IT SOUNDS LIKE THE SETUP for a joke: the time that John Berryman organized a foot race at a garden party.
On a summer evening in Salt Lake City, in 1959, the poet was in his cups after lecturing at a writers’ conference, and for some reason he chose to run sideways, veering across the lawn and into a bed of roses, breaking a number of plants off at the stalk and bloodying himself on the thorns. For the host’s teenaged son, the scene was at once humorous and horrifying. Twenty-five years later, he could still recall the mad look in Berryman’s eyes, which he linked to the dark hilarity at the center of his poems.
It is thrilling, if sometimes unnerving, to be in the presence of an antic imagination. This same imagination is reflected beautifully in Berryman’s distinctive body of work. For the centenary of his birth, his publisher has reissued Berryman’s Sonnets, 77 Dream Songs, and the complete Dream Songs, along with an indispensable memoir by his first wife, Eileen Simpson, Poets in Their Youth. The publisher has also brought out a new collection of selected poems, The Heart Is Strange, judiciously edited and introduced by Daniel Swift. These books give us an opportunity to see afresh what he made of his careening journey through our literary landscape.
Berryman was born John Allyn Smith Jr. in McAlester, Oklahoma, during the first months of World War I (speaking of anniversaries). His parents had a difficult marriage, and when he was 10 his family moved to Florida, after his father lost his job at a bank. Things went from bad to worse: the restaurant they opened failed, his mother took up with a more successful businessman, and his father began drinking. His world was shattered when his mother woke him early one morning to say that his father had shot himself. This event would shape his life. Within weeks Berryman and his mother had moved to New York, and his mother had married her paramour, who bestowed his last name on the boy. John was shipped off to a boarding school in Connecticut, where he was routinely bullied. He had a better time at Columbia, where he studied with Mark Van Doren, and then at Cambridge, where he acquired an MA and an English accent. A decisive meeting with William Butler Yeats impressed upon him the need to work “without cease,” and by the time he returned to New York in 1938, the broad outlines of his career were set. Swift suggests that “His life — it is not glamorous to say so — was a parade of grants and fellowships. When he was in trouble, the academic world came to rescue him.” He taught at Wayne University, Princeton, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the University of Minnesota. On the morning of January 7, 1972, he leaped to his death from a bridge in Minneapolis onto the west bank of the frozen Mississippi River. It is said that he waved to passing motorists before he jumped.
Tempting as it is to interpret his work through his suicide, Berryman’s poems inspire the reader to a more nuanced understanding of his lifelong gaze into the abyss. In his interview with The Paris Review he described T. S. Eliot’s poetic career as “a pure system of spasms” consisting of masterpieces composed at intervals of several years, in wholly different styles. “My career is like that,” he admitted. “It is horribly like that.” His first spasm — his breakthrough — was a cycle of sonnets written in the throes of an adulterous affair in 1947, which would not appear in print for two decades. Berryman’s learning was very much on display in his early work; in her introduction to the new edition, April Bernard draws attention to the number of literary ancestors he invokes, including Petrarch, Wyatt, Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, Sophocles, Villon, the Psalmists, Eliot, Pound, and, especially, Sir Phillip Sydney. “The ‘plot’ of Berryman’s Sonnets,” Bernard writes, “follows that of Sydney’s sequence: passion sought; passion requited; passion delayed; and, finally, passion utterly thwarted.” The last poem is devastating:
All we were going strong last night this time,
the mots were flying & the frozen daiquiris
were downing, supine on the floor lay Lise,
listening to Schubert grievous & sublime,
my head was frantic with a following rime:
it was a good evening, an evening to please,
I kissed her in the kitchen — ecstasies —
Among so much good we tamped down the crime.
The weather’s changing. This morning was cold,
as I made for the grove, without expectation,
some hundred Sonnets in my pocket, old,
to read her if she came. Presently the sun
yellowed the pines & my lady came not
in blue jeans & a sweater. I sat down & wrote.
The odd phrasing — “All we were going strong” — and boldness of rhyming daiquiris, Lise, please, and ecstasies delight the ear. Likewise the charm of his inverted syntax — “my lady came not” — became a staple of his mature style. His ingenious pairing of “grievous & sublime” highlights his debt to Shakespeare, the central figure in Berryman’s imagination. (He had grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as a contract from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, to research and write a critical biography of the Bard — which remained unfinished at the time of his death. John Haffenden, the author of a fine biography of Berryman, painstakingly edited and introduced the poet’s essays, lectures, and notes in a volume titled Berryman’s Shakespeare which was published in 1999.) And it is useful to remember that the book closes with Berryman’s confession that personal catastrophe compels him to write.
Within six months, he had started what would become “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” a piece which Edmund Wilson called “the most distinguished long poem by an American since The Waste Land.” Here was a grand act of ventriloquism, whereby Berryman gave voice to Anne Bradstreet, who is generally considered to be the first American poet. Across the centuries he reaches out to the headstrong Puritan woman, and by the fifth of the 57 stanzas, he is speaking in her voice, recalling her arrival in the New World in 1630:
By the week we landed we were, most, used up.
Strange ships across us, after a fortnight’s winds
unfavouring, frightened us;
bone-sad cold, sleet, scurvy; so were ill
many as one day we could have no sermons;
broils, quelled; a fatherless child-unkennelled; vermin
crowding & waiting: waiting.
