John Berryman

by John Allyn Smith

Start Free Trial

Berryman, John (Vol. 4)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 3357 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access


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 Charlie Brown, gamester, martyr, savior, from Japan in the East to Ireland in the West, Henry ducks in and out of places and times past and present, but mostly it is America ruled over by Ike, whose subjects include Mark Twain, Bessie Smith, Charles Whitman, Shirley Jones, Walter Lippman, and George C. Scott (Hé would be prepared to líve in a world of Fáll"). Specified events merge and split, meanings coalesce and disintegrate, and Buoyant Henry alternately reveals and conceals.

Like The Bridge and The Waste Land, The Dream Songs is an anatomy of modern life, its narrative disjunctive, its language a melange of the arcane, the prissily elevated, and the demotic, and its purpose to invest the poor poet with a mystical health-giving role for ordering a disordered age. The craftsmanship in the poem is brilliantly executed. Berryman writes 385 songs, each one (with only occasional variation) an eighteen-line poem comprised of three six-line stanzas with irregular line lengths and casual, but sometimes intricate, rhymes. With his given form, it would take a genius to sustain his or our interest in the limited manipulations, and Berryman isn't quite that genius. There are simply too many dream songs…. I do not doubt for a moment that this is one of our century's most impressive Big Poems, and, appropriately, The Dream Songs will take much longer to explicate than its author took to write it. Like its distinguished predecessors, it will eventually require extensive annotation—if for no other reason to make sense of our floating, eminently topical times.

Countering the form, which is coherent in an almost mathematical way, are the vocal continuities, which are richly derived from many sources, including the tradition of American minstrelsy and its parodic highjinks …, and the extensive thematic patterns supplied by history, psychology, and myth….

Inventive, even innovative, in a way that puts to shame his louder, younger contemporaries, Berryman glides, rocks, bounces, skips, and Perishable Henry croons, babbles, moans.

Reading these poems is a little like watching those old newsreels of space experiments in which speeding rockets are really controlled by tracks and drogue parachutes. The form oddly combines release and control in inevitable balance: the aggressively energetic diction and syntax push against the confines of disciplined stanzaics. And in this appropriate form for our age, Berryman stuffs it all….

There's a lot of malarkey in Berryman's dream songs, and sometimes the odor of burnt cork is too overpowering to be able to make nicer discriminations. But there is no doubt that, in Auden's category, he's a poet who takes his making seriously. The Dream Songs may be the most important single work of the middle generation poets.

James H. Justus, "Some Middle Generation Poetry," in The Southern Review, Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 261-68.

Anyone who writes about The Dream Songs puts himself in a dangerous position. The poem's landscape resembles in some places a minefield where an explanatory footstep triggers explosions of warning and invective, bursting in the face not only of critics but of all readers. Berryman's mildest warning to his expositors is both a simple renunciation and a complex, tragic claim:

   These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand.
   They are only meant to terrify & comfort.

Henry (Henry Pussycat, Henry House, Mr Bones, Berryman's verbal standin, the poem's agonist) maintains that the "ultimate structure" of the Songs is inaccessible to critical analysis, that the Songs lack the regular articulated structure that informs "cliff hangers and old serials," that his "large work … will appear, / and baffle everybody."…

Berryman's ludditisms (there are dozens of them) against the critical act amount to an elliptical statement about the poem's organization, its way of being. Unlike most of the recent verse that gets filed away in one's memory under the heading "confessional," Berryman's poem invents a form and language assertively its own, an achievement possible only because Berryman wrestled successfully the master voices of Hopkins, Auden, Cummings and Pound. He also has a strategy of his own, one which looks at first like the familiar confessional self-justification ("Miserable wicked me,/How interesting I am," Auden parodied in another context) but is in fact far more complicated. The title The Dream Songs asserts the subjectivity of the poem's occasions: dreams are events absolutely inaccessible to shared or common experience. But neither are they events subject to the organizing power of the dreamer himself. The poem claims to derive from mental activity at a place so deep in the poet's self that the self is no longer in control. Berryman makes an explicit disclaimer of responsibility in a forenote to the completed work…. [The] Songs are not what they appear to be, a transparently autobiographical series of dramatic monologues (trespassed by other voices now and then), but a verbal corporation whose members are uncontrolled responses to—and translations from—the world of experience, and whose rules are flexible and mostly hidden.

