John Berryman (originally John Smith) (October 25, 1914 - January 7, 1972) was an American poet, closely associated with Robert Lowell and the confessionalist school of poetry, who is increasingly regarded as one of the most important poets of the latter half of the twentieth century. Like other confessionalists, Berryman's poetry is primarily autobiographical in nature, touching upon the poet's inner fears and feelings, and attempting—as much as possible—to raise personal emotions to the level of high art. Berryman, however, was no ordinary confessionalist; his work is surreal, complex to the point of being obscure, and at times strikingly funny. Berryman himself staunchly rejected the association with confessionalism. When asked by a reporter how he responded to being labeled a confessionalist, Berryman famously replied, "With rage and contempt!"
Indeed, Berryman did as much as possible to conceal and complicate the autobiographical nature of his poetry, and it is unclear how much of his poetry is strictly autobiographical, and how much pure invention. Although Berryman was a close friend of Lowell, he was also his fiercest critic. He inveighed against Lowell and his confessionalist movement for having turned American poetry into little more than glorified psychotherapy; and he expressed dismay at how twentieth-century American poetry was rapidly leaving rhyme, meter, and traditional poetic form behind.
Berryman is perhaps best remembered for his contributions to poetic form and technique. He possessed a masterful command of rhyme and meter, as demonstrated by his early poems written in imitation of William Butler Yeats; but he also had the foresight to realize that, at times, it was necessary to bend the rules of form and, as Berryman phrased it, "crumple a syntax at a sudden need." His poetry is thus traditional and simultaneously innovative, incorporating a uniquely American sensibility to traditional European forms such as the sonnet and villanelle.
He has been compared to such luminaries as Chaucer for his ability to mix high and low diction, bringing together a range of dialects from all corners of American life. He is also remembered for the sense of humor in his poetry—something that the confessionalists and many poets of the late twentieth century often lacked. Berryman's strange, musical verse is among the most unique voices of twentieth-century literature, and his influence on contemporary poets is tremendous.
Berryman was born John Smith in McAlester, Oklahoma. Of his youthful self he said, “I didn't want to be like Yeats; I wanted to be Yeats.”
Berryman's childhood was, perhaps, the most tragic period of his life. In 1926, in Florida, when the poet was eleven years old, his father apparently 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. After his father's death, the poet's mother remarried, and thus he inherited his new surname of Berryman. The vision of his father's suicide haunted John Berryman's poetic imagination, and the subject is addressed directly and indirectly throughout his oeuvre.
Following his mother's remarriage, Berryman attended a private school in Connecticut and ultimately went on to study at Columbia University. At Columbia Berryman proved to be an exemplary student, and he came particularly under the influence of Columbia's poet-in-residence Mark Van Doren. After graduating Berryman continued his studies at the University of Cambridge. He returned to the United States to take up a teaching career that would take him to Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Iowa at Iowa City, and ultimately the University of Minnesota, where he would remain until his death by suicide in 1972.
While Berryman was on the faculty of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, W. D. Snodgrass, one of the original confessionalists, was one of the members of his class. In a volume entitled Seems Like Old Times, former student William Dickey "confessed,"
...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?” (Dinger, 23)
Another former student, Robert Dana, confided:
I remember a day in the old tin barracks that served as our classroom down by the river, when John Berryman scribbled some lines of mine on the blackboard. “Dana!” he shouted across two rows of chairs, “Do you know what that is?” He rapidly marked the scansion. “Metrical chaos! That’s what that is! Metrical chaos!” It was that kind of blow-torch approach that cut Berryman's class, in two weeks, from about 40 to thirteen. I like to think of us now as “The Lucky Thirteen,” but we were crazy too. Crazy with the kind of toughness it took to hang in there against John's special mix of crankiness, brilliance, and cruelty.
Despite his eccentricities, Berryman is acknowledged to be one of the most phenomenal teachers of his generation. Countless poets who would go on to make their mark in American poetry would pass through Berryman's classes—Donald Justice, Philip Levine, Paul Petrie, Robert Dana, Constance Urdang, Jane Cooper, Donald Finkel, Henri Coulette and others amongst them—almost all having remarked on his effectiveness as an instructor.
