The Genius and Excess of John Berryman

A centennial revival of too much of his work risks dooming America's poet of many voices to oblivion.

Tim McDonagh
Centennial celebrations, meant to re­suscitate a reputation, run the risk of burying it instead. Consider the case of John Berryman, born in October 1914, who won the Pulitzer Prize half a century later for his exhilarating 77 Dream Songs and, in 1969, the National Book Award for 308 more Dream Songs. Not so long ago he was a commanding figure in what had come to be known as confessional poetry, for its seemingly raw autobiographical excavation of alcohol and drugs, adultery and divorce, madness and hospitalization—the “generic” life of a generation, as Berryman’s friend Robert Lowell called it.

On a winter morning in 1972, Berryman—as if in confirmation that he was yet another poète maudit—leapt to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, where he had taught at the University of Minnesota since 1955. A flurry of posthumous volumes followed: an unfinished novel called Recovery, about Berryman’s long struggle with alcoholism; an almost finished book of short poems with the downbeat title Delusions, Etc.; a selection of impressive literary essays on, among many other figures, Cervantes, Dreiser, and Stephen Crane; the makings of a book on Shakespeare, long planned but existing—like so much of this late harvest—only in fragments.

“Recently things have been rather quiet around Berryman,” the poet Michael Hofmann observes in his stylish introduction to The Dream Songs, the best of the four volumes of Berryman’s poetry that his longtime publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has issued to mark his 100th birthday. With the drift of years, many of the names of Berryman’s celebrated friends, rattled off confidently in lines that recall the accusatory opening of Howl, have lapsed into obscurity:

I’m cross with god who has wrecked
this generation.
First he seized Ted, then Richard, Randall, and now Delmore.
In between he gorged on Sylvia Plath.
That was a first rate haul. He left alive
fools I could number like a kitchen knife
but Lowell he did not touch.

One might say, as Berryman wrote in his gorgeous suite of poems for Delmore Schwartz, that he and his once lustrous contemporaries are still “waiting for fame to descend / with a scarlet mantle & tell us who we were.”

Berryman’s phrasing here echoes Mallarmé’s famous sonnet about Poe’s tomb, with its prediction that eternity would eventually “change” Poe back “into Himself,” separating the greatness of the poet’s achievement from the lurid legends that had come to surround him. While Berryman’s literary friends have faded, he has experienced a “curious afterlife” in the 21st century, as the young British critic Daniel Swift points out in his informative introduction to The Heart Is Strange: New Selected Poems. But signs are we may still be in his lurid moment:

He appears unexpectedly and often in songs by indie rock bands. In “Mama, Won’t You Keep Them Castles in the Air and Burning?” by the band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, the singer intones joylessly, “I came softly, slowly / Banging me metal drum / Like Berryman.” The Australian singer Nick Cave named one of his albums Henry’s Dream (1992), and in the song “We Call Upon the Author” from 2008 he returns to Berryman. “Berryman was best!” he yelps: “He wrote like wet papier-mâché, went the Heming-way.”

If we try to separate out John Berryman “himself” and his poetic arc, what do we get?

Berryman’s beginnings could hardly have been more anonymous. He was born John Smith Jr. in McAlester, Oklahoma, a city best known for its penitentiary. When he was 11, his father, John Smith Sr., was found beneath his bedroom window, dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. The widow remarried and the boy was renamed. Raised Roman Catholic, he was sent to boarding school in Connecticut and to college at Columbia, where he studied with Mark Van Doren and won a scholarship to study at Clare College, Cambridge. Closely cropped, in glasses, vaguely smiling in a non­committal way, he is hard to pick out in early photographs, a dutiful Bartleby awaiting instructions.

His earliest poems are the poems of a copyist. “He clung so keenly to Hopkins, Yeats, and Auden that their shadows paled him,” Lowell wrote. “Winter Landscape,” a skilled ek­phrasis of the Bruegel painting Hunters in the Snow, packs a sense of menace into its opening lines:

The three men coming down the winter hill
In brown, with tall poles and a pack of hounds
At heel, through the arrangement of the trees,
Past the five figures at the burning straw,
Returning cold and silent to their town

But nothing marks it as distinctively Berryman’s—no traces of the fractured syntax that would soon be his signature. The same could be said of many of the hit-or-miss poems from Berryman’s first collection, The Dispossessed (1948)—about two dozen in all—that Swift includes in his selection. Determined “to show Berryman’s development as a poet,” Swift is also eager to counter the impression that Berryman was primarily a confessional poet. He finds room for anything hinting at a larger concern with politics—an un­believably flat poem, for example, about reading the newspaper (“All this on the front page. Inside, penguins. / The approaching television of baseball”). Only a reader confident that better stuff is coming will want to plow through these mostly unrewarding pages.

It is also a mistake to reissue Berryman’s Sonnets in its entirety, as a separate volume. The poems record Berryman’s affair, in 1947, with the wife of a Princeton graduate student, while also, as the poet April Bernard notes in her valiant introduction, recording Berryman’s parallel affair with the Elizabethan sonnet sequence of Sidney. The 100-plus poems lay around for 20 years before he dredged them up in 1967. A strange brew of slang and solemnity, laced with puns, marks the liveliest handful, a sign of things to come.

