Good literary gossip books are rare. Most ''memoirs,'' as they are often called, are either pretty weak tea or badly ground axes pointed at the dead. How delightful that this new book by Eileen Simpson about her first husband, poet John Berryman, is neither. It is an honest and affectionate memoir of her life with this dazzling and difficult poet in his youth.
Meeting tall, shambling ''bardic''-looking John Berryman in the last few years of his life, one seemed to be brought face to face with the price of greatness. He appeared to have suffered much. Berryman visited our university on the lecture circuit, and a wise young poet-professor asked a very green student poet to attend the faculty reception after the scheduled reading.
The student, who avoided faculty parties, was terrified of meeting a master whose work he had admired and even memorized.
''It would be a kindness if you'd show up,'' the professor said. After the reading the student hid in a far corner of a faculty parlor.
When the poet arrived he ''cased'' the room immediately and retreated to the same corner, where he politely fended off the faculty and gave the shy young man a lot of outrageously sound advice on poetry and poets.
In retrospect, his preference that night for avoiding academics seems like the most basic survival behavior. Berryman had been forced to earn his living as a professor, and knew the tendency of English professors to see themselves as literary lion tamers, always on the lookout for a fresh poet to lionize or tame.
Eileen Simpson's book tells the price Berryman paid over the years for his gift: of the brilliant young instructor at Harvard thrown out of work by World War II, turned down for military service because of poor vision, and driven to selling encyclopedias in a desperate attempt to support his wife and his pride.
We read about Berryman, the special fellow at Princeton, learning the elegant masquerade from R.P. Blackmur, who tried to preserve Berryman's gifts by concealing them, a strategy that helped to diminish Blackmur's own considerable gifts.
The friends who fill these pages are the best poets of Berryman's generation, and the best critics of the preceding one. Delmore Schwartz is vividly drawn, as are Jean Stafford and Robert Lowell. Randall Jarrell and Theodore Roethke make guest appearances.
Mrs. Simpson shares stories of the critics Alan Tate and Edmund Wilson, which will fascinate anyone with a taste for literary gossip, but which ring depressing bells in the mind of anyone who has ever struggled to write.
America has never been kind to its gifted artists. Freedom has too often meant the freedom to starve; and patronage has usually paid artists to teach rather than practice their art. At times it seems almost a miracle that Berryman and his generation lived to accomplish as much as they did.
It is tragic in the old sense that the man who could write ''Homage to Mistress Bradstreet'' had to go through all that he did, and tragic that he spread his personal anguish around to others. ''Poets in Their Youth'' is the personal effort of a wise human being, who is a professional therapist, to understand her famous first husband. As such it is a literary gossip book of a very high order indeed.