John Berryman Essay - Berryman, John (Vol. 1)

John Allyn Smith

Berryman, John (Vol. 1)

Berryman, John 1914–1972

American poet, best known for his "dream songs" sequence. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)

Berryman, although not a natural poet, although anything but natural-sounding, is sometimes very nearly a great poet. The manipulations are always apparent, the reader's muscles are always tense with the straining of the poem to lift itself by its bootstraps. Yet when the weight is up—at untold cost—it is still up, although dangerously and precariously, and Berryman through sheer will and guts has put it there.

James Dickey, "John Berryman" (1965), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 198-99.

The daring imagination of John Berryman in Dream Songs, and to a lesser degree in the Sonnets, is constantly en route between the bizarre melodrama of a loser-in-love—with all that world's particularity of detail—and the hallucinatory dreamworld of his inner life. We keep traveling back and forth between these two poles, and Berryman's sensibility is so rich, his imagery so fresh and varied, he never repeats himself, even though he seems to be covering virtually the same ground, again and again. The possibilities are endless, inexhaustible, always unpredictable. The circuit between dream and reality is a pliant, limber, ever-adaptable medium for expressing what may well be the most tantalizingly resourceful personality in contemporary literature….

The characteristic tone frequency of Berryman's poetry is a superarticulate mental wail. The accumulative effect of the Dream Songs, as well as the Sonnets, is overwhelmingly powerful. One must read Berryman by the bookfuls. Then one is struck by the ceaselessly self-risking explorations of levels of pain and frustration in modern life, and, in addition, his marvelous capacity for laughing at himself whenever the poetry verges on studiously earnest self-torture. As in the art of Groucho Marx, the slapstick comedy veils a keen self-piercing intelligence. Berryman is our shrewdest clown.

Laurence Lieberman, in Yale Review (© 1968 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Winter, 1968, pp. 260, 261-62.

In image, in cadence, Berryman is often reminiscent of Yeats, but his greatest affinity with him may lie in his search for reasons to survive tragedy…. Berryman is original only in the important sense of Jean Cocteau's unanswerable observation, "A genius is never more original than when he copies." As Virgil writes blatantly in the shadow of Homer, as Dante acknowledges Virgil as guide and repeatedly tests his art against his contemporaries, Berryman is anxious and proud to make his indebtednesses visible, and does so, not too obliquely, in the sort of lives of the twentieth-century poets implicit in his text. Yeats, Pound, Frost, Stevens, Williams, Blackmur, all appear impressively, sometimes with a stringent qualification which makes his tribute more telling. And a great many of the songs are elegiac as he eloquently and passionately laments the tragic generation of his contemporaries—Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Sylvia Plath—and records his gratitude to them. However, the sine qua non indebtedness is not so openly announced and the poet may not be thoroughly conscious of it. Henry, the catalytic character of his poem—as well as the way his story is told—are greatly beholden to James Joyce, probably by way of Samuel Beckett…. [However] diluted, the presiding concepts and techniques of Joyce and Beckett structure his entire vision and method.

Kenneth Connelly, "New Poetry: Berryman Henry Pussycat, He Come Home Good" (© 1969 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), in Yale Review, Spring, 1969, pp. 419-27.

Despite career-long unevenness in the quality of his work, John Berryman has become a major American poet, has achieved a permanency that places him in a group with Theodore Roethke and Randall Jarrell. Berryman, it seems to me, has taken on the whole modern world and has come to poetic terms with it. At the same time he has taken on himself, and has come to poetic terms with that too. He has seen the wreck of the modern world (or, better, the modern world insofar as it is a wreck) and the wreck of his personal self in that world. He is not a pessimist but has, rather, what we would have to call a tragic view of human life—with good reason for holding it. Yet, not surprisingly, the tragic view finds its complement in a comic view, his wild and so often devastatingly effective sense of humor. He is preeminently a poet of suffering and laughter. (p. 5)

Taken as a whole the Dream Songs are a panoramic meditation on life and death. The title of the second volume [of dream songs, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest,] sums them up best of all. His toy is life as a game we play (and the stakes are not less than everything), his dream is life in its psychic aspects and the poet's goal of fame, and his rest is an infinite sense of man's mortality and immortality, and finally death itself. He proclaims the value of life as a thing lived: "No, I want rest here, neither below nor above" (256), and we believe him when in Dream Song 83 he writes, "I know immense/troubles & wonders to their secret curse." (p. 45)

William J. Martz, in his John Berryman ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 85), University of Minnesota Press, © 1969 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).

In writing The Dream Songs in the projective mode, Berryman has written a poem that intrigues if only because the mode is so apparently quite literally démodé. Berryman is the direct heir of Pound's Cantos and Williams' Paterson, those great monoliths of projective modernism that now belong to the academies because so few outside them seem to have the time, mind, or need to puzzle them out.

Donald Sheehan, in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1971 (© 1971 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), p. 115.