Yet the poems are not only dreams but "Songs", and they are always patterned and often musical. Berryman suggested the solution to the paradox of the title The Dream Songs in an interview: "Henry? He is a very good friend of mine. I feel entirely sympathetic to him. He doesn't enjoy my advantages of supervision; he just has vision." Entirely sympathetic: Berryman is too shrewd not to mean this in its fullest sense, that Berryman's feelings and Henry's are precisely the same. My advantages of supervision: though the statements in the poem are in Henry's voice, the Apollonian will to pattern and outline is the poet's own. The portion of the Songs which is the most regular in form and meter, most grave in language, is the Opus Posthumous series, written after Henry's "death" (in the center of the poem) when he is most subject to supervision by the living….

The Songs have a formal frame, and, despite dozens of variations, each Song is built upon a regular pattern…. Berryman said that the Songs are not individual poems but "parts" of a single poem…. Berryman wrote that one problem involved in a long poem is "the construction of a world, rather than the reliance upon one existent which is available to a small poem"—and this is an invitation to a phenomenological rather than structural reading of the Songs.

This issue deserves further definition. Everything in a poem that makes its world different from that of life is derived ultimately from the closure of art, its beginning and middle and end. In life no one has any clear sense of one's beginning, nor, after the fact, can one have any sense at all of one's end. (In a late Canto Pound put it simply: "No man can see his own end.") One can close one's life, as Berryman did, but one cannot look up at the clock afterwards and begin something new…. Though Henry "moves on in the world," and, at the end of the first volume of the Songs, is explicitly "making ready to move on," the whole poem is finished and sealed…. The world of The Dream Songs, the world that is "according to [Henry's] nature," depends from the kind of events that happen there, the verbal events that translate the dream….

Berryman's special kind of transformation of extended personal experience into finished forms is probably his most important achievement, a model of method, if not a model of what to do with a method. At a time when most "confessional" verse tends to the dreary anecdote told in formless chat, Berryman's enterprise towards an idiosyncratically appropriate language, in an appropriate form, is courageous and rare….

With Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956) Berryman first successfully fused his by now perfected syntax into a thoroughly personal form and subject. This remarkable poem, probably the most consistently successful that Berryman ever wrote, has a narrative "plot" which may be described briefly. The poet imagines the body of Anne Bradstreet, and "summons" her from the centuries; she speaks her history, which, through one of Berryman's best imaginative leaps, turns out to be a grimly witty narrative of modern, almost suburban isolation and detachment, set in Puritan New England; Berryman and Anne, each to the other a ghostly presence, speak a dialogue, and each almost takes the other for a lover. But Anne escapes the (to her) temptation offered by the twentieth-century voice, and asserts her seventeenth-century independence. Berryman's voice returns to the poem only after Anne's death. The structural device through which Berryman first creates Anne Bradstreet, then is thrown off by his own creation, might appear to be a conventionally modernist sleight-of-hand, a familiar form of play with the status of appearances, but Berryman summons a vast emotional universe of personal loss and assertion to the device, and succeeds in rendering it as deeply moving as it is artificial…. Homage to Mistress Bradstreet is among other things an historical narrative, yet its central statements are "about" isolation and love. Anne Bradstreet seems at times an historical convenience. She is not a Yeatsian "mask" but a projection. In The Dream Songs the poem's universe is that of a man at the extremes of noisy passion and unhappiness, but also, alas, when considered outside his world of private eros and thanatos, l'-homme moyen social. Berryman and Lowell admire each other enthusiastically in print, but their phenomenal worlds are vastly different: where Lowell takes everything in the polis for his subject, Berryman's social commentary … is nearly as crazy as the later Yeats, and much less sonorous….

Berryman is no naif. His power-plays are not simply subject matter for his poem, but are enacted in the poem itself. Berryman is smart enough to realize that he presents himself in the least prepossessing manner he can imagine: his personal offensiveness is not accidental but entirely deliberate, for what he wants from his readers is their critical approval despite their personal disapproval, their assent despite their awareness of what they are assenting to. What Berryman hopes to enjoy is not the power to delight or enchant, but the power to control those who are both conscious and unwilling….

Love and Fame (1970) … continues Berryman's development of a personal voice. He drops the Henry-doppelgänger and speaks autobiographically and directly in his own name. The title of one poem, "Regents' Professor Berryman's Crack on Race", would have been impossibly direct only a few years earlier, but with directness came a dangerous facility and self-importance. The book makes pleasant reading, but the struggles of The Dream Songs have diminished to chat. Berryman's last book, Delusions, etc., indicates that the mad-lyric mode was Berryman's mainstay to the end, intensely personal, slightly desperate, persistent in its survivals, its paradoxes, and its celebrations.

