Remembering John Berryman, a Giant of American Poetry; `, Whose "Dream Songs" Remain One of the Most Celebrated Yet Enigmatic Achievements in American Verse, Is Ready for His Close-Up

By Nazaryan, Alexander | Newsweek, October 17, 2014 | Go to article overview

Remembering John Berryman, a Giant of American Poetry; `, Whose "Dream Songs" Remain One of the Most Celebrated Yet Enigmatic Achievements in American Verse, Is Ready for His Close-Up


Nazaryan, Alexander, Newsweek


Byline: Alexander Nazaryan

Nobody should have been surprised when, on January 7, 1972, the poet John Berryman killed himself by jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River where it winds between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Self-slaughter is known to lurk in the genes; those with parents who killed themselves are more likely to attempt the same act. Like that other moody and bearded Midwesterner, Ernest Hemingway, Berryman had a father who took his own life. Hemingway pere used a .32-caliber pistol from the Civil War; in the case of Berryman's father, the instrument of death was a shotgun, outside the 12-year-old's bedroom window.

Berryman's poetry touched upon that gruesome deed, while musing upon his own demise with such regularity that, after a while, it came to seem like an obsession he'd stopped trying to shake. "Death is a box," he wrote in one of the nearly 400 Dream Songs that, together, make up one of the most audacious (and intimidating) achievements in 20th century American poetry. Yes, Berryman means the pine confines that await all mortal flesh, but even a grade-schooler knows of that dread finale. More stifling, for him, is the psychic trap into which he fell after his father's death. Thoughts of oblivion, unlike oblivion itself, you actually have to endure. The early deaths of fellow poets--Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, Randall Jarrell and Delmore Schwartz--from suicide or drink (or suicide by drink) made sure he stayed there, and neither the Pulitzer Prize (1965) nor unrivaled fame could coax him back into the light. Like a bat, his poetry yearned for darkness. He wrote in Dream Song #120: "I totter to the lip of the cliff."

Late this October, publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux will mark the centenary of Berryman's birth (October 25, 1914) by releasing a new edition of his selected poems, The Heart Is Strange, which includes a few works that haven't been published before, juvenilia from The Dispossessed (1948)--laden with debts to Auden, Yeats and Hopkins--and late stuff from Love & Fame (1970) and Delusions, Etc. (1972), which is blinding in its pathos, biblical in its despair: "I'm loose, at a loss." Also in The Heart Is Strange is the strange and difficult Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, the 1956 poem that the eminent critic Edmund Wilson deemed "the most distinguished long poem by an American since The Waste Land." At the same time, FSG is republishing the original 77 Dream Songs, the full Dream Songs and Berryman's Sonnets, written for Chris, a grad student's wife with whom he'd conducted an affair in 1947 (he withheld publishing the amorous poems for two decades, by which time his reputation as a lothario was beyond dispute). The publisher is also releasing the memoir Poets in Their Youth, by Eileen Simpson, who had once been married to Berryman.

The reissue of a writer's work on the anniversary of his or her birth or death is nothing more than a ploy. Sometimes, the ploy is odious. Here, it is necessary. Berryman has not been forgotten, but his gnomic revelations have less force than they used to. His drinking and womanizing, his unsoothable anguish, seem less the stuff of heroism than of mutinous neurotransmitters. I can all too easily imagine him today, sitting at a seminar table in Palo Alto or Iowa City, buoyed by a decent dose of Wellbutrin, listening as some regular contributor to the Northwestern Maine Quarterly Review piously instructs impious John to simmer down, center himself, drop the unceasing allusions to Shakespeare, find his voice and tell us how he really feels. And some of the jokes are a little silly, if we are going to be honest with each other in this space.

There is also the inescapable matter of poetry's declining relevance to a nation whose finest minds devote themselves to the question of whether one should recline airplane seats. "The larger public thinks of Walt Whitman as a shopping mall on Long Island," says Philip Levine, the former U. …

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