And the day itself he leapt ashore young Henry Winthrop
(delivered from the waves; because he found
off their wigwams, sharp-eyed, a lone canoe
across a tidal river,
that water glittered fair & blue
& narrow, none of the other men could swim
and the plantation’s prime theft up to him,
shouldered on a glad day
hard on the glorious feasting of thanksgiving) drowned.
Berryman’s poem has been likened to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” and in these stanzas we see him transforming a historical event — Henry Winthrop’s drowning — into poetic matter, in the same way that Whitman translated key moments from the Revolutionary War into a contemporary idiom. Berryman argued that, “For Whitman the poet is a voice. Not solely his own […] A voice, then, for himself and others; for others as himself.” In “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” Berryman tuned his voice to hers in order to explore the origins of the American experiment, and what he discovered was not only a productive means of composition but also “That beyond the Atlantic wound our woes enlarge / is hard, hard that starvation burnishes our fear, / but I do gloss for You.” The religious nature of this quest would return to inspire Berryman’s best late poems, when all the voices governing his next major work, The Dream Songs, had gone quiet.
The first 77 “Dream Songs” were published in 1964, and in no time the opening poem took its rightful place in the canon of American literature:
Huffy Henry hid the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point, — a trying to put things over.
It was the thought that they thought
they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
But he should have come out and talked.
All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry’s side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don’t see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.
What he has now to say is a long
wonder the world can bear & be.
Once in a sycamore I was glad
all at the top, and I sang.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.
Scholars commonly interpret “a departure” as his father’s death, the emotional fallout from which he addresses directly in the opening stanza of “29”:
There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.
Expiation is, of course, impossible — and yet the poet is determined to tamp down every crime, his own and others. Henri Cole’s insightful introduction to 77 Dream Songs concludes with a quote from Berryman:
I do strongly feel that among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement is ordeal […] The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.
Which is why the Muse kept calling to him with a cough. (A smoker’s hack? He and his father were chain-smokers.) The form of each song is, in Kevin Young’s words, “a devil’s sonnet” — three six-line stanzas, irregularly rhymed, with iambic lines of varying lengths, into which Berryman poured all manner of material, historical and personal, including the last words of John Adams, Eisenhower’s anxieties, praise for the late Theodore Roethke, and every possible vexation. “The dreams are not real dreams,” Robert Lowell wrote in The New York Review of Books, “but a waking hallucination in which anything that might have happened to the author can be used at random. Anything he has seen, overheard, or imagined can go in.” (The same holds for the hundreds of sonnets collected in Lowell’s History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin.) 77 Dream Songs was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1965. In 1968, Berryman published 308 new Dream Songs in His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, for which he received the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize. In 1969, the two volumes were combined and published as The Dream Songs.
According to Joseph Brodsky, “An aging man, if he still holds a pen, has a choice to write memoirs or to keep a diary. By the very nature of their craft, poets are diarists.” The Dream Songs are the diary of a poet documenting the turbulent history of his time and the no less turbulent experience of (as Berryman put it):
[…] an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr Bones and variants thereof.
It is no exaggeration to say that Henry has become a crucial figure in our poetic imagination, in the tradition of “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos.”
Nor is it true to suppose that after finishing The Dream Songs Berryman had nothing left to say. His life was in shambles, his alcoholism, acute, and the image of him taking a taxi from the hospital, where he had gone to sober up, to lecture at the university with the meter running is a haunting one. Yet as he reeled from one spiritual crisis to another he wrote two cycles of devotional verse, “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” and “Opus Dei,” the latter of which follows the order of liturgical hours in the same manner as W. H. Auden’s “Horae Canonicae.” Which is to say that, in the midst of his despair, Berryman continued to strive to make sense of his walk in the sun. Swift argues that “he embraced the end […] [and] these poems contemplate the limits of the self, and human life”:
Heard sapphire flutings. The winter will end. I remember You.
The sky was red. My pillow’s cold & blanched.
There are no fair bells in this city. This fireless house
lies down at Your disposal as usual! Amen!
Berryman’s antic humor is in the American grain. Swift notes his enduring influence on younger artists, including musicians — which, I suspect, he might have liked. Reading about Berryman and the struggles and triumphs of his life, another figure comes to mind: Robin Williams, whose improvisational genius and gift for mimicking voices served him so well until he took his own life — a tragic act that fueled no shortage of commentary and speculation this summer about the connection between creativity and depression. Simpson addresses the subject in the final pages of Poets in Their Youth:
Many — I, too, at moments — blamed the suicide on John’s having been a poet. The litany of suicides among poets is long. After a while I began to feel that I’d missed the obvious. It was the poetry that had kept him alive. His father had committed suicide at forty. With as much reason, and with a similar psychic makeup, John had been tempted more than once to follow his father’s example. That he lived seventeen years longer than John Allyn Smith, that he died a “veteran of life,” was thanks to his gift. It had not been the hand coaxing him down from the railing that had brought him back each time, he now believed, but the certainty that there were all those poems still to be written. Only when there were no more did he feel, as his father must have felt on the morning he pulled the trigger, that “It seems to be DARK all the time.”
“We asked to be obsessed with writing, / and we were,” Lowell wrote after reading Berryman’s last Dream Song. “Do you wake dazed like me, / and find your lost glasses in a shoe?” For Simpson, the answer is yes.