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13 April 2008 @ 06:15 pm
John Berryman  

John Berryman was born in 1914 in Oklahoma, originally named John Smith. At age 12 his father, also named John Smith committed suicide, and this was to haunt him his entire life. His mother went on to remarry, and he took his step-father’s name, Berryman. He attended Columbia University, graduating in 1936, and then went to Cambridge University on a fellowship. He went on to teach for the rest of his life, at schools including Wayne State University in Detroit, Harvard, and Princeton, and he taught at the University of Minnesota from 1955 until his death. Although he published Poems in 1942 and The Dispossessed in 1948, it wasn’t until Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, published in 1956 that he began to gain recognition, already in his forties.

77 Dream Songs, published in 1964, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and is Berryman’s best known work. It follows Henry, someone much like Berryman in many ways, but not quite, and an unnamed second character who refers to Henry as Mr. Bones and often uses minstrel-esque language. Henry’s voice often leads people to speak of the Dream Songs as confessional poems, and Berryman as a confessional poet, but Berryman rejected this label, despite his similarities with his character.

Berryman also struggled with alcoholism for the greater portion of his life, and this topic comes up in his poetry. Later in his career, he witnessed the premature deaths and suicides of quite a few contemporary poets and artists, such as Randall Jarrell, Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath, R. P. Blackmur, Yvor Winters, William Carlos Williams, and Delmore Schwartz. In his later Dream Songs, he includes quite a few poems in memorial to his peers. To Schwartz he dedicated a number of Dream Songs, 146-157, and 344. Berryman’s life was always tumultuous and self-destructive. For example, this excerpt from a famous Paris Review interview (Full Text):

"INTERVIEWER: Where do you go from here?
BERRYMAN: My idea is this: 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. Beethoven’s deafness, Goya’s deafness, Milton’s blindness, that kind of thing. And I think that what happens in my poetic work in the future will probably largely depend not on my sitting calmly on my ass as I think, “Hmm, hmm, a long poem again? Hmm,” but on being knocked in the face, and thrown flat, and given cancer, and all kinds of other things short of senile dementia. At that point, I’m out, but short of that, I don’t know. I hope to be nearly crucified.
INTERVIEWER: You’re not knocking on wood.
BERRYMAN: I’m scared, but I’m willing. I’m sure this is a preposterous attitude, but I’m not ashamed of it."

He published various other books, none quite with the success of 77 Dream Songs, and also began a novel, Recovery, about a recovering alcoholic. However, it was never finished, and Berryman never recovered from his own alcoholism, and at the age of 57 in 1972 Berryman committed suicide by jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis.

From The Dream Songs:

Dream Song 96

Under the table, no. That last was stunning,
that flagon had breasts. Some men grow down cursed.
Why drink so, two days running?
two months, O seasons, years, two decades running?
I answer (smiles) my question on the cuff:
Man, I been thirsty.

The brake is incomplete but white costumes
threaten his rum, his cointreau, gin-&-sherry,
his bourbon, bugs um all.
His go-out privilege led to odd red times,
since even or especially in hospital things get hairy.
He makes it back without falling.

He sleep up a short storm.
He wolf his meals, lamb-warm.

Their packs bump on their' -blades, tan canteens swing,
for them this day my dawn's old, Saturday's IT,
through town toward a Scout hike.
For him too, up since two, out for a sit
now in the emptiest freshest park, one sober fling
before correspondence & breakfast.

Dream Song 153

I’m cross with god who has wrecked this generation.
First he seized Ted, then Richard, Randall, and now Delmore.
In between he gorged on Sylvia Plath.
That was a first rate haul. He left alive
fools I could number like a kitchen knife
but Lowell he did not touch.

Somewhere the enterprise continues, not-
yellow the sun lies on the baby’s blouse-
in Henry’s staggered thought.
I suppose the word would be, we must submit.
I hang, and I will not be part of it.

A friend of Henry’s contrasted God’s career
with Mozart’s, leaving Henry with nothing to say
but praise for a word so apt.
We suffer on, a day, a day, a day.
And never again can come, like a man slapped,
news like this

Dream Song 366

Chilled in this Irish pub I wish my loves
well, well to strangers, well to all his friends,
seven or so in number,
I forgive my enemies, especially two,
races his heart, as so much magnanimity,
can it all be true?

