John Berryman Berryman, John (Vol. 10) - Essay

John Allyn Smith


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Berryman, John 1914–1972

Berryman was an American poet, biographer, and editor. Along with Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, he led the confessional movement in modern poetry and is considered one of the twentieth century's most important poets. A striking feature of his verse is the combination of a strict stanzaic pattern with idiosyncratic language, a lively poetic voice, and emotionally intense, highly personal themes. Berryman's Dream Songs, which he worked on from 1964 until his death, are generally considered his most outstanding poetic achievement. The poet took his own life in 1972. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16; obituary, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)

John Haffenden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reading and rereading these essays [in The Freedom of the Poet]. I am struck forcibly by their consistency of attitude and expression, and by their interrelatedness, even though they were written over a period of three decades, some as lectures, some for a college textbook, others as introductions, another to be broadcast over the radio. The style can be muscular, dense with clauses and parentheses, occasionally self-indulgent—as in the famous, vexing, but engrossing analysis of Lowell's "Skunk Hour," which Lowell told me he found interesting (as I do) as a parallel to the poem. All the same, I would not wish away any of Berryman's obiter dicta; every sidelight—impious, erudite, arrogant—is revealing. Equally delightful are his deft and incisive characterizations, and such attributions as that Cummings and Williams, "loaded with merited honours," were "impenitent, irregular, mannered," and that Pound's verse is "discrete and suave."

For the stories: here are "The Lovers," an enigmatic, evocative piece which John Crowe Ransom considered "brilliant"; the masterful "Wash Far Away," first penned in 1947, often revised, twice rejected by The New Yorker, one of Berryman's best …; and "The Imaginary Jew," a startling, autobiographical tale which Delmore Schwartz compared to Turgenev's, and which even Ezra Pound admired, but which now strikes me as perhaps too programmatic: but this is not to undervalue its candor and impact. It was written in 1945, when modern civilization first knew itself naked. Given time and occasion, Berryman would have rewritten the ending. "Thursday Out," a meditation of the Taj Mahal, stands curiously, but correctly, with the fiction. Like some of Hemingway's journalism, it is not purely expository, since Berryman sees himself in the picture. It is more an invocation, an exploration of a mystery, figured by a person in a tale. It stands comparison with Henry Adams's writing on Chartres; I can only add that the reader owes such celebrations to himself. The evidence of this volume renews one's sadness that Berryman was not able to, in his own phrase, reassemble his gift. (pp. 298-99)

John Haffenden, in The Yale Review (© 1977 by Yale University, reprinted by permission of the editors), Winter, 1977.

William Pratt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As he was transforming himself from an imitative young poet into the inimitable later fantasist of the "Dream Songs," Berryman was developing a comparable critical style that was provocative, erudite and humorous. His nearest counterpart was Randall Jarrell, a poet-critic with whom he had much in common, including the lamentable suicide; and it may be said of both writers that their wit was costly, since it placed them at a measurable distance above most of their contemporaries and may have contributed to their sense of desperation. But there is no desperation [in The Freedom of the Poet], and in fact the collection shows all the best sides of Berryman and little of his worst. As a critic, Berryman can be enjoyed for the sheer pleasure of his discoveries, often made in the reading of very familiar authors. Perhaps his most original piece of criticism is on "Shakespeare at Thirty," a tour de force in which, by looking closely at the earliest works, he brings Shakespeare to life as a young man starting out on the greatest of literary careers. Not only does Berryman achieve a remarkable identity with the mind of Shakespeare, but he does equally well with modern poets as different as Stephen Crane and Ezra Pound, establishing the wide range of his critical sympathies.

Good at throwing new light on accepted authors, he can also be illuminating about minor authors, especially in essays on "The Monk and its Author" and on...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Helen Vendler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The charm and vivacity of Berryman's apprehension of the world, even in his last unlivable years, stayed alive in his poems. Berryman was a consummate entertainer, and there is scarcely a song which is not, however horrible its subject matter, entertaining—"the natural soul," as he says here, "performing, as it will." The most endearing of talkers, he can make even Baudelaire's "hypocrite lecteur" lighthearted…. (p. 85)

The alternations of exhaustion and gaiety, self-loathing and affection, witticism and sorrow, flicker like a light-show through [Henry's Fate], as through his other songs. "Even in this last Dream Song," says Lowell in his elegy for Berryman, "to mock your catlike flight / from home and classes." That last song, written "within forty-eight hours of his death" according to [John] Haffenden [the editor of the collection], imagines the full scenario for the suicide—"unless my wife wouldn't let me out of the house, / unless the cops noticed me crossing the campus / up to the bridge / & clappt me in for observation." This full self-knowledge of the impractical man, sure he cannot plan even his own suicide so that it will come off, exhibits that part of Berryman that was always coldly aware of his escapades. The torture of the contemplative self watching the errant self lies behind the elaborate and successful literary charade of Henry Pussycat, the alter ego enabling the poems, more often than not, to escape that lyric soddenness so evident in the "Morning Prayer." Sotto voce, under all the Henry poems, we hear the lyric that would be breathed out by the despairing self if it were to speak straight. The poems about alcoholism and family here are often written directly by the despairing self, and they lack the comic flexibility contributed by Henry, who served Berryman like an arrangement of mirrors to see around corners when a view of his own face in a glass would have undone his language. Oddly enough, for all their affectation of chattiness, the Dream Songs are poems written to be read on the page as well as heard aloud; though their meaning "explodes" (to quote Hopkins) when read with the proper conversational emphasis, their careful shapeliness is visible only on the page. (pp. 85-6)

Helen Vendler, in The Yale Review (© 1977 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1977.