Poetic maturity begins for Berryman in 1953, with “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” a poem of 57 eight-line sections, some of which are addressed to, and most of which are purportedly spoken by, Anne Bradstreet, the 17th-century poet who arrived in America aboard the Arbella in John Winthrop’s fleet. “Versing, I shroud among the dynasties,” Berryman has Bradstreet say. “Tireless I phrase / anything past, dead, far, / sacred, for a barbarous place.” But why, he asks her, patronizingly:

To please your wintry father? all this bald
abstract didactic rime I read appalled
harassed for your fame
mistress neither of fiery nor velvet verse

The poem is dazzling in its audacious conception. Bradstreet was all but forgotten when Berryman called her back to life, staging the poem as a seduction of the poet, marooned in the New World with her aging husband and sexually repressed cohort: “Out of maize & air / your body’s made, and moves. I summon, see, / from the centuries it.” In detecting a passionate heart beating under Puritan constraints, he was following the lead of Perry Miller and other pioneering scholars of early New England, with Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter as a likely template. But even “Homage” hardly prepares the reader for the spectacular achievement of The Dream Songs, which Berryman had already begun to piece together by 1955.

Alcohol and adultery are often thought to have been John Berryman’s muses. But his real and abiding muse was American spoken English. “I am a monoglot of English / (American version),” he proclaims in an early Dream Song. Studying Mencken’s sprawling The American Language, playing old blues albums, rereading Whitman and Dickinson, listening to broadcasts of Adlai Stevenson (“O Adlai mine”) and Eisenhower (“This is the lay of Ike,” he wrote. “Here’s to the glory of the Great White—awk— / who has been running—er—er—things”), he was acutely attuned to his native tongue. He understood, as fully as any 20th-century poet, that Americans draw their words from a turbulent river formed by many linguistic tributaries: oral and literary, black and white, immigrant argot from all over, musical phrasings, political rhetoric, and much more. “The English (American) language. Who knows entirely what it is?,” Adrienne Rich asked in 1969. “Maybe two men in this decade: Bob Dylan, John Berryman.”

With The Dream Songs, published in 1969, the supposed continental divide between the Beats on the West Coast and the academic poets on the East closed in a. Like Whitman in “Song of Myself,” the model that he always acknowledged for The Dream Songs, Berryman was engaged in an ongoing and intoxicating “language experiment,” as Whitman described Leaves of Grass. The excitement is audible from the first lines laid down in the very first song:

Huffy Henry hid the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point,—a trying to put things over.
It was the thought that they thought
they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
But he should have come out and talked.

All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry’s side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don’t see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.

What he has now to say is a long
wonder the world can bear & be.
Once in a sycamore I was glad
all at the top, and I sang.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.

“Harder than most hard modern poetry,” in Lowell’s accurate estimation, The Dream Songs—a journal in verse, after all—is not best read as a puzzle to be solved with explanatory information culled from outside the poems. To be sure, the usual annotating, much of it drawn from Berryman’s own letters and essays, may help the beginning reader past possible distractions. Yes, there is a central character of sorts called Henry, who sometimes speaks in the third person, sometimes in the first. Yes, someone else, in pseudo-black dialect, occasionally addresses Henry as “Mr. Bones.” (Berryman dutifully sought his friend Ralph Ellison’s help, but this pseudo-minstrelsy grates on contemporary ears.) Yes, the poems may sometimes seem to be based on dreams. And yes, the poems can be seen, by some flexible formulation, to constitute a single long poem.

But I welcome Michael Hofmann’s impatience with the whole ancillary rigmarole, the supposed but implausible “unity” of the poems and the supposed but implausible distinction between Henry and Berryman. The Dream Songs were a vehicle for Berryman to get urgent things said, and mightily, with a minimum of self-censorship. If, as Lowell concluded, these poems are “puzzling, not quite intelligible—and beyond a doubt fun to read or hear,” that is precisely the way we ought to take them.

Late in his increasingly disheveled life, when Berryman appeared, in the words of his loyal friend Saul Bellow, “meteor-bearded like John Brown,” he divided his life among drinking sprees, hospitalizations, and university classes. “I can remember what to say to my seminar,” he wrote in his late poem “Despair,” “but I don’t know that I want to.” The poems somehow got written amid the exuberant highs and the inevitable breakdowns, both nervous and marital. The heart-wrenching, self-lacerating books that followed The Dream Songs are under­appreciated but, I think, more lasting than Berryman’s early apprentice work.

I wish Daniel Swift had included the entire Love & Fame (1970), the last book that Berryman saw to publication. The most nakedly confessional of all his books, it takes a last, unbearable glance at his father’s casket:

Thought much I then on perforated daddy,
daddy boxed in & let down with strong straps,
when I my friends’ homes visited, with fathers universal & intact.

It also includes Berryman’s poignant devotional sequence “Eleven Addresses to the Lord,” encompassing a rollicking conversion of sorts: “Under new management, Your Majesty: / Thine.” Unaccountably missing from Swift’s selection, and from any of the other three volumes meant to cement Berry­man’s reputation for a new generation of readers, is the vigorous poem for Emily Dickinson on her 140th birthday (“ ‘One of the wits of the school’ your chum would say— / Hot diggity!—What the hell went wrong for you, / Miss Emily”). So is the longish grand poem for Beethoven and the grimly thrilling “Drugs Alcohol Little Sister.” This is a pity, to say the least.

What’s needed now, and urgently, before he disappears for good, along with Ted (Roethke), Randall (Jarrell), Richard (Blackmur), and Delmore (Schwartz), is a rigorous selection of Berryman’s best poetry and only his best, rather than well-meaning attempts to show his “breadth,” his unsurprising political commitments, or the early stirrings of this or that tendency in his mature work. I have in mind a more comprehensive sampling than the culling available from the Library of America. One volume of Dream Songs. One volume containing “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” Love and Fame, and Delusions, Etc. Throw in an appendix of a few early poems, a handful of sonnets, and a few uncollected later lyrics. Nothing more.

“The spirit & the joy,” as Berryman wrote of his beloved Delmore but might have written of himself, “in memory / live of him on, the young will read his young verse / for as long as such things go.”