Mr Bones, you on a trip outside yourself.
Has you seen a medicine man? You sound will-like,
a testament & such.
Is you going? —Oh, I suffer from a strike
& a strike & three balls: I stand up for much,
Wordsworth & that sort of thing.

The pitcher dreamed. He threw a hazy curve,
I took it in my stride & out I struck,
lonesome Henry.
These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand
They are only meant to terrify & comfort
Lilac was found in his hand.

From Love and Fame:

Of Suicide

Reflexions on suicide, & on my father, possess me.
I drink too much. My wife threatens separation.
She won't 'nurse' me. She feels 'inadequate.'
We don't mix together.

It's an hour later in the East.
I could call up Mother in Washington, D.C.
But could she help me?
And all this postal adulation & reproach?

A basis rock-like of love & friendship
for all this world-wide madness seems to be needed.
Epicetus is in some ways my favourite philosopher.
Happy men have died earlier.

I still plan to go to Mexico this summer.
The Olmec images! Chichèn Itzài!
D. H. Lawrence has a wild dream of it.
Malcolm Lowry's book when it came out I taught to my precept at Princeton.

I don't entirely resign. I may teach the Third Gospel
this afternoon. I haven't made up my mind.
It seems to me sometimes that others have easier jobs
& do them worse.

Well, we must labour & dream. Gogol was impotent,
somebody in Pittsburgh told me.
I said: At what age? They couldn't answer.
That is a damned serious matter.

Rembrandt was sober. There we differ. Sober.
Terrors came on him. To us too they come.
Of suicide I continually think.
Apparently he didn't. I'll teach Luke.

Another common theme in Berryman’s poetry is that of teaching and scholarship. Berryman was quite the scholar, and an expert on Shakespeare. He devoted much of his life to these pursuits, and this is evident in his poetry. Additionally, he writes often about writing, and even makes multiple references to the magazine Poetry in his work.

From The Dispossessed:

A Professor's Song

(...rabid or dog-dull.) Let me tell you how
The Eighteenth Century couplet ended. Now
Tell me. Troll me the sources of that Song––
Assigned last week––by Blake. Come, come along.
Gentlemen. (Fidget and huddle: do. Squint soon.)
I want to end these fellows all by noon.
'That deep romantic chasm'––an early use;
The word is from the French, by your abuse
Fished out a bit. (Red all your eyes. O when?)
'A poet is a man speaking to men':
But I am then a poet, am I not?––
Ha ha. The radiator, please. Well, what?
Alive now––no––Blake would have written prose,
But movement following movement crisply flows,
So much the better, better the much so,
As burbleth Mozart. Twelve. The class can go.
Until I meet you then, in Upper Hell
Convulsed, foaming immortal blood: farewell.

Berryman worked predominantly in very structured forms, despite his experimentation with language and voice. One book is entirely sonnets, Berryman’s Sonnets. The Dream Songs follow a strict form that also has a rhyme scheme, although he does occasionally break from this. Generally speaking, each poem in Dream Songs is eighteen lines, and divided into three equal stanzas. There is often a complex rhyme scheme, which is sometimes difficult to identify.  In contrast to these formal elements, he is prone to push language to its limits, using slang, fragments, odd spellings, colloquial speech, and the occasional joke. This combination makes The Dream Songs, and much of his other work, quite astounding. He is unmatched in his ability to commit to a strict structure while remaining incredibly natural and compelling in his words.

From 77 Dream Songs:

Dream Song 3: A Stimulant for an Old Beast

Acacia, burnt myrrh, velvet, pricky stings.
—I'm not so young but not so very old,
said screwed-up lovely 23.
A final sense of being right out in the cold,
(—My psychiatrist can lick your psychiatrist.) Women get under things.

All these old criminals sooner or later
have had it. I've been reading old journals.
Gottwald & Co., out of business now.
Thick chests quit. Double agent, Joe.
She holds her breath like a seal
and is whiter & smoother.

Rilke was a jerk.
I admit his griefs & music
& titled spelled all-disappointed ladies.
A threshold worse than the circles
where the vile settle & lurk,
Rilke's. As I said,—

Dream Song 28: Snow Line

It was wet & white & swift and where I am
we don't know. It was dark and then
it isn't.
I wish the barker would come. There seems to be eat
nothing. I am usually tired.
I'm alone too.

If only the strange one with so few legs would come,
I'd say my prayers out of my mouth, as usual.
Where are his note I loved?
There may be horribles; it's hard to tell.
The barker nips me but somehow I feel
he too is on my side.

