be right to judge this Richard Avedon poster as just the kind of black & white poster that gets sold a lot in student union buildings every fall.

John’s body is a hulking black mass. Half of his face is shadowed. He’s looking right into the camera eye, blank, not challenging or accusing. The openness that, upon reflection, shows more about his comfort in the frame than his comfort with himself. He’s got a kind of long bowl cut, which at the time was either fashionable or shockingly long, depending on how old you were in 1965. I thought he was 28. (Turns out he was only 25.) I thought—and probably said—“That’s the image of a man just at the point of becoming a man. That’s an image of a time when you’re no longer a young man. You’re a man. If you’re not wise then, you might never rise to it.” I was nineteen. I thought I’d be like that myself at 28. And David Berman proved me right.

About twelve years later, when I was in my early thirties, I discovered DB’s poem “Self Portrait at 28”. I read it in such a way that he proved me right about manhood. At 28, you sometimes have to squeeze your life for good material. You find yourself in a room alone, reading and trying to make meaning. Even when alone, you imagine yourself in some difficult conversation with a woman, wanting to talk very plainly to her. There are things you would have given up on by then. You’ve got a sense that your vision, your experience, your voice might be everything.

I saw it in John Lennon’s face, I recognized it in the poem. Because I am an English teacher, I forced students to read this poem that I figured was right about something that I cared deeply about.

English teachers do that a lot—find a poem, and excitedly remove it from its context. Find a poem that makes sense to you, and compel young folk to prove you right about it. Students loved the discussions even when they didn’t really get the poem. So I decided to teach the poem in context, as a huge part of his collection Actual Air.

I hadn’t taught a collection before, just isolated poems, great poems. I was kinda beating myself up about it, teaching singles without teaching the album. The year was a mixtape, even if it was a good one. It was getting better now that I was trying to teach from the inside out of a work, to get deep into a writer’s choices and decisions and challenges. I lined up several writers to skype with my kids. Vanessa Grigoriadis told us all about gaining temporary trust of a famous person you were profiling. Mark Doty told us that he had a theory about the power of tercets and about how he thought the word “faggot” was on its last legs. So I figured if I was going to teach Actual Air, if I was going to get students thinking about their near futures, that I should set up something with David Berman.

July of 2009 I called Nashville information for his number, which shockingly was listed. I said “Yes” loudly to be connected automatically. Before I had planned what I was going to say, DB’s answering machine picked up. I left a terse non-fan-boy message. He called back a few minutes later.

“Yeah, so students really love Self Portrait, so I figured I’d teach the whole collection. Would you be up for talking to my students, skype or email or whatever—sometime in the spring?”

DB said yes, in 2009 and again in 2013. He’d answer anything. Provided that the questions came from the students. He wanted to connect with them, seeing as I teach at Greenhill, DB’s alma mater, the campus where he became a poet.

I wrote my first poem just sitting on the carpet in the common area of the upper school. I started to write down these images in the back of my notebooks. Mrs. Eastus [who is thanked by name in Actual Air acknowledgements] actually took a lot of this writing and assembled it into a long poem for me and then entered it into a writing competition. That meant a lot to me. I never would have put that together on my own.”  

So how did he become a good poet? my juniors asked.

“Well first you have to read a lot of great poetry. Then you have to read a lot of average poetry. Once you figure out what average is, you shoot higher than that. You have to be critical of your own stuff. The first couple years of writing isn’t going to be something you’re proud of later on. But you have to have those years and it’s alright to not realize how bad it is but you can never be easy on yourself. If you don’t revise, and cut, and do over, and improve on your original you’ll probably never be a poet.”

I’m so proud of them, looking back, at the what-did-you-mean-by-X questions.

Was there a Kitty? Yes, but DB gave her a different name in “Classic Water”—“She wasn’t my girlfriend but I was drawn to her. We went to see the Cure together in 1984.” Do you really have a little brother named Seth? “Yes. He’s actually my step-brother. He lives in Washington and designs bombs.”

And when they get to craft-specific questions that they probably asked because they thought I’d want to know, DB was as candid as you’d expect—“I’m always pretty much unaware of the sound of my poems. Those things [like alliteration and caesura] either happen or they don’t.” He made the students feel like just the kind of readers that he deserved—I never had to explain that image before so I’d never explicitly made those connections until right now. I’d felt them when I came up with the image, but I hadn’t quite parsed it out, until you asked.”

