The Poets John Berryman (1914-1972)


About the Poet

John Berryman, a talented scholar driven to write poetry, is best known for transforming his personal suffering into verse. Like Robert Frost and Randall Jarrell, he loved teaching poetry and felt most at home with literature and the humanities. For his own composition, he was adept at the song and sonnet but preferred large dramatic roles that altered his identity. He was influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins, W. H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, and e. e. cummings; his aberrant syntax and multilevel language produced a poetic exhibitionism consistent with a flawed past and troubled mind.

At his birth on October 25, 1914, in McAlester, Oklahoma, the poet bore the surname of his parents, teacher Martha Little and John Allyn Smith, a bank examiner. In 1924, bankrolled by Martha's mother, his family moved to 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. Berryman later wrote, "A bullet on a concrete stoop / close by a smothering southern sea / spreadeagled on an island, by my knee." Berryman suffered insomnia as he relived his family's pain.

Within ten weeks of his father's death, Berryman and his mother and brother resettled in Queens, New York, 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 lapsed into fainting spells and faked epileptic seizures; his willful craziness set the pattern of his mature years.

Adult success brought Berryman fame and some degree of self-respect. At 21, he published his first poems in The Columbia Review. While completing a degree at Columbia University, he studied under Mark Van Doren. On a Kellett Fellowship, Berryman studied at Clare College, Cambridge, where he became the rare American to win the Oldham Shakespeare Scholarship. He launched a lengthy and distinguished teaching career, which took him to Wayne State, Harvard, Princeton, Brown, the universities of Washington and Connecticut, and the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. During his classroom career, he completed a much-debated psychoanalytic biography, Stephen Crane (1950), which revived interest in Crane as a poet.

Dubbed a confessional poet, Berryman produced verse for thirty-five years, publishing Poems (1942), The Dispossessed (1948), and an early masterwork, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956), a 57-stanza hymn to New England's Anne Bradstreet, which he wrote while living in Princeton, New Jersey. Inspired by Walt Whitman's Song of Myself, his lyric sequence, 77 Dream Songs (1964), won the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for poetry; four years later, he earned a National Book Award for His Toy, His Dream, His Rest: 308 Dream Songs (1968), a second immersion in dream states. Intensely personal, the poems relive a child's attempt to establish order in a disintegrating family. The most hopeless stave, number 145, speaks of the imaginary character through which the poet projects misgivings about life and sanity. Narcissistic and self-serving, Dream Songs characterizes Berryman's debilitating need for a prop, whether grandstanding, alcohol, fantasy, or poetry.

Severely limited by faltering energy, nightmares, and hallucinations, Berryman rallied into manic overproduction in Love and Fame (1970) and an incomplete novel, Recovery (1973), ostensibly an autobiography about his defeat of the demons that stalked him. Repeatedly combating premonitions of death, convulsive rages, and addictive behavior, he committed suicide on January 7, 1972, in Minneapolis, by leaping from a bridge into the frozen Mississippi River. A posthumous work, Henry's Fate, was published in 1972. Four years later, Berryman's critical essays were issued as The Freedom of the Poet (1976).

Chief Works

Rated a distinguished American narrative by critic Edmund Wilson, The Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956) surprises the reader by its engaging conversation between people born more than three centuries apart. By dissociating into wrangling voices, he traces the character and history of a literary ancestor, Anne Bradstreet, a fellow anomaly stalked by loss and failure. 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, he claims, "Both of our worlds unhanded us."

Stanza 17 opens on Bradstreet, who mourns, "no child stirs / under my withering heart." In straightforward diction suited to confession or journal, she continues her plaint, which swells to high drama in stanza 19 with an eerily erotic birthing scene. Wracked with staccato bursts of caesura, it demands, "No. No. Yes!" then bears down as the child is born. Her emotion outdistances syntax in the next stave, forcing her to admit, "I can can no longer." The mounting adversity of "Mistress Hutchinson [ringing] forth a call" in folk assembly stages the dangers to an intelligent woman within a male-dominated theocracy.

By stave 25, the poet is unable to suppress a call back in time. He mourns, "Bitter sister, victim! I miss you, / — I miss you, Anne, / day or night weak as a child, / tender & empty, doomed, quick to no tryst."

Her failure to "quicken" parallels an assessment of failure in his own start-stop literary career. The tossing rhythms, Berryman's trademark, give place to a verbal aria in stanza 31. Verb-heavy, the piece resonates from close placement of action words — for example, "heavy-footed, rapt, / make surge poor human hearts." Intricacies of language bandy layered implications as the speaker justifies why he can't be Anne's lover: " — I hear a madness. Harmless to you / am not, not I? — No." Unsteady in his grasp of divinity, the poet-speaker debates with Anne the likelihood of salvation. The duet concludes with the poet's form of salvation: keeping Anne's memory strong in his verse.

Ambivalence characterizes the remainder of Berryman's canon. The first of his Dream Songs, "Huffy Henry" (1964), modeled on the poet's dentist, represents through an imaginary character the incorrigible naughtiness in a standoff against other conscious states. Alternately solemn and overconfident, the childishly disruptive self acts out desires, fears, and fantasies in a befuddling series of revelations set to a razzing syncopated rhythm. Less courtly than Homage to Anne Bradstreet, a reckless momentum fuels a pungent black humor filled with self-destruction. As though glimpsing himself "pried / open for all the world to see," the poet marvels that Henry can survive betrayal. Atop a sycamore, the poet slips into Henry's impish point of view to look out to sea, a symbol of untamed menace. His conflicted song, an obscure blend of sexual pun with despair, wonders at the emptiness of life and love.

The fourteenth stave of Dream Songs, "Life, Friends," continues Berryman's surreal study of raw emotion. In this immersion in boredom, he regrets the manic-depressive states of flash followed by yearning. As though arguing with the mother's voice recorded in his mind, he counters her claim that bored people admit to a lack of "inner resources." His dissociation of the dog's tail from the act of wagging displays Berryman's elusive dream states, where unforeseen disconnections from reality produce startlingly exact images. In this case, he puns on wag, an implication of brashness. The leaden tone indicates that, for all his dark humor, the poet is unable to halt a crushing mood swing.

In Stave 29, "There Sat Down, Once," the poet ponders Henry's pervasive sense of guilt. Linking words with ampersands and varying tenses within the line, he unhinges the reverie from time constraints to allow him to ponder a century of "weeping, sleepless," a disordered state that Berryman knew well. The nunlike Sienese face, a still, yet cruelly accusing profile, reproaches Henry, whose inability to change impedes him from pardon. Lost in private thoughts, he is unable to locate any victims of his imagined sin.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Contrast the depth of confession in John Berryman's poems with those of Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath.

2. Account for Berryman's interest in the writings of Anne Bradstreet.

3. Analyze the play of halting rhetoric on rhythm in Berryman's characterizations of insanity.

4. What does the image of the sea symbolize in Berryman's Dream Songs? Does the sea have more than one meaning in the cycle? If so, what are some of them?