I'm too alone. I see no end. If we could all
run, even that would be better. I am hungry.
The sun is not hot.
It's not a good position I am in.
If I had to do the whole thing over again
I wouldn't.

From Berryman’s Sonnets:

Sonnet 115:

All we were going strong last night this time,
the mosts 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, and 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.

It must be noted that in studying Berryman today, it is crucial for each reader to somehow come to terms with his use of minstrel language and appropriated culture, as most notable in The Dream Songs. Part of this tendency clearly comes from his interest in formal versus informal language, and possibly a belief that minority cultures were more likely to have a genuine and unhindered experience of life (which can also be found in other poets around that era, such as Ginsberg). Berryman himself explains Mr. Bones and Henry in the preface to The Dream Songs:

"The poem then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about 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."

A contemporary African American poet, Kevin Young, in his introduction John Berryman: Selected Poems, says:

“for Berryman, as for many white rock and roll artists, black dialect (however imaginary), provides a gateway to a wider sense of American language, not a sign of cultural decay but of cultural vitality. The fearlessness through which Berryman breaks through the polite diction of academic poetry into a liberating variety of idioms is a major part of his legacy.”

Another way to look at it is how we look at Lear’s Fool, as Berryman was a Shakespeare scholar. The character that refers to Mr. Bones speaks the truth, regardless of how he speaks it. (This insight courtesy of Mary Jo.) I find this an interesting and fruitful way to approach this language, which at first was so off-putting and disconcerting, that I found it easiest to simply move on.  Fortunately, I was able to come back later and look at them again in a new light. Examples of this sort of language are included here in Dream Song 40 and 366.

For other views on this:

From 77 Dream Songs:

Dream Song 40

I'm scared a lonely. Never see my son,
easy be not to see anyone,
combers out to sea
know they're goin somewhere but not me.
Got a little poison, got a little gun,
I'm scared a lonely.

I'm scared a only one thing, which is me,
from othering I don't take nothin, see,
for any hound dog's sake.
But this is where I livin, where I rake
my leaves and cop my promise, this' where we
cry oursel's awake.

Wishin was dyin but I gotta make
it all this way to that bed on these feet
where peoples said to meet.
Maybe but even if I see my son
forever never, get back on the take,
free, black & forty-one.

Here are a couple other poems I’ve enjoyed:

From The Dispossessed:

The Ball Poem

What is the boy now, who has lost his ball,
What, what is he to do? I saw it go
Merrily bouncing, down the street, and then
Merrily over—there it is in the water!
No use to say 'O there are other balls':
An ultimate shaking grief fixes the boy
As he stands rigid, trembling, staring down
All his young days into the harbour where
His ball went. I would not intrude on him,
A dime, another ball, is worthless. Now
He senses first responsibility
In a world of possessions. People will take balls,
Balls will be lost always, little boy,
And no one buys a ball back. Money is external.
He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes,
The epistemology of loss, how to stand up
Knowing what every man must one day know
And most know many days, how to stand up
And gradually light returns to the street
A whistle blows, the ball is out of sight,
Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Floor of the harbour . . I am everywhere,
I suffer and move, my mind and my heart move
With all that move me, under the water
Or whistling, I am not a little boy.

From Delusions, etc :

He Resigns

Age, and the deaths, and the ghosts.
Her having gone away
in spirit from me. Hosts
of regrets come & find me empty.

I don't feel this will change.
I don't want any thing
or person, familiar or strange.
I don't think I will sing

any more just now;
ever. I must start
to sit with a blind brow
above an empty heart.

A Link to a scholarly website which includes scholarly interpretation of much of his poetry, and also comments on his use of minstrel-esque language:

Link to him reading Dream Song 1 (very very slowly.):

Link to an essay by David Wojahn, “In All Them Time Henry Could Not Make Good”: Reintroducing John Berryman:

Links to Poetry and Wikipedia Bios.

List of notable works:


Poems (1942)
The Dispossessed (1948)
Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956)
His Thoughts Made Pockets & the Plane Buckt (1958)
77 Dream Songs (1964)
Berryman's Sonnets (1967)
Short Poems (1967)
His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968)
The Dream Songs (1969)
Love and Fame (1970)
Delusions, Etc. (1972)
Henry's Fate and Other Poems (1977)


Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography (1950)
The Arts of Reading (1960)
Recovery (1973)
The Freedom of the Poet (1976)