John Berryman (1914 - 1972)

Life and Works

John Berryman (1914-1972) was an inexhaustible style and form experimentalist. Touched by a special gift for creative writing, he achieved to project a sophisticated and complex personality into his poetry. He shared with his fellow poets from the so called 'Middle Generation' a self-destructive force which they managed to stamp down into every single line. Poetry became not only an academic concern but a way of life, a way to try to understand existence and a recipient for their not any longer secret incubus. Concepts such as 'guilt' and 'pain' are unavoidably associated to this kind of poetry resulting in extraordinary aesthetic proposals that challenge the reader:

John Berryman believed that his life of trials was patterned from the age of eleven, when his father committed suicide, but his mother had first and long dominated his destiny. A troubled and powerful woman, she herself inherited a famous grandfather and parents who were divided too soon after her birth1.

John Berryman was born John Allyn Smith, Jr., in McAlester, Oklahoma, the son of John Allyn Smith, a banker, and Martha Little, formerly a schoolteacher. The family moved frequently, finally settling in Tampa, Florida. In 1926, his father sank into despair over unwise speculation in real estate. One morning, he shot himself in the head outside his elder son's bedroom window. The poet was the first person to discover the body. The vision of his father's suicide haunted John Berryman's poetic imagination for life, and the subject is permanently addressed in many different ways along his poetic sequences.

Within ten weeks of his father's death, Berryman and his mother and brother resettled in Queens, New York City, where he took the surname of his stepfather, bond dealer John Angus Berryman. He attended South Kent, a boarding school in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in his early teens. He then lapsed into fainting spells and faked epileptic seizures, and attempted suicide in 1931. Berryman's life was at the same time deeply and openly influenced by the idea of suicide, at times fermented by his literary imagination.

Next year he enrolled at Columbia College (later Columbia University), where he flourished under mentor Mark Van Doren, and at age 21 published his first poems in The Columbia Review and The Nation (1935), and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in English. He studied two years at Cambridge University in England, meeting W B. Yeats, T S. Eliot, W H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas. He tried playwriting, won the Oldham Shakespeare prize, and published poems in Southern Review (1937). In 1939 Berryman taught at Wayne University (later Wayne State University) in Detroit and served as poetry editor of The Nation. By December he was hospitalized for epilepsy, although he was actually suffering from nervous exhaustion, a condition that would recur in future years, exacerbated by alcoholism. His first collected poems appeared in Five Young American Poets (1940), while Berryman taught at Harvard. The poems in this collection roughly reflect the influences of poets W. B. Yeats, W. H. Auden, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hart Crane and Ezra Pound.

Classified 4-F for the wartime draft, Berryman married Eileen Mulligan in 1942. The next year he published Poems. Tremendously erudite and a brilliant teacher, Berryman in his early work displayed great technical control. Unemployed and desperate enough to briefly teach English and Latin at a prep school, Berryman landed an instructorship at Princeton, having been invited by poet R. P. Blackmur; this became home for a decade. For the next twenty years Berryman established his academic credentials, beginning with reviews of W. W. Greg's The Editorial Problem in Shakespeare, a critical edition of King Lear2, and articles on Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Robert Lowell. He was also meeting women, and in 1946 he began his lifelong series of infidelities, recorded in Sonnets to Chris (written 1947, published 1967; also titled Berryman's Sonnets). He was promoted to associate in creative writing (1946) and resident fellow (1948) at Princeton, and his work The Dispossessed (1948) won the Poetry Society of America's Shelley Memorial award. He associated professionally and socially with Lowell, Saul Bellow, and others.

Berryman's poetic and academic lives continued apace. He published "The Poetry of Ezra Pound," defended Pound's Bollingen Prize in a letter (signed by seventy-three writers) to The Nation (1949). The next year he published his psychological biography Stephen Crane (1950), Berryman's pioneering critical biography that offers a psychological interpretation of Crane's development and genius, and reveals Berryman as well as Crane himself. He also wrote on Marlowe, Shakespeare, Monk Lewis, Walt Whitman, Theodore Dreiser, and Bellow. In 1950 he won the American Academy award for poetry.

