Authors: John Berryman

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet


John Berryman took degrees from Columbia University and the University of Cambridge, where he was an Oldham Shakespeare scholar. His early maturing as a scholar and a poet is indicated by his being awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1944-1946, the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University in 1950-1951, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952.{$I[AN]9810000683}{$I[A]Berryman, John}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Berryman, John}{$I[tim]1914;Berryman, John}

John Berryman

(© Tom Berthiaume, courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.)

Publication of his work began in 1939 in the Kenyon Review and the well-received 1941 New Directions anthology Five Young American Poets, which also included work by Robert Lowell, who later became a close and influential friend. Berryman’s first volume of verse, Poems, was especially praised for the acuteness of his sensibility and the facility of a technique accompanied by deep intellectual commitment. With the publication of The Dispossessed, Berryman established himself as a writer of seriously witty, wry, and thoughtful poems, richly associative and cerebral but with keen references to modern life.

Homage to Mistress Bradstreet marked Berryman as perhaps the most fiercely experimental poet of his generation, with the possible exception of Karl Shapiro. The dissonant, crabbed, deliberately wrenched narrative, based on an eight-line stanza weaving back and forth on the page and filled with off-rhymes, puns, and distorted locution patterns, elicited ambivalent comments from the reviewers. Conrad Aiken referred to it as an American classic, “right on the doorstep.”

Berryman’s experimentation did not tire. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1965 for Seventy-seven Dream Songs, again an “inner” narrative based on his startling stanza form, though the hero, a character called Henry, is not so dark as Mistress Anne. The wit lifts to raw humor at times, and Henry–for all his Melvillean and Thoreauvian antecedents–frequently resorts to African American dialect to make his point. This series was continued in His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, which received great critical acclaim.

The scholar in Berryman’s makeup should not be overlooked. His Stephen Crane, which reflects his abiding interest in American themes, forms a part of the “American Men of Letters” series. Berryman was also well known as a critic and as a writer of fiction. He taught at several universities, including Harvard (1940-1943), Princeton (1943, 1946-1951), and Minnesota (1955-1972). He was married three times, and he had three children, Paul, Martha, and Sarah Rebecca.

Much of Berryman’s work concerns frustration, despair, and suicide. At the age of twelve, watching from his window, he had witnessed his father’s suicide. On January 7, 1972, just outside Minneapolis, Minnesota, John Berryman took his own life by leaping from a bridge into the frozen Mississippi River.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. John Berryman. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. Collects twelve critical essays on Berryman’s poetry, representing a variety of approaches. Contains a good index, a chronology, and a bibliography.Haffenden, John. John Berryman: A Critical Commentary. New York: New York University Press, 1980. This rather dense study examines Berryman’s major poetry, showing the connections between Berryman’s personal and poetic challenges. Although students may find this work difficult, they will be enlightened by the extensive reproductions of Berryman’s drafts, notes, and diary entries. Includes a composition chronology and an index.Haffenden, John. The Life of John Berryman. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982. This long and sometimes difficult volume draws heavily on Berryman’s unpublished diaries, letters, and notes to tell the story of the poet’s life from his father’s suicide to his own. The contrast between Berryman’s artistic successes and personal failures is at the center of this unblinking biography.Haffenden, John, ed. Berryman’s Shakespeare: Essays, Letters, and Other Writings by John Berryman. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1999. In this collection of Berryman’s best short writings on Shakespeare, he explores the complex power of England’s greatest dramatist and how knowledge of his work might be enlarged. An intimate, intricate view of Shakespeare’s work.Halliday, E. M. John Berryman and the Thirties: A Memoir. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. A close friend of Berryman, Halliday presents his recollections of his friendship with Berryman from 1933 to 1943. An account of college life in the 1930’s, glimpses of other writers, and excerpts from Berryman’s letters to Halliday make this a touching and fascinating memoir.Hirsch, Edward. “One Life, One Writing! The Middle Generation.” The American Poetry Review 29, no. 5 (September/October, 2000): 11-16. The quest for identity is a key theme in the poetry of Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, Theodore Roethke, and Berryman. Hirsch examines their poetry and finds in each a deep sympathy, an attentive regard, an overwhelming and overwhelmed reverence for all living things.Linebarger, J. M. John Berryman. New York: Twayne, 1974. After a brief biographical chapter, Linebarger examines Berryman’s poetry, dividing it into four periods. This fine introduction to Berryman’s work is perhaps the best available for the common reader. The volume includes a chronology, an annotated bibliography, and an index, but contains few quotations from the poetry.Mariani, Paul. Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman. New York: William Morrow, 1990. This highly readable biography conveys at every point Mariani’s admiration for Berryman. As he traces Berryman’s brilliant and tragic life, Mariani does not flinch from what was unattractive about the poet. Instead, he describes with respect Berryman’s struggles to overcome his weaknesses. Includes extensive quotations from letters, essays, and poems, and numerous photographs.Thomas, Harry. Berryman’s Understanding: Reflections on the Poetry of John Berryman. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988. A collection of critical essays, reviews, interviews, and memoirs. Covers the canonical criticism of Berryman’s work and the uses of that criticism to document the ongoing work of intelligent, imaginative reading.
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