Finally the survivals gave out.

Edward Mendelson, "How to Read Berryman's 'Dream Songs'," in American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert B. Shaw (reprinted by permission of Dufour Editions, Inc.), Carcanet, 1973, pp. 29-43.

Most of those who have written on John Berryman's poems have found it reasonable to assume that his work poses—even postures—as "difficult." It has been considered a poetry for which certain clues must be known beforehand in order to gain access, let alone understanding….

The problem is partly Berryman's fault. He complained in prefaces and in interviews that his work was discussed in wrong ways, that critics missed the point. As well as that, readers, and critics, especially British ones, have been put off by Berryman's syntax and orthography. Even worse, his scholarly affectations, his cultural reach, not only manifest themselves in poems as allusive details, but are held by some to be the stiffening in a larger theological argument. Few British readers can take that seriously. These indifferent reactions are the grumbling of an Age without vision. They can be held to one side. What must be asserted about Berryman's work is its humanity. Berryman himself may have thought that beside the point too; but it is what, in my opinion, is strongest in his poems….

Berryman's life-in-his-poems has been probed, about as far as is decent. The poems ask for this. Autobiography was an adjunct of his understanding of Fame. But Henry is so unanimously accepted as Berryman himself that the imaginative function of the person-who-behaves-like-the-self in a poem has been neglected.

The self-as-subject is one of the problems raised, not only by Berryman's work, but by many contemporary poetries, those of Plath and Lowell in particular…. Berryman is not Henry; but Henry is Berryman….

Whether this process results in a creation that can be called a "literary device" is questionable. It appears to be more personal, more to do with the nature of the poet's mind, and the consolations it needs to compensate for solitude and the nature of what he knows about himself. It could also be said to be fundamental in a poetry in which the self is exploited through imaginative recreations—as in Jarrell's monologues….

Consider the despair, the predicament, of a man whose disciplined and large intellect allowed him to create an imaginary friend out of himself, whose fears, guilts, doubts and escapades he could describe and condemn. And is not that despair, that predicament, the substance of Berryman's writing?… Is it not also … an extreme instance of the dilemma of the contemporary poet, brought partially into the open, as it is here, by poetic form, by a technique which can be tentatively explained in psychological terms?… For Berryman never allowed his personal difficulties to intrude on an enduring fascination with metrics and all the stylistic problems of poems….

As a search for an individual and spiritual haven in which he could wait for the inevitable with an honest resignation, Berryman's poetry is a fair sample of a continuing phenomenon, albeit in his case magnified by genius. He writes about what it is like to possess formidable intelligence in a society where all aspirations appear negative, or frustrated from the start. His intelligence appears to have had no objective beyond that of writing poems. He recoils from public worsening, but not publicity. Personal disasters repeat themselves or return in shuddering, nerve-racking memories. His past is full of grief—his father's suicide, the deaths of his friends, his affairs and marriages. His drinking continues. His lapses of sanity come and go and recur. Yet all the time it is a poetry of waiting, a poetry of impending solutions, which were to come in the religious poems that close Love & Fame, and constitute much of Delusions etc.

Recovery, Berryman's posthumous and incomplete novel, [is] in its own right a remarkable dramatisation of the agonies of alcoholism. His poems are so close to a sense of life, an imparting of truth complete with the bias of technique and personality, that they have the true flavour of fiction. An enormously comprehensive and unsentimental pathos slips out of his work, complicated and perplexing. We realise that although it may all be about ordinary Berryman, it generalises itself, it has compass.

His generous humanity is neglected by those who shy away from the oddness of his voice, or the grotesque inventions of his imagination…. But Berryman has much to say, wisely and with pleasure, of the human condition….

The seriousness with which Berryman engaged with the problems of writing, of achieving a contemporary idiom as a matter of priority, is what marks him off from most British talents. At times, his erudition on the subject of styles, practical though it was, is inhibiting. In his Sonnets especially, though elsewhere too, he courts the traditions of writing as self-consciously as he seeks the truths of experience….

His religious poems in Love & Fame are intended to "criticise backward" the earlier, scandalous sections; and, presumably, the carnality, comedy and religious doubts of Dream Songs as well…. Berryman may have discovered faith, and its attendant certainties; but a nervous edge, an incompletion, was to remain. Nor was his language to be greatly altered in these later poems.

Douglas Dunn, "Gaiety & Lamentation: The Defeat of John Berryman," in Encounter, August, 1974, pp. 72-7.


Berryman, John (Vol. 3)


Berryman, John (Vol. 6)