In 1953 Berryman published Homage to Mistress Bradstreet in the Parisan Review (it appeared in book form in 1956). This difficult poetic sequence, 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." In fifty-seven stanzas of eight rhymed lines each, the five sections of Homage were positioned almost symmetrically: Berryman's invocation of the dead poet, a Bradstreet monologue, a seductive dialogue between the two poets, a second Bradstreet monologue, and finally Berryman's peroration. The poem's stanza is composed of eight highly compressed lines filled with jagged rhymes, puns, repetitions, assonance, allusions, ambiguities, units of affect, rhymes, and slant rhymes, edgy shifting from bathos to pathos, open and hidden irony, etc. The poet addresses Bradstreet as both lover and listener, extending himself through her tribulations as an exile in the Rhode Island colony. He included personal tragedies such as her heart problems ("wandering pacemaker,") as well as identified with her situation, where he awaits "in a redskin calm." Homage to Mistress Bradstreet surprises the reader by its original cohesion between form and content, and by displaying a highly original confessional voice that ambiguously applies not only to selfhood but also to a distressing assimilation of Bradstreet's own voice. Introduced in stanzas 1 through 4, the poet establishes his identification with the colonial poet, with whom he shares doubt, alienation, and hardship. Internalizing her barrenness alongside his literary and personal misgivings, the speaker claims, "Both of our worlds unhanded us." A line that may be compared to Frost's "A Gift Outright".

During these years Berryman lectured at the Universities of Washington and Cincinnati and at the Writer's Workshop at Iowa, his teaching described by poet Philip Levine as "brilliant, intense, articulate" (The Bread of Time [1994]). While Berryman was on the faculty of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, W. D. Snodgrass was one of the members of his class. "I have been very fortunate twice in my career as a student of poetry," William Dickey wrote in Ed Dinger's Seems Like Old Times, "first to have been at Reed College as an undergraduate with Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Lew Welch, second to have been in John Berryman's extraordinary and intense poetry workshop with W. D. Snodgrass, Donald Justice, Philip Levine, Paul Petrie, Robert Dana, Constance Urdang, Jane Cooper, Donald Finkel, Henri Coulette-the list continues beyond the capacity of my memory, but it was a course I approached with rapture and fear, owing in part to Berryman's sometimes jagged abruptness, as when, having warned me beforehand that he was going to exhibit the profound mortality of one of my works, he held it out at arm's length in the class, looked at it with loathing, and said, 'Now, what are we to say about this ridiculous poem?'". Berryman's astounding memory allowed him to quote poetry at great length, and his short story, "Wash Far Away" (not published until 1975, American Review), showed how seriously he considered teaching. His private life, however, was crumbling on account of his alcoholism. He separated from Eileen in 1953 and was dismissed from Iowa after his arrest for public intoxication and disturbing the peace. Almost three decades later, in 1982 Eileen Simpson published her memories under the title of Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir by Eileen Simpson. Together with John Haffenden's biography on John Berryman, they provide great insight into the poet's life and work. Eileen's familiar voice and point of view allow closer approaches to Berryman's sometimes hermetic life and to understand the complex impulses that throb behind his poetry:3

In August 1954, at the end of a year of separation, John wrote me on the Cape, asking me to meet him in Boston on my birthday. After dinner he walked me up and down Beacon Hill, past the Saint-Gaudens monument (which both Cal4 and he had written poems about), the State House, Pinckney Street, Revere, Louisburg, Mount Vernon Street. At 49 Grove Street we stopped. 'Are you aching with memories?' he said, in a hard-soft voice that warned me there was danger ahead. 'Good. That's what it's been like for me all summer, teaching at Harvard again. That's why I brought you here.' We dropped arms and faced each other.

By 1955, assisted by poet Allen Tate, Berryman moved to Minneapolis and was appointed lecturer in humanities (separate from the English department) at the University of Minnesota, which became his home for life. The cycle was nearly complete, as he now lived thirty miles from his suicidal father's birthplace. At this time he began The Dream Songs, his most significant work.

Divorced in 1956, Berryman married 24-year-old Ann Levine a week later; the couple had a son. Homage to Mistress Bradstreet was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1956. It was not until the publication of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet in 1956, when he was already in his forties, that he won widespread recognition and acclaim as an original and innovative poet:

"Why write?" John Berryman asked himself once. His list of reasons was extensive: sublimation, habit, boredom, rage, self-redorm, need; to entertain, to praise, to get X into bed, to "justify," express self-pity, gain prestige, get promotion, not to disappoint friends; money, fame, posterity. All these reasons applied at one time or another to Berryman's own career. One notable omission from the list (perhaps because he took it wholly for granted) was inspiration, which he rarely lacked. He was a man who lived, for many years, a life absolute for poetry. He spent literally years on end worrying form and style toward that point where thought and feeling accord. He was a man who honored his literary debts--to Yeats, Pound, Auden, Stevens, Rilke--for perhaps too long. It took nearly twenty years of apprenticeship before he could write a major poem, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, his first outstanding critical success. For the years of his youth and into early manhood, he was nervous, intense, wildly excitable, a snob in poetry, but always alive with what Delmore Schwartz called his "mad charm." For perhaps most of the years of his mature achievement (dating from the early 1950s), he suffered and caused others to suffer from his alcoholism. He lusted in many ways, for sexual dominion, which was often achieved, and for fame, which came late.5

In 1957 Berryman was promoted to associate professor, and the State Department sponsored him on a lecture tour of India. In 1958 Berryman was hospitalized for exhaustion; he also legally separated from Ann. In 1959 they divorced, and Berryman was again in the hospital for alcoholism and nerves; for the rest of his life he was hospitalized at least once a year. Over the next three years, Berryman taught at the University of California at Berkeley, at Bread Loaf in Vermont, and at Brown University, and he won awards, published a scholarly edition of Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller, and married Kate Donahue, age twenty-two, in 1961. They had two daughters.

