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 theodicy to sink the most indomitable spirit, identified Henry as both “I” and “not-I,” and this apparent modification of the original disclaimer has fueled the imaginations and pens of critics ever since. Berryman has been, and probably always will be, labeled a confessional poet. Whether this diminishes the significance of his verse by making it less universally applicable is anyone’s guess, but it is clear that Charles Thombury’s decision to present The Dream Songs, Berryman’s best-known work and the one upon which the poet’s reputation will stand, in a second volume is wise since it directs critical attention to his less considered poetry.
A collection published under the title The Dispossessed (1948) is an example of Berryman verse that has received relatively little critical attention. In some respects it is derivative, reflecting the spare style of the “New Poetry” current in the 1930’s. One recalls the nature verse of William Carlos Williams in the first stanza of “Cloud and Flame”:
The summer cloud in summer blueCapricious from the wind will run,Laughing into the tender sun,Knowing the work that it must do.When One says liberty is vainThe cloud will come to summer rain.
There are glimpses of other poets in The Dispossessed as well: Gerard Manley Hopkins in its awareness of God’s presence in nature and in its taut meters and occasionally sprung rhythms, even Robert Frost in its deceptively simple imagery. “Winter Landscape,” a poem of seasonal death, could easily have had Frost as its author:
The three men coming down the winter hillIn brown, with tall poles and a pack of houndsAt heel, through the arrangement of the trees,Past the five figures St the burning straw,Returning cold and silent to their town.
Those who know Berryman’s poetry only through The Dream Songs may be surprised at the absence of jazzy vernacular and sardonically applied blackface jargon but will find the alienation theme familiar. It informs all of Berryman’s poetry to some extent, though it finds its most distinctive development in his later work. The Dispossessed, however, lacks the hope of rebirth that Henry of The Dream Songs physically, if not spiritually, achieves. Further, The Dispossessed has its roots in history as well as in art. The men in brown, trudging through a spiritually dead world, are as much Adolf Hitler’s brownshirts as Pieter Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow, part of a world frozen in time and spiritually immobilized as well.
(The entire section is 1781 words.)