John Allyn Berryman was an American poet and scholar, born in McAlester, Oklahoma. He was a major figure in American poetry in the second half of the 20th century and was considered a key figure in the Confessional school of poetry. His best-known work is The Dream Songs.
Life and Career
John Berryman was born and raised in Oklahoma until the age of 10, when his father, John Smith, a banker, and his mother, Martha, who was a schoolteacher, moved to Tampa, Florida. In 1926, in Florida, when the poet was twelve, his father shot and killed himself just outside his son's bedroom window. Berryman was haunted by his father's suicide for the rest of his life and would later write about his struggle to come to terms with it in his book The Dream Songs. In "Dream Song #143," he wrote, "That mad drive [to commit suicide] wiped out my childhood. I put him down/while all the same on forty years I love him/stashed in Oklahoma/besides his brother Will." In "Dream Song #145," he also wrote the following lines about his father:
he only, very early in the morning,
rose with his gun and went outdoors by my window
and did what was needed.
I cannot read that wretched mind, so strong
& so undone. I've always tried. I–I'm
trying to forgive
whose frantic passage, when he could not live
an instant longer,in the summer dawn
left Henry to live on.
After his father's death, the poet's mother remarried another banker who was also named John, and they moved to New York City. Her new husband's last name was Berryman, and the poet took this last name, giving him the same exact name as his stepfather. Around this time, Berryman's mother also changed her first name from Martha to Jill (at the request of her new huband). Although his stepfather would later divorce his mother, Berryman and his stepfather stayed on good terms. With both his mother and stepfather working, his mother decided to sent him away to a private boarding school in Connecticut (South Kent School). Then Berryman went on to college at Columbia College (now called Columbia University) where he studied with the literary scholar Mark Van Doren. Berryman would later credit Van Doren with sparking his interest in writing poetry seriously. For two years, Berryman also studied overseas at Clare College, Cambridge, on a Kellett Fellowship, awarded by Columbia. He graduated in 1936.
Regarding Berryman's earliest success in the field of poetry, the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry editors note that "Berryman's early work formed part of a volume entitled Five Young American Poets, published by New Directions in 1940." Berryman would soon publish some of this early verse in his first book, simply titled Poems, in 1942. However, his first mature book, The Dispossessed, appeared six years later. Regarding his most important influence at the start of his career in poetry, Berryman said, "I didn't want to be like Yeats
; I wanted to be Yeats."
In 1950, Berryman published a biography of the fiction writer Stephen Crane whom he greatly admired. This book was followed by his next significant book of poems, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956) which featured illustrations by Ben Shahn and was Berryman's first book to receive "national attention." Berryman's great poetic breakthrough occurred after he published 77 Dream Songs in 1964. The book won the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and solidified Berryman's standing as one of the most important poets of the post-World War II generation that included Robert Lowell
, Elizabeth Bishop
, and href="http://www.poemhunter.com/delmore-schwartz/">Delmore Schwartz. Berryman was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1967.
Berryman continued to work on the "dream song" poems and published a second, significantly longer, volume entitled His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, in 1968. This book won the National Book Award for Poetry and the Bollingen Prize; next year Berryman republished 77 Dreams Songs and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, as one book titled The Dream Songs. In 1970 he published his follow-up to The Dream Songs, Love & Fame in which he dropped the mask of Henry and wrote candidly about himself. The volume received mixed reviews and was generally considered a minor work. The character of Henry was also missing from Delusions Etc., (1972), Berryman's last book, which focused on his religious concerns and his own spiritual rebirth. The book was published posthumously and, like its predecessor, Love & Fame, it is considered a minor work.
Berryman taught at the University of Iowa, in their Writer's Workshop, Harvard University, and the University of Minnesota, where he spent the majority of his career. Some of his illustrious students included W. D. Snodgrass, William Dickey, Donald Justice, Philip Levine, Robert Dana, Jane Cooper, Donald Finkel, and Henri Coulette. Philip Levine stated, in a recorded interview from 2009, that Berryman took his class extremely seriously and that, "He was entrancing. . .magnetic and inspiring and very hard on [his students'] work. . .He was [also] the best teacher that I ever had." Berryman was fired from the University of Iowa after a fight with his landlord ended up leading to his arrest. He turned to his friend, the poet Allen Tate
, who helped him get his teaching job at the University of Minnesota.
Berryman was married three times. And according to the editors of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, he lived turbulently. Throughout his life, he suffered from alcoholism and depression, and on the morning of January 7, 1972, he killed himself by jumping from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota onto the west bank of the Mississippi River.
Berryman's poetry, which often revolved around the sordid details of his personal problems (in The Dream Songs but also in his other books as well) is closely associated with the Confessional poetry movement. In this sense, his poetry had much in common with the poetry of his friend, Robert Lowell. The editors of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry note that, "the influence of Yeats, Auden, Hopkins, Crane, and Pound on him was strong, and Berryman's own voice—by turns nerve-racked and sportive—took some time to be heard."