The Dream Songs are eighteen-line poems in three stanzas. Each individual poem reflects upon an emotion, a thought, a memory, provoked or linked to an everyday event. The tone of the poems is less surreal than associational or intoxicated, and yet each is carefully constructed, with a great deal of control of both wording and thought hidden beneath an apparent randomness. The poems appear to be nearly diary entries, and yet they are neither trivial nor occasional. This poetic sequence tends to rely heavily on bathetic effects created under a very well thought design converting the irrational, the subconscious, the other, the dream in alternative paths to knowledge: "A dream is a panorama of a whole mental life" expresses a Prospero's-like line. Physically and psychologically dressed as King Lear or as the Fool, as Hamlet or as Macbeth, as Everyman or as The Man, as Oneself or as The Other, the principal character of the song cycle is "fragmented" Henry, who is both the heterogeneous or "heterogenius" narrator of the poems, referred to by the lyrical I along the sequence either hidden or overtly: "'Henry' is perforce Berryman's self-mirroring protagonist, seen in a glass that splits and distorts the reflection; thus, for instance, the 'unnamed friend' is still another split-off fragment of the work's total self-awareness."6

Henry often speaks to himself in the guise of Mr. Bones, a "blackface minstrel"7 show version of himself (a white American in blackface speaking Negro dialect). The poetic sequence unveiled the unforgettable alter egos or personae "Henry", "Mr. Bones", "Tambo" and "Pussy Cat" in a sequence of poems whose wrenched syntax, scrambled diction, extraordinary leaps of language and tone, broken syntax and recreation of anacoluthons, and wild mixture of high lyricism and low comedy plumbed the extreme reaches of a human soul and psyche. In succeeding years Berryman added "dream songs" to the sequence, until there were nearly four hundred collected as The Dream Songs. Henry, speaking with all of Berryman's baggage--paternal suicide, shameless libido, drunkenness--is allowed to aggress and regress, throwing his anger, fears, and blasphemy up against Friend, at times a blank "ahabian wall" of therapeutic response. Their comic poise is omnipresent, for example, when Friend condemns Henry for springing on another man's wife: "There ought to be a law against Henry" ("Dream Song 4"). At times, Henry's self-destruction is governed only by personified Ruin staring at him, "He stared at ruin. Ruin stared straight back. / He thought they was old friends. He felt on the stair / where her papa found them bare / they became familiar" ("Dream Song 45").

In 1967 the poet publishes a sonnet sequence - Berryman's Sonnets - about a love affair. Written in 1947, the work anticipates the use of disrupted syntax and the probing of his own experiences that Berryman would employ in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and Dream Songs. Short Poems, a gathering of his lyrics, is also published; it includes "Formal Elegy," on the death of John F. Kennedy. Berryman was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1967 to complete The Dream Songs. He lived for a time in Ireland and continued to drink heavily, eventually checking into a Minneapolis hospital for alcohol treatment. Meanwhile, he won the Academy of American Poets and National Endowment for the Arts awards (1967). His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968) completed The Dream Songs and won the National Book Award (1969) and the Bollingen Prize. The collection provides additional incidents in the progress of the middle-aged character Henry, who reflects on his life and losses as well as on contemporary history. His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, is a poetic sequence composed of 385 eighteen-line poems that trace the regress and progress of his protagonist, Henry.

After checking into alcohol rehabilitation once in 1969 and three times in 1970, Berryman experienced "a sort of religious conversion" in 1970. He considered Judaism, professed Catholicism, and wrote Recovery (1971), a vague autobiography about alcoholic rehabilitation:

Dr. Severance's consciousness, during this initial period of his third treatment for chronic alcoholism, was both intermittent and double. Now and then he would catch himself as it were and come to; he recognized that, and he attributed his absent-mindedness to his absolute and overriding (and wise and noble) obsession with the First Step. He ate walked slept (not much) talked listened laughed, he 'admitted', as usual. But really he was working on the First Step - that is to say, hallucinating. Dr. Severance was in withdrawal.8

