The life of John Berryman (1914-1972) is at the center of his poetry. Dealing with obsession, tragedy, desire, ironic comedy, and the deep pain of life itself, Berryman's poetry is both brilliant and tormented. With The Dream Songs, which took him 13 years to complete, Berryman claimed his place as one of the most innovative and important American poets of the twentieth century.
John Berryman was born John Allyn Smith, Jr., in McAlester, Oklahoma, on October 25, 1914, the first child of John Allyn Smith and Martha Little Smith. Berryman's father had left his childhood home in Minnesota to relocate to Oklahoma, where he met and married Little, a schoolteacher. After ten years working as a banker in Oklahoma,
Smith moved his family, which by then included a second son, Robert Jefferson (born 1917), to Florida in order to benefit from an economic boom occurring at that time. Unfortunately, by the mid-1920s the boom was over, and Smith's business ventures in land speculation failed.
With his business career in shambles, Smith became depressed and withdrawn. His relationship with his wife, never a storybook romance, became even more unstable, and his wife began a relationship with John Berryman, the Smith's landlord. Depressed and intoxicated, Smith committed suicide by gunshot on June 26, 1926. Three months later, his widow married Berryman. Young John was soon officially adopted by Berryman, and he took his new step-father's name. The events surrounding his father's death, which occurred when Berryman was twelve, profoundly affected his life and his poetry.
The family moved to New York in late 1926, and in 1928 Berryman enrolled in South Kent School in Connecticut, a boarding school known for its competitive athletic programs rather than its academic excellence. Berryman, who had little ability and no interest in sports, did not fit in well at the school. His lack of coordination, along with a severe case of acne, made him an easy target for bullies. On March 7, 1931, he attempted suicide. Despite these troubles, Berryman excelled academically at South Kent, and became the first boy in the school's history to graduate early, not needing to complete his last term.
In 1932, Berryman entered Columbia College (later Columbia University) where he came under the influence of poet and scholar Mark Van Doren, who became both a father figure and a mentor. Berryman was a diligent student and began taking poetry very seriously; he had several poems and reviews published in the Columbia Review and The Nation. Upon graduating from Columbia College with a degree in English, Berryman earned the honor of being named a Kellett Fellow, which allowed him to study at Clare College, in Cambridge, England, for two years. During this time, he met such writers at W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas. During his second year, Berryman won the Oldham Shakespeare Scholarship, a prestigious award, and published several poems in the Southern Review.
In 1939, Berryman found himself back in New York, working as a part-time poetry editor for The Nation and an instructor in English at Wayne University in Detroit (now Wayne State University). In December 1939, Berryman was hospitalized for exhaustion and symptoms diagnosed as epilepsy. Throughout his life, he would continue to battle for emotional and mental peace, a battle made more difficult by his increasing reliance on alcohol. In 1940, he accepted a teaching position at Harvard University, and his first poems were published, along with works by Mary Barnard, Randall Jarrell, W. R. Moses, and George Marion O'Donnell in the collection, Five Young American Poets. Berryman published these same poems separately in 1942. He received recognition for the technical preciseness of his verse, and some critics praised his impersonal style. Other reviewers felt that Berryman was too structured, that he cared too much about form and not enough about content, and that he lacked emotion, depth, and substance in his writing.
On October 24, 1942, while at Harvard, Berryman married Eileen Patricia Mulligan. The next year Berryman left Harvard but failed to immediately secure another desirable position. For part of 1943, he taught Latin and English at a prep school. However, before the year ended, Berryman was invited by poet Richard Blackmur to join the faculty at Princeton University as an instructor in English. He spent the next ten years at Princeton.
After teaching for a year, Berryman spent two and a half years in an independent study of Shakespearean textual criticism. He was appointed to teach again in 1946. Berryman's circle of friends widened considerably during his time at Princeton, and he taught such writers as W. S. Merwin, Frederick Buechner, and William Arrowsmith. In the classroom, he quickly became famous for his charismatic teaching style. By the mid-1940s, he had also earned a reputation for his heavy drinking, womanizing, and unpredictable temperament that could shift from endearing to intimidating. It was clear to his close friends and students that his eccentric behavior was the manifestation of deep inner angst. As the 1940s progressed, Berryman used alcohol more and more to deal with his insecurities, confusion, and self-loathing.
The Dispossessed was published in 1948. This volume of Berryman's poems was filled with hopelessness and chaos, often using the European holocaust to reflect his personal struggles. The syntax was labored and the poems were often difficult to comprehend. Although several critics acknowledged Berryman's potential, he was once again criticized for spending too much energy on the technical forms of his verse and somehow missing any depth of feeling and senses. Despite the mixed reviews, Berryman received the Sherry Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America.
In 1947, Berryman's poetry found its emotional voice in the verse he wrote about an extramarital affair with the wife of a Princeton graduate student. Not published until 1967, Berryman's Sonnets, provides a running commentary on his conflicting feelings of exhilaration, guilt, anxiety, and hope. The sonnets use a Petrarchan form and are often choppy and distorted; the innovative form allows the reader to feel the inner conflict of the obsessed lover. Berryman used the name Lise for the woman, whose real name was Chris; some scholars suggest that he was using an Elizabethan-style anagram for "lies." The sonnets were reissued posthumously in 1988 in Collected Poems, 1937-1972 under the title of Sonnets to Chris.