Berryman's first major work, in which he began to develop his own unique style of writing, was Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, published in 1956. In the long, title poem, which first appeared in Partisan Review in 1953, Berryman addressed the 17th century American poet Anne Bradstreet, combining the history of her life with his own fantasies about her (and inserting himself into her life story). Joel Athey noted, "This difficult poem, a tribute to the Puritan poet of colonial America, took Berryman five years to complete and demanded much from the reader when it first appeared with no notes. The Times Literary Supplement hailed it as a path-breaking masterpiece; poet Robert Fitzgerald called it 'the poem of his generation.'" Edward Hirsch observed that, "the 57 stanzas of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet combine the concentration of an extended lyric with the erudition and amplitude of a historical novel."
Berryman's major poetic breakthrough came after he began to publish the first volume of The Dream Songs, 77 Dream Songs, in 1964. The dream song form consisted of short, eighteen-line lyric poems in three stanzas. Each stanza also contained its own irregular rhyme scheme and irregular meter. 77 Dream Songs (and its sequel His Toy, His Dream, His Rest) centers on a character named "Henry" who bears a striking resemblance to John Berryman. However, Berryman was careful about making sure that his readers realized that "Henry" was not his equivalent, but rather a fictional version of himself (or a literary alter ego). In an interview, Berryman stated, "Henry does resemble me, and I resemble Henry; but on the other hand I am not Henry. You know, I pay income tax; Henry pays no income tax. And bats come over and they stall in my hair — and fuck them, I'm not Henry; Henry doesn't have any bats."
In The New York Times review of 77 Dream Songs, John Malcolm Brinnin praised the book without reservation, declaring that "[the book's] excellence calls for celebration." And in The New York Review of Books, Robert Lowell also reviewed the book, writing, "At first the brain aches and freezes at so much darkness, disorder and oddness. After a while, the repeated situations and their racy jabber become more and more enjoyable, although even now I wouldn't trust myself to paraphrase accurately at least half the sections." In response to the perceived difficulty of the dream songs, in his 366th "Dream Song", Berryman facetiously wrote, "These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand. / They are only meant to terrify & comfort." In His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, many of the dream songs are elegies for Berryman's recently deceased poet-friends, including Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, and Theodore Roethke. Since this volume contained more than three times the number of poems that appeared in the previous volume, Berryman covered a lot more subject matter. For instance, in addition to the elegies, Berryman writes about his trip to Ireland as well as his own burgeoning literary fame. Berryman's last two volumes of poetry, Love and Fame and Delusion, Etc. featured free-verse poems that were much more straightforward and less idiosyncratic than The Dream Songs. Both volumes were also more openly "confessional" than his earlier verse. And since Berryman embraced religion when he wrote these volumes, Berryman also explored the nature of his spiritual rebirth.
In 1977 John Haffenden published, Henry's Fate & Other Poems, a selection of dream songs that Berryman wrote after His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, but never published. In reviewing the book, Time magazine noted, "Posthumous selections of unpublished poetry should be viewed suspiciously. The dead poet may have had good aesthetic reasons for keeping some of his work to himself. Fortunately, Henry's Fate does not malign the memory of John Berryman." Berryman's Collected Poems was published in 1989. However, the editor of the book, Charles Thornbury, notably decided to leave out The Dream Songs from the collection. In his review of the Collected Poems, Edward Hirsch commented on this decision, stating, "It is obviously practical to continue to publish the 385 dream songs separately, but reading the Collected Poems without them is a little like eating a seven-course meal without a main course." Hirsch also notes that, "[The Collected Poems features] a thorough nine-part introduction and a chronology as well as helpful appendixes that include Berryman's published prefaces, notes and dedications; a section of editor's notes, guidelines and procedures; and an account of the poems in their final stages of composition and publication."
In 2004, the Library of America published John Berryman: Selected Poems, edited by the poet Kevin Young. In Poetry magazine, David Orr wrote:
Young includes all the Greatest Hits [from Berryman's career]. . .but there are also substantial excerpts from Berryman’s Sonnets (the peculiar book that appeared after The Dream Songs, but was written long before) and Berryman’s later, overtly religious poetry. Young argues that “if his middle, elegiac period...is most in need of rediscovery, then these late poems are most in need of redemption.” It’s a good point. Although portions of Berryman’s late work are sloppy and erratic, these poems help clarify the spiritual struggle that motivates and sustains his best writing.
After surveying Berryman's career and accomplishments, the editors of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry stated, "What seems likely to survive of his poetry is its pungent and many-leveled portrait of a complex personality which, for all its eccentricity, stayed close to the center of the intellectual and emotional life of the mid-century and after."
In Popular Culture
The ghost of John Berryman is a character in Thomas Disch's novel The Businessman: A Tale of Terror, published in 1984. The Hold Steady's song "Stuck Between Stations" from the 2006 album Boys and Girls in America relates a loose rendition of Berryman's death, describing the isolation he felt, despite his critical acclaim, and depicting him walking with "the devil" on the Washington Avenue Bridge where he committed suicide. Okkervil River's song "John Allyn Smith Sails" from their 2007 album The Stage Names is about John Berryman.