Peter Stitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The popular conception of John Berryman that one most often encounters is that he was a boozehound and skirtchaser who chose to reveal his personal life in verse. This legend was fostered in part by Berryman's late poems, in part by semi-salacious discussions of him as a confessional poet, and in part by his own unfortunate attempts … to project an image as the poet maudit. This popular conception has unfortunately tended to obscure the serious and intellectual nature of Berryman's writings. Nowhere is this seriousness more evident than in his literary criticism, now happily collected into a single volume entitled The Freedom of the Poet…. As we might have expected, Berryman's criticism shares many traits with his poetry—it is serious and playful, it is scholarly and personal, it is consistently intelligent—and it is good.

That Berryman was deeply serious about literature is proven on every page of this book. He has as much contempt for nonserious writing, for "the popular boys," as he has admiration for the real thing—and the real thing is, by its nature, intellectual: "It is no exaggeration to say that the slick writer wishes to make the reader forget himself and the serious writer wishes to make him think."… Berryman makes this heavy demand of every work he considers—either it has something important to say or it is nothing, either it appeals to the intellect or it is nowhere. (pp. 368-69)

One of the most impressive things demonstrated by this collection is how well and how completely Berryman did his homework. In areas which I can judge, the record is striking. For example, in a review of some books about Henry James first published in the Sewanee Review in 1945, Berryman takes time to instruct the uninitiated in how to read James's works, and suggests the order in which they should be read. (p. 369)

It has been observed, by Hyatt Waggoner and others, that New Criticism, with its emphasis upon nuance and technique and its de-emphasis of biography, history, sociology, and psychology, was the appropriate approach for modernist writers to take to literature. Berryman is in another camp; just as his poetry is post-modernist, his criticism is post-New Critical. The most common complaint we find him making in this volume is against what he calls "T. S. Eliot's intolerable and perverse theory of the impersonality of the artist." Berryman's tack is quite different—he chose to place the question of personality, usually of his own personality, at the heart of his major poems. In his criticism, likewise, he never forgets the writer behind the work, and is quite willing to refer questions of interpretation and emphasis back through the author's writings to his life. His general position is explained by this statement, made in reference to Robert Lowell: "One thing critics not themselves writers of poetry occasionally forget is that poetry is composed by actual human beings, and tracts of it are very closely about them."

Berryman's reliance upon the life and personality of the author is evident in small issues as well as in large ones…. The method is sometimes revealing about Berryman's own poems—as when he...

(The entire section is 1324 words.)

Emma Fisher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Berryman's life of tortured bardic alcoholism, and the piercing eye he turned on himself and (sometimes) the world, have aroused respect, if not reverence, among reviewers and critics. (p. 22)

[Under the languid exterior of a Dream Song from Henry's Fate and Other Poems] seethe images of Henry as a soul in hell; a Doubter, like Thomas; a clock-like, unnatural man, kept going only by drugs; a junkie waiting for his fix; a crucified thing like Christ and the clock. At suggesting torment the poem works better than it deserves.

Apart from the useful personification device, Berryman has the poetic equivalent of 'it', which seems to reside in his language: colloquial, compressed, jerky, cute, unpompous. He also has a drunkard's fatal charm. One would always have bought him another drink. A peculiarity of the Dream Songs is that they are so informal and repetitive (Berryman apparently once said he kept on writing them 'just out of habit') that individual ones give an impression of depth and concision because oblique references can be made to things the reader knows from the others. They are interdependent and do not have to stand on their own. The thought of hundreds more still unpublished is daunting, but one looks forward to them as to brilliant letters from an unstable friend. (p. 23)

Emma Fisher, in The Spectator (© 1978 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), April 1, 1978.

Edwin Morgan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Berryman is a noted example of the poet who is hard to like and equally hard to forget. He drags his reader protesting almost continuously through a landscape of intense, jagged, contorted, often obscure, often touching subjectivity; no one conveys better the sheer mess of life, the failures and disappointments, betrayals and jealousies, lust and drunkenness, the endless nagging disjunction between ambition and reality. If it is dangerous to let life cohabit too lovingly with art, Berryman revels in taking up that danger and brandishing it bizarrely, like a gorgon's head, to mesmerise the audience….

[What] gives body and weight to the dream songs as a whole is their underlying intimation of the wider discontents and anxieties, whether of the modern world or of man in general. Unlike Pound, he does not easily intellectualise the wider themes, but they keep surging up, explosively, savagely, sadly, through references to writers' suicides, through comments on America and on other countries, through gropings towards the consolations of philosophy or religion. (p. 552)

[The new dream songs published in Henry's Fate, and Other Poems] are not, for the most part, among his best…. It is curious how, in their relative straightforwardness but frequent flatness, they have the effect of throwing the reader back towards the idiosyncrasies, grotesque though they might be, of the earlier dream songs. The style of a Berryman, whether he writ no language or not, has to be swallowed whole, and probably the gristly bits are more functional than we like to suppose. (p. 553)

Edwin Morgan, "Struggle and Surrender," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1978; reprinted by permission of Edwin Morgan). April 27, 1978, pp. 552-53.

Gary Q. Arpin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To say that John Berryman's poetry is controversial is to state the obvious. Few poets—and none that I can think of since Pound—have aroused such varying and often violent responses. A. Alvarez has written that one either loves or loathes Berryman's work, and that seems to be the case. This should not be a matter of great surprise. For one thing, Berryman's work—especially The Dream Songs—is difficult, difficult in a way that most recent poetry is not. At a time when American poetry is moving away from the Eliotic modern, Berryman's work seems to be a throwback, if a self-conscious one, to an earlier age, bringing poetry, to paraphrase Williams's remarks on The Waste Land, back into the...

(The entire section is 4729 words.)