John Berryman, the subject of Paul Mariani’s study, sought love and fame throughout his life with a persistence few possess; nevertheless, his self-destructiveness, best seen in his irascible personality, his womanizing, and his addictions to alcohol and pills, usually cost him the prizes he sought soon after successful struggles to obtain them. Numerous love affairs and the life-style of a drug-taking alcoholic were beyond the endurance of the three angelic women who married him. Temper tantrums in the classroom and petty feuds with colleagues contributed to his losing at least two academic posts, at Harvard and Princeton universities, and his arrest for drunken and disorderly conduct brought his dismissal from the University of Iowa. Massive student withdrawals from his classes at the University of Minnesota, where he was Regents Professor of Humanities, coupled with the disintegration of his third marriage may have hastened his suicide, a spectacular leap from Washington Avenue Bridge, which connects that university’s east and west campuses.
Those who have previously examined Berryman’s life and work (his earlier biographer and literary commentator John Haffenden; his friends and fellow artists Saul Bellow, Robert Lowell, William Meredith, and Adrienne Rich; critics Joseph Warren Beach and Denis Donoghue) are quick to cite Berryman’s obsession with the death of his father, John Allyn Smith, Sr. Berryman himself and everyone who knows Berryman’s life through his verse or has read criticism published before Mariani’s volume have ascribed Smith’s death as a suicide, brought on by his combined business and marriage failures. The trauma of assuming the name of his mother’s lover and having to accept that man as stepfather are the usual reasons offered to explain Berryman’s womanizing and generally chaotic personal life. Even so, Mariani’s investigations reveal that Smith’s death might not have been suicide. His examination of the relationship between Berryman’s mother, father, and John Angus Berryman and his analysis of the 1926 coroner’s report raises new questions about a key episode of the poet’s life taken for granted by nearly everyone. This is the most sensational revelation of Mariani’s study.
Without these chaotic entanglements Berryman could not have written the kind of poetry he did, for although he skews chronology and changes names, virtually every word Berryman published concerns himself. This is as true of Poems (1942), inspired by the style of William Butler Yeats, or of Berryman’s Sonnets (1967), written in 1947 and inspired by a love affair, as of the latter works,The Dream Songs (1968) with its alter-ego “Henry,” and Love & Fame (1970), which sets out Berryman’s never-ending search for the two things he most required.
No one who has read the oeuvre could deny Berryman’s verse is solipsistic, like the man himself Poet Robert Lowell once tellingly remarked that Berryman was a good friend, but the kind one hoped would reside in some distant state of the union. Yet, despite all the above, Berryman was a genius; most of his verse is very good, and some is brilliant. He excels in two areas: First, his poetry is personal without being overtly confessional; second, he is a master of classical metrics and prosody even as he pushes language to its limits. No one except Dante Alighieri manages the first; no one except Dylan Thomas approaches the second.
Many of Berryman’s poet contemporaries had similarly unhappy lives. Hart Crane was just as wretched for most of his life, was a homosexual and also an alcoholic, and chose the bridge of a boat to make his exit from life. Thomas died in an alcohol-induced coma. Randall Jarrell walked into the path of an oncoming car. Delmore Schwartz suffered from paranoia and manic depression; he lost his academic post at Harvard University because of these illnesses and died in a seedy New York City hotel. Sylvia Plath had her own father obsession, never concealed her numerous love affairs, and asphyxiated herself following separation from her husband, poet Ted Hughes. Berryman admired the poetry of them all; indeed, all were close friends except Plath, whom he never met. Interestingly, one of Berryman’s final projects was a never-completed cryptic autobiography, Recovery (1973), whose published chapters reveal anguish comparable to that in Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963).
Berryman’s verse evolved through a variety of styles. Poems from The Dispossessed (1948) are in large measure derivative. Compare, for example, the first and second stanzas of “The Point...
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