Berryman sought a distinctive poetic voice throughout his career. As a young man, he particularly admired Yeats’s ability to make poetry intensely personal yet mythic. He also admired Frost as a distinctly American and nonacademic poet who believed that what a poem implied was as important as what it literally expressed. Consequently, in the beginning of his career, Berryman was wary of T. S. Eliot’s objective universal themes and characterizations. He also considered Eliot’s use of learned allusions artificial. Neither was Berryman fond of Eliot’s mentor Ezra Pound or “new poets” such as William Carlos Williams. He loved the gaudy imagery and eclecticism of Wallace Stevens.
Berryman would modify such negative positions considerably in the latter half of his career. Even late in his life, he obliquely criticized Williams’s understanding of the function of narrative and history in a typically outspoken interview published in the Harvard Advocate. He also wrote a never-published, scholarly introduction to the poems of Pound, came to love Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) and Cantos (1917-1970) as forerunners of his own The Dream Songs, and was himself admired by Pound as a new voice in American poetry.
Berryman’s contacts with Eliot became more amicable over the years as well. His intense dislike for Eliot’s poetry when Berryman was a student at Cambridge was still apparent in 1953, when Berryman wrote that he considered Homage to Mistress Bradstreet a reaction to long poems as they were then written—a veiled thrust at Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and Williams’s Paterson (1946-1958). Berryman courted Eliot’s approval in the late 1940’s when both were residents at Princeton University, but it is noteworthy that Eliot disliked Berryman’s introduction to the Berryman anthology as originally submitted to Faber & Faber, where Eliot held a directorship, and that Eliot rejected Seventy-seven Dream Songs outright.
Clearly, Berryman identified most consistently with poets who were social outcasts, whose verse, like his own, was intensely personal and guardedly self-revelatory. He often began his literature courses with Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1855, 1881). He had lifelong empathy with fellow suicide Crane and the flamboyant style and way of life of drinking companion Dylan Thomas. He pitied but also admired Delmore Schwartz and Jarrell, and he wished that he had met Plath, whose life so closely resembled his own.
Berryman’s early verse, written before and during World War II, is personal but derivative. An attentive reader will note echoes of Whitman, Frost, Pound, Eliot, and even Williams in The Dispossessed. The sonnets to Lise, written to a woman named Chris with whom Berryman had a love affair during the late 1940’s while at Princeton, are in the Petrarchan mode. They were published in the late 1960’s, and in reprintings the name Chris appears instead of the Petrarchan echo (Lise for Laura). These poems are important in Berryman’s oeuvre primarily because they show his turning toward specific personalities as well as actual locations and events. They also reveal something of the poet’s chaotic life, his frantic and tawdry attempts to keep the affair secret, yet his decided attempt to couch every rendezvous in terms of high art.
The Berryman persona also appears as seducer in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet . Berryman received guarded critical approval for this long poem. He took the American Puritan poet Bradstreet as its subject, primarily because he considered her personal frustrations overwhelming and her poetry mediocre. In this sense, she represents the way Berryman saw his own life and art at the time. That he was having an affair with his own “Ann,” the woman who would become his second wife, allows the poet’s attempt at the seduction which frames the poem a...
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