The awards mentioned above celebrated Berryman's distinctive poetic voice, which the New York Times later described as "jaunty, jazzy, colloquial ... full of awkward turns and bent syntax" (8 Jan. 1972). In his acceptance speech, Berryman explained his iconoclastic style: "I set up The Dream Songs as hostile to every visible tendency in both American and English poetry." In the final collection, Love and Fate (1970), the poet autobiographically explores his background and Catholic faith. Delusions, Etc., a posthumous gathering of late poems, would appear in 1972, and Henry's Fate, a collection of previously unpublished segments from The Dream Songs, would follow in 1977.9

The poems in this posthumous collection were written by John Berryman between 1967 and 1972, the year of his death. The first group consists of forty-five unpublished or uncollected Dream Songs, including the title poem, "Henry's Fate." The second part includes eleven short poems; the third is devoted to unfinished poems, one of which is the extraordinary draft version of "Washington in Love," more ambitious in scope and intention than the version Berryman published in Delusions, Etc. This section also includes the "Proemio" to a poem addressed to his children, which Berryman was planning as "my third epic," after Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and The Dream Songs. The fourth and final section consists of ten poems of the later period, including "The Alcoholic in the 3rd Week of the 3rd Treatment," and "I didn't," a poem written within forty-eight hours of his death. Henry's Fate and Other Poems has been compiled by John Haffenden, poet and critic, who is at work on the authorized biography of Berryman. In his introduction he reveals that a number of poems turned up in unlikely places: "'Old Codger Henry' was found, for example, on a scrap of envelope tucked away in an edition of Coleridge." He cites a satirical epitaph Berryman wrote for himself as early as 1955: "He was a poet. To earn a living--instead of scrounging as he should have done--he lectured on subjects he knew nothing about to students incapable of learning anything." He feels that Berryman "embodied in his life the truth of his own phrase, 'The happier you get the worse you feel.'" Haffenden, John., ed. Henry's Fate & Other Poems.

In 1972, Berryman's depression led him to follow the example of Heart Crane and to kill himself by jumping from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The following words belong to John Haffenden's introduction to the edition of Henry's Fate and Other Poems: "He never subscribed to the facile idea that the vices of the man might be virtues to the poet. Suffering might help the poetry, but sin would not. One of his worst burdens was the feeling that being a poet could not excuse his transgressions as a man."10


1John Haffenden. The Life of John Berryman. Boston & London: Routledge and Kegan Paul PlC., 1983, p. 8.

2Berryman's project for an edition of King Lear has been published in 1999, edited and introduced by Professor John Haffenden together with a preface by Robert Giroux: Berryman's Shakespeare: Essays, Letters, and Other Writings by John Berryman. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1999.

3Eileen Simpson. Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir by Hielen Simpson. London: Faber and Faber, 1982, pp. 232-3

4Robert Lowell's nickname.

5John Berryman. Henry's Fate and Other Poems, 1967-1972. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.

6Rosenthal, M.L, and Gall, S. The Modern Poetic Sequence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983, p. 417.

7Blackface is a style of theatrical makeup that originated in the United States, used to affect the countenance of an iconic, racist, American archetype, that of the "darky" or "coon". Blackface also refers to a genre of musical and comedic theatrical presentation in which blackface makeup is worn. White blackface performers in the past used burnt cork and later shoe polish to affect jet-black skin and exaggerated lips, often wearing woolly wigs, gloves, tails, or ragged clothes to complete the transformation. Later, black artists also performed in blackface. Blackface was an important performance tradition in the American theater for over 100 years and was also popular overseas. Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrelsy played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide. In some quarters, the caricatures that were the legacy of blackface persist to the present day and are a cause of ongoing controversy.

8John Berryman.. Recovery. London: Faber and Faber, 1973 (1971), p. 23.

9John Berryman's papers are found at the University of Minnesota, cataloged in Richard Kelly, John Berryman: A Checklist (1972). Berryman's letters to his mother are published in We Dream of Honour (1988). His essays and short stories are collected in The Freedom of the Poet (1976). An authorized biography is John Haffenden, The Life of John Berryman (1982). First wife Eileen Simpon's roman á clef, The Maze (1975), gives an insider's view of a manic poet; her Poets in Their Youth 91982) provides biographical detail. William Heyen, "John Berryman: A Memoir and an Interview," Ohio Review (Winter 1974): 46-65, presents a vivid picture of the vulnerable and frenzied poet. "Whiskey and Ink, Whiskey and Ink," Life 21 July, 1967, popularized Berryman in the Dylan Thomas image. Peter Stitt, "The Art of Poetry," Paris Revew 53 (Winter 1972): 177-207, provides a famous interview Berryman gave shortly before his death. Joel Conarroe's John Berryman (1977) is an excellent overview. An obituary is in the New York Times, 8 Jan. 1972. (American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)

10Haffenden, John, ed. Henry's Fate & Other Poems 1967-1972. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977. (Selected and published with an Introduction by John Haffenden)


Autor: Gabriel Torres Chalk (UNED)