John Allyn Berryman (October 25, 1914 – January 7, 1972) 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 John Allyn Smith, Jr. in Oklahoma where he was raised until the age of 10, when his father, John Smith, a banker, and his mother, Martha, a schoolteacher, moved to Tampa, Florida. In 1926, in Florida, when the poet was twelve, his father shot and killed himself. 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 as his last name. Around this time, Berryman's mother also changed her first name from Martha to Jill (at the request of her new husband). 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 send him away to a private boarding school in Connecticut (South Kent School). Then Berryman went on to college at Columbia College 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." One of the other young poets included in the book was Randall Jarrell.
Berryman would soon publish some of this early verse in his first book, also with New Directions Publishing, simply titled Poems, in 1942. However, his first mature book, The Dispossessed, appeared six years later, published by William Sloane Associates. The book received largely negative reviews from poets like Randall Jarrell who wrote, in The Nation, that Berryman was "a complicated, nervous, and intelligent [poet]" whose poetry in The Dispossessed was too derivative of W.B. Yeats. Berryman would later concur with this assessment of his early work, stating, "I didn't want to be like Yeats; I wanted to be Yeats."
In 1947, Berryman started an affair with a married woman named Chris while he was still married to his first wife, Eileen. He documented the affair with a long sonnet sequence that he refrained from publishing, in part, because publication of the sonnets would have revealed the affair to his wife. However, he did eventually decide to publish the work, titled Berryman's Sonnets, in 1967, having long since divorced his first wife. The work included over a hundred sonnets.
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 the artist Ben Shahn and was Berryman's first book to receive "national attention" and a positive response from critics. In blurbs for the book, Edmund Wilson called the title poem "the most distinguished long poem by an American since T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," and the poet Conrad Aiken praised the shorter poems in the book which he thought were actually better than "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet."
Despite the relative success of his third book of verse, 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 Delmore Schwartz. Soon afterwards, Berryman started receiving a great deal of national attention from the press, from arts organizations, and even from the White House which sent him an invitation to dine with President Lyndon B. Johnson (though Berryman had to decline because he was in Ireland at the time). Berryman was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1967, and that same year Life magazine ran a feature story on him. Also, that year the newly created National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a ten thousand dollar grant (though he admitted, when asked about the award by a Minneapolis reporter, that he had never heard of the organization before).
Berryman also continued to work on the "dream song" poems at a feverish pace 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. The following year Berryman republished 77 Dreams Songs and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest as one book titled The Dream Songs. In the dream song poems, Berryman used the character of "Henry" to serve as his alter ego, but in his next book of poems, Love & Fame (1970), he dropped the mask of Henry to write more plainly about his life. Responses to the book from critics and most of Berryman's peers ranged from tepid, at best, to hostile; now the book is generally "considered a minor work." The character of Henry reappeared in a couple of poems published in 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 or lectured at a number of universities including University of Iowa (in their Writer's Workshop), Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Cincinnati, and the University of Minnesota, where he spent the majority of his career, except for his sabbatical year in 1962-3, when he taught at Brown University. 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. . .[and] he was [also] the best teacher that I ever had." Berryman was fired from the University of Iowa after a fight with his landlord led to him being arrested, jailed overnight, and fined for disorderly conduct and public intoxication. 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. During one of the many times he was hospitalized in order to detox from alcohol abuse, in 1970, he experienced what he termed "a sort of religious conversion." According to his biographer Paul Mariani, Berryman experienced "a sudden and radical shift from a belief in a transcendent God. . .to a belief in a God who cared for the individual fates of human beings and who even interceded for them." Nevertheless, Berryman continued to abuse alcohol and to struggle with depression, as he had throughout much of his adult life, 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 the poem). 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 & Fame and Delusions, Etc. featured free-verse poems that were much more straightforward and less idiosyncratic than The Dream Songs. Prior to the publication of Love & Fame, Berryman sent his manuscript to several peers for feedback, including the poets Adrienne Rich and Richard Wilbur, both of whom were disappointed with the poems which they considered inferior to the poems in The Dream Songs. However, a number of Berryman's old friends and supporters, including the novelist Saul Bellow and the poets Robert Lowell and William Meredith, offered high praise for a number of the Love & Fame poems. Both Love & Fame and Delusions, Etc. were more openly "confessional" than Berryman's earlier verse, and since he embraced religion when he wrote these volumes, he also explored the nature of his spiritual rebirth in poems like "Eleven Addresses to the Lord" (which Lowell thought was one of Berryman's best poems and "one of the great poems of the age").
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 had 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.
- Australian singer/songwriter Nick Cave has admiringly referenced Berryman in the song "We Call Upon the Author" from the 2007 album Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!.
- Phish bassist Mike Gordon's side-project band has performed "Dream Song 22-'Of 1826," releasing it on a live album, The Egg. Additionally, on March 30th, 2014, their show featured a rendition of "The Poet's Final Instructions."
- Poems. Norfolk, Ct.: New Directions Press, 1942.
- The Dispossessed. New York: William Sloan Associates, 1948.
- Stephen Crane. New York: Sloan, 1950.
- Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1956.
- 77 Dream Songs. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1964.
- Berryman's Sonnets. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967.
- His Toy, His Dream His Rest. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968.
- The Dream Songs. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.
- Love & Fame. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970.
- Delusions, Etc. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972.
- Recovery. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973.
- The Freedom of the Poet. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1976.
- Henry's Fate & Other Poems, 1967-1972. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1977.
- Collected Poems 1937-1971. Ed. Charles Thornbury. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989.
- Berryman's Shakespeare. Ed. John Haffenden. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999.
- Selected Poems. Ed. Kevin Young. New York: Library of America, 2004.
- Bloom, James D. The Stock of Available Reality: R.P. Blackmur and John Berryman. (Bucknell University Press, 1984)
- Dickey, James. From Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1968)
- Dinger, Ed. Seems Like Old Times (Iowa)
- Haffenden, John. The Life of John Berryman (Arc Paperbacks)
- Mariani, Paul. Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman (NY, Morrow, 1990)
- Simpson, Eileen. The Maze (NY, Simon & Schuster, 1975)
- Simpson, Eileen. Poets in Their Youth (NY, 1983)
- Works by John Berryman on Open Library at the Internet Archive
- in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- at the Poetry Foundation
- at Academy of American Poets
- from Modern American Poetry, University of Illinois
- Peter A. Stitt (Winter 1972). . The Paris Review.
- Critical essays on Berryman's works
- at Find a Grave
- at Library of Congress Authorities — with 50 catalog records