Homage to Mistress Bradstreet
Berryman's next work, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, which he began in 1948, was first published in 1953 in the Partisan Review, and then in book form in 1956. The poem is based on the life of the seventeenth-century American poet, Anne Bradstreet. The poet summons forth Bradstreet and then proceeds to fall in love with her. What follows is a mixture of historical facts and artistic embellishment in which Berryman encounters and responds to the dead poet. The reader experiences Bradstreet as a tragic yet creative character who rebels against her father, her husband, and God, paralleling Berryman's own tragic, creative existence. The long poem contains 57 stanzas of eight rhymed lines and is divided into five sections: Berryman's invocation of Bradstreet, a Bradstreet monologue, a dialogue between the two poets, another Bradstreet monologue, and finally a peroration by Berryman. Homage to Mistress Bradstreet received high praise from critics, who hailed it as Berryman's most mature work to date, a successful attempt at the poetic style of The Dispossessed. Critics acknowledged Berryman, along with his friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell, as the best American poet since T. S. Eliot.
In 1950, Berryman taught at the University of Washington and then was appointed Elliston Professor of Poetry at the University of Cincinnati for the following academic year. In the same year he published a critical biography, Stephen Crane, considered by some reviewers as tortured prose that relied too heavily on Berryman's psychological model for literary interpretation. Other critics, however, thought it to be an important and noteworthy work. In the early 1950s, Berryman also continued his Shakespearean research. He wrote on Christopher Marlowe, Monk Lewis, Walt Whitman, Theodore Dreiser, and Saul Bellow. In 1950, he won the American Academy award for poetry.
Poetry and Indulgence
Although Berryman's poetry writing and his teaching career were flourishing, his obsession with self-examination, growing dependence on alcohol, and notorious womanizing were putting a strain on his personal life. Although he sought help from a psychiatrist and tried group therapy, he found little relief from his inner conflict or his dependence on alcohol. In the fall of 1953, after ten years of marriage, his first wife left him.
In the spring of 1954, he taught at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, then spent the following summer at Harvard. His reputation as an intense, passionate, and charismatic teacher followed him from classroom to classroom. He returned to the University of Iowa in the fall, but was forced to resign after spending a night in jail. Returning home intoxicated one night, he could not find his key and attempted to force his way into the house. The landlord's wife called the police and Berryman was charged with disorderly conduct. He resigned two days later.
Two Decades at the University of Minnesota
In 1955, Allan Tate, a poet Berryman deeply admired, invited him to the University of Minnesota. Berryman was appointed lecturer in humanities. This would be Berryman's home for the rest of his life. At the University of Minnesota Berryman became extremely interested in dream analysis, which he studied in-depth and which subsequently led to his greatest work, The Dream Songs (1969).
In 1956, one week after finalizing his divorce from his first wife, Berryman married 24-year-old Anne Levine. The relationship did not fare well, and the couple argued often. In 1957, Berryman was promoted to associate professor and participated in a State Department sponsored lecture tour to India. By the next year, back in Minnesota, he was hospitalized for exhaustion and nerves. He would be hospitalized at least once a year for the rest of his life. In 1959, after a year of legal separation, he and his wife divorced. Their son, Paul, was two years old. In 1961, Berryman married 22-year-old Kate Donahue; they had two children, Martha and Sara.
The Dream Songs was first published in two parts. 77 Dream Songs (1964) earned Berryman the Pulitzer Prize. His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968), the sequel to 77 Song Dreams, completed The Dream Songs, series, which was released in 1969, and earned the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize. There are 385 songs, with each song composed of three six-line stanzas. The songs are an account of a character, Henry, who speaks of himself in first, second, and third person, and sometimes encounters a nameless friend who gives him usually ineffectual and often humorous advice. Although Berryman maintained that Henry was not himself but a white, middle-aged American man, sometimes appearing in blackface, who had suffered a tremendous loss, the poem is clearly a reflection of Berryman's own thoughts, obsessions, pain, and often darkly comic understanding of life. The songs are Berryman's own self-destructive life in a verse style unique to Berryman. The syntax is awkward and demanding of the reader, yet intense and moving.
The Final Years
In 1969, Berryman was appointed Regents' Professor of Humanities, and Drake University bestowed upon him an honorary degree. With The Dream Songs Berryman was widely recognized as a great American poet. Unfortunately, his subsequent work lack the brilliance of The Dream Songs. In Love and Fame (1970) his return to lyric form brought forth verse that was sometimes witty and ironic and sometimes vulgar and offensive. He continued to abuse alcohol, and sometimes during his lectures, his words were thick and his emotions extreme due to the effects of his drinking. He checked himself into an alcohol rehabilitation center once in 1969 and three times in 1970. He penned Recovery, (1973) an autobiographical novel of a recovering alcoholic, which reviewers agreed was more important as an account of Berryman's personal life than as a novel. His last book of poems, Delusions, Etc., contained individual poems that revealed Berryman at his best, but as a whole did not satisfy the critics nor compare in importance to his earlier works, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and Dream Songs.
In 1971, Berryman was awarded a Senior Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, enabling him to complete his critical biography on Shakespeare. Unfortunately, he could not find his way out of the same despair and indulgence that made his poetry so unique and powerful. On January 7, 1972, still haunted by his own father's suicide and with his youngest daughter just six months old, Berryman ended his life by jumping from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Further Reading on John Berryman
American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. Oxford University Press, 1999.
Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, fourth ed., edited by Bruce Murphy, HarperCollins, 1996.
Contemporary Authors, edited by James G. Lesniak. Gale Research, 1992.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Roger Matuz, Gale Research, 1991.
Cyclopedia of World Authors, revised third ed., edited by Frank N. Magill. Salem Press, 1997.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by Peter Quartermain. Gale Research, 1986.
Oxford Companion to American Literature, sixth ed., edited by James D. Hart. Oxford University Press, 1995.
New Republic, April 9, 1990.