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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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)
The Freedom of the Poet (1976)