Berryman's first book was Poems, published in 1942 during the Second World War, and his second was The Dispossessed, which appeared six years later. His first major work, however, was Homage to Mistress Bradstreet in 1956, which won him substantial critical acclaim. The Homage is a lengthy meditation on the obscure eighteenth-century American poet Anne Bradstreet. Written partly in Bradstreet's voice and partly in Berryman's, the poem shifts constantly between points of view and levels of diction, mixing eighteenth-century archaisms with colloquial slang.
Berryman's fame, however, would ultimately rest on a long sequence of Dream Songs, an 18-line form invented by the poet himself. The first volume, entitled 77 Dream Songs, was published in 1964 and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The second volume of Dream Songs, entitled His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, appeared in 1968. The two volumes of Dream Songs were published together as The Dream Songs in 1969. By that time Berryman was well established as an important force in the literary world of poetry, and was widely read among his contemporaries.
The Dream Songs is easily one of the most recognizable and unique publications in twentieth-century literature. The Dream Songs, nearly four hundred in all, concern the thoughts, adventures, and dreams of Henry, "a white American, sometimes in blackface," who sometimes refers to himself in the first-person, sometimes in the second, and sometimes in the third. The only other character in the sequence is an unnamed "friend," who refers to Henry as "Mr. Bones" and speaks in a black dialect reminiscent of a minstrel show. The interactions between the two characters are loosely modeled on American minstrelsy, with Henry taking the role of interlocutor—the host of a minstrel show, who often becomes the butt of jokes made by the tambo, the role taken by "the friend." Berryman himself was deeply interested in American minstrelsy and black vernacular, and he explicitly admitted its influence, and the influence of poets such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, on the style and language of The Dream Songs.
The tone of the Dream Songs is quite surreal and associative, and yet each is carefully constructed, with a great deal of control of both wording and thought hidden beneath apparent chaos. The poems appear to be nearly diary entries, and yet they are neither trivial nor occasional. Attempting to describe the Dream Songs, however, is a rather difficult. The poems are written in odd, crumpled syntax, as exemplified from the very first lines of the very first song:
- Huffy Henry hid the day,
- unappeasable Henry sulked.
In his 366th "Dream Song" Berryman himself wrote, "These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand. / They are only meant to terrify & comfort." Elsewhere he wrote that "to make laugh and to hurt / is and was all [Henry] ever intended," and the Dream Songs veer sharply between the tones of low comedy and extreme darkness. As Berryman wrote in letters to various friends, his intention with the Dream Songs was to write poetry that would put the reader constantly off-guard—uncertain whether the next poem, or even the next line, would turn to laughter or to pain. By mixing the tones of comedy and tragedy, Berryman was able to accomplish a rare feat: a work of literature that is at times intensely funny, and at times powerfully sad.
It has been noted by many critics that 77 Dream Songs better accomplish Berryman's vision than the latter 308 poems contained in His Toy, His Dream, His Rest. As Berryman aged his tone turned increasingly darker, and the latter Dream Songs are often unflinchingly morose. Nonetheless, some of the latter poems remain both comforting and terrifying, just as Berryman intended.
- Berryman, John. Poems. Norfolk, CT: New Directions Press, 1942.
- Berryman, John. The Dispossessed. New York: William Sloan Associates, 1948.
- Berryman, John. Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1956.
- Berryman, John. 77 Dream Songs. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1964.
- Berryman, John. Berryman's Sonnets. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967.
- Berryman, John. The Dream Songs. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.
- Berryman, John. His Toy, His Dream His Rest. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.
- Berryman, John. Delusions, Etc. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Dickey, James. From Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1968.
- Dinger, Ed. Seems Like Old Times. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press.
- Tampa Man Killed Self Coroner's Jury States The Evening Independent, June 28, 1926. Retrieved December 24, 2014.
All links retrieved August 3, 2022.
- John Berryman by Edward Brunner and Cary Nelson at Modern American Poetry
- The Paris Review interview
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