“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
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.