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.)
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.
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...
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