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.
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.