Collected Poems (Magill's Literary Annual 1990)
John Berryman’s poetry, like that of his contemporaries Hart Crane and Sylvia Plath, has come to be linked with his sensational and unhappy life. Most published criticism sets the poet’s verse against an enervating chronology that begins with the suicide of his father in 1926 and ends with Berryman’s own suicidal leap from the Washington Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in January, 1972. Joining these two deaths is a series of frustrations and disappointments: the almost immediate marriage of Berryman’s mother to John Angus Berryman and the traumatic name change from that of his father to that of his stepfather, Berryman’s rebellious and consequently infelicitous school career, his marriages and the love affairs that destroyed them, his alcoholism and mental instability.
It is legitimate to object that knowing so much about a poet’s life runs the risk of transforming every line into cryptic autobiography. To a great extent, this has become the curse of Berryman criticism, an approach that emerged as early as the publication of 77 Dream Songs (1964) and that was paradoxically encouraged by Berryman’s disclaimer in this and the supplemented collection, The Dream Songs (1969). Berryman, when closely questioned about the identity of “Henry,” the poor soul who undergoes enough frustrations and discouragements in his...
(The entire section is 1783 words.)
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