And he’d sometimes write something so disarming, so lyrical that you half-expected to hear it sung on his next cd.

“I didn’t know how bad men were, until I became a (sort of) a bad man (for a little while). I didn’t know how good and kind women were in comparison.”

Like you, I kept an eye out for DB. Skimmed through his blog one week. Happened upon cartoons one day. Kept American Water and “Rebel Jew” nearby at all times. And then like you, I got excited with the new material. DB seemed to have moved beyond being bad and good. He was, for the moment, just sad. And he had let us into his room, stretched out and singing on his bed. Showing off the kind of loopy tchotchkes you’d find in your favorite TA’s house.

Screencaps from “Darkness & Cold” video

And Wednesday evening, ten years after I first booked him for an email Q&A, the summer I turned fifty, before I had time to check on Purple Mountains’ tour, I get a text from Sophia, a Greenhill alumna. My wife Michelle—“sometimes I dream of Michelle / she’s the biggest part of me”—holds up her phone with another RIP text. Leaning against the safety gate at my brother-in-law’s pool, I fumble through my gmail archive, searching for answers, searching for his voice. I refill my red solo cup and tweet out “Rebel Jew” and our soccer coach reading Classic Water, Snow, The Double Bell of Heat. I copy the DB thread and send it to Hannah, a current student: “wish you could’ve met this guy.”

Michelle drives us home. I tuck my son in, the John Lennon poster above his bed. I cue up Purple Mountains and scroll through the emails again. One question from my 2013 class pops out. A kind of inevitable question from a student to an alum—what if you had it all to do over again. I knew about DB and the Al Gore suite in 2003 [where Berman first attempted suicide]. He had had it to do over again. If you had it to do over again, what would you change about high school?

“If I could do it again I’d make more friends more quickly. It took me half a year to overcome distrust and relax.”

And right at that moment, I heard him on my earbuds go high lonesome in “Darkness and Cold”, and I wished he had taken another half year to overcome whatever it was that drew him down. These days he had seemed completely himself—depressed but creating, on podcasts, in interviews. Seemed as grateful these days to be asked about his work as he did in 2013.

“[…] I get email through this address a couple times a week. If you have anything else you’d like to ask, please feel free to write anytime.
Yasher Koach,
David Berman”

I looked it up, of course—Yasher Koach. I wondered if it meant something about blessings, about art, about poetry, about youth. It did. It meant something about all of that. Yasher Koach— “May your strength be enriched”

On behalf of all of us who have learned from you, DB, thank you for coming back and for enriching our strength.

[If you or someone you know is thinking about hurting themselves, please reach out for help to a hotline like this one.]

6 responses to ““He would do that. He would come back”: Teaching high school with David Berman”

  1. “Sorry for your/our/this loss” does not do justice to either DB or your elegy. I have just read features about him from npr and Rolling Stone. Now I must read Actual Air.Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a very teachable collection, if something of an acquired taste. I’m two years younger than DB, and a lot of the pop culture stuff & tone & details ring really true for me. Thanks again for reading !


      • The two pieces I read broke my heart. He made a comment in the Rolling Stone piece that broke my heart, and obviously broke him:
        “My heart was constantly on fire for justice. I could find no relief,” I will be learning more about him.


  2. this is a beautiful tribute. As a teacher I was struck by the idea of teaching single poems versus an anthology compared to a single song versus the album. As a child of the 60’s I studied albums in their wholeness, order of songs, cover art and all. So I get that leap. As a poet in those first years of writing bad poetry I am encouraged by his advice and will stay critical, while still accepting the value of my efforts. There’s so much more here to consider…


    • thanks so much! As for the writing part, I feel ya. So much of it is intuitive, so much of it is magical. It’s a miracle that so much of it turns out meaning something, even if it means something to us alone, right?


  3. It is so powerful for our students when they can connect with creators. Having a Skype visit with an author or illustrator inspires them and has a positive effect on their learning as well as their perspective on life.
    It sounds like you create a rich learning environment for your students. Bravo.


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