John Berryman Berryman, John (Vol. 4)
by John Allyn Smith

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Berryman, John (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Berryman, John 1914–1972

Berryman, one of the best-known American poets of his generation, won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for The Dream Songs, his complex and idiosyncratic masterpiece about love and death. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16; obituary, Vols. 33-36.)

The Dream Songs is a poem about falling and the Fall. From the first song where "nothing fell out as it ought" to the last in which the poet acknowledges that "fall is grievy, brisk. Tears behind the eyes/almost fall. Fall comes to us as a prize/to rouse us toward our fate," Berryman explores the significance of the fallen. "All we fall down & die" (190) and "Ashes, ashes. All fall down" (253) provide the sense of loss and mortality with which Henry struggles to find something or someone that stays, and what he [finds] in his love of work, his children, his friends is a ripeness of spirit, a compassion, a love for which, in the season that announces a death, the poets have found an appropriate metaphor.

Being a poem about the fallen, The Dream Songs is also a book of lamentations. This is important because it deepens the texture of religious significance. Henry's condition resembles that of Jeremiah, the poet of the Old Testament book of Lamentations. In that book misery and desolation have fallen about the holy city, as if God had departed, and Jeremiah is haunted by the utter solitude in which he finds himself. He suffers imprisonment, a type of death-in-life, from which he is rescued by his friendship with a black man, the Ethiopian eunuch, Ebed-Melech. The Lamentations of Jeremiah are very carefully structured. There are five elegies, each divided into twenty-two stanzas, with each beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The Dream Songs are also carefully structured. Each song is eighteen lines long and the total number of lines as well as the total number of songs is divisible by seventy-seven, the number of songs Berryman first published in 1964. Such structuring may have some significance, but the real importance of Berryman's poem is that it is a complex and meaningful investigation of love and death that is both terrifying and comforting.

By any criteria The Dream Songs is a major poem. It speaks to fundamental problems of man, and, for the most part, it speaks brilliantly and honestly. It is not, of course, a perfect poem. Most readers will find it difficult, filled with allusions to historical and contemporary events that are sometimes little known or too private. Sometimes the syntax is bewildering, and sometimes Henry seems to be just a little too coy and sentimental. But, finally, it is a poem that rightly demands much of the reader, and I think it rewards him amply.

Larry P. Vonalt, "Berryman's The Dream Songs," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1971 by The University of the South), Summer, 1971, pp. 464-69.

Love & Fame is [an] uneven book; published so soon after The Dream Songs, it is the kind of book to put fear into any critic for what he might, and might not, find. Knowing all this, I found the book to be a distinctive part of Berryman's development as a man and as a poet, and to contain a number of very powerful poems. If the poems in the first half of the book often are too close to gossip and something less than a full art, those in the second half recover much of the force that Berryman, at his best, is able to muster.

As a book, Love & Fame poses major questions about the relationship between love and fame, and between art and life….

Love & Fame raises the same major difficulty that The Dream Songs did—of an art which comes increasingly to rely upon a life for its weight and source.

Arthur Oberg, "Deer, Doors, Dark," in The Southern Review, Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 243-56.

It will take years for readers to understand as well as like these quirky, topical, exorcistic poems [The Dream Songs ] about Henry Pussycat (Celtic Henry, Rabbi Henry, Forgestic Henry, Anarchic Henry). Hater, lover, straight-man...

(The entire section is 3,357 words.)