John Berryman Berryman, John (Vol. 13) - Essay

John Allyn Smith

Randall Jarrell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[John Berryman] is a complicated, nervous, and intelligent writer whose poetry has steadily improved. At first he was possessed by a slavishly Yeats-ish grandiloquence which at its best resulted in a sort of posed, planetary melodrama, and which at its worst resulted in monumental bathos…. (p. 80)

[His latest poetry, "The Dispossessed"], in spite of its occasional echoes, is as determinedly individual as one could wish. Doing things in a style all its own sometimes seems the primary object of the poem, and its subject gets a rather spasmodic and fragmentary treatment. The style—conscious, dissonant, darting; allusive, always over- or under-satisfying the expectations which it is intelligently exploiting—seems to fit Mr. Berryman's knowledge and sensibility surprisingly well, and ought in the end to produce poetry better than the best of the poems he has so far written in it, which have raw or overdone lines side by side with imaginative and satisfying ones. (p. 81)

Randall Jarrell, in The Nation (copyright 1948 The Nation Associates), July 17, 1948.

William Dickey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[It is] the quality of voice that dominates John Berryman's His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, the … book which extends and completes the 77 Dream Songs of 1964. The annex is a good deal larger than the original building: there are 308 poems here, most of them following the three-stanza, eighteen-line pattern the earlier book established. They rhyme with some regularity; their line lengths vary considerably; sometimes they do and sometimes they do not run on.

But the statistics are only evasions, and will not characterize what the organized sprawl of the book is like or about. Berryman himself has given his own answer to the second question: "The poem then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr Bones and variants thereof." I would be happy to believe all that …, but I really don't. Unless the protagonist of the dream songs is very close to being Berryman, as man and as poet, there seems little reason for his extraordinary language to exist.

That language does two things that seem to me unusual. First, it attempts a formal diction of poetry, with the compression and...

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Robert F. Moss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Through his spokesman Henry, the central character of the Dream Songs, Berryman articulated his view of literary criticism unequivocally: "—I can't read any more of this Rich Critical Prose, / he growled, broke wind, and scratched himself and left / that fragrant area. / When the mind dies it exudes rich critical prose." But Berryman exuded enough of this despised substance throughout his own career to fill a sizeable volume, and that, plus a handful of short stories, is what makes up The Freedom of the Poet. Assembled posthumously from a schema he left behind, the book includes sections on Elizabethan writers, other Europeans from Cervantes to Anne Frank, American fiction, poetry from England and America, stories, and general essays.

Even Berryman's detractors will have to concede that The Freedom of the Poet demonstrates an exceptional range and depth in the poet's cultural interests. (pp. 707-08)

The critical essays in this collection, which occupy the bulk of the volume, also lead us in and out of Berryman's other work, though much more obliquely than the stories. The poet's lifelong fascination with Freud (he was in analysis himself for quite some time) resulted in a good deal of surrealistic verse (e.g., "The Traveller"). Unhappily, the many psychoanalytic interpretations in this collection are surrealistic too; that is, they are best described as textual distortions which obey the logic of dreams rather than rational discourse. An unintentionally funny critique of The Diary of Anne Frank turns that classically simple work into a Freudian cryptogram in which the most straightforward episodes must be treated as dark messages from the unconscious. Freud is invoked again in "Conrad's Journey," a reading of Heart of Darkness which ignores the conscious level of Conrad's dense and difficult text in order to fish for sexual imagery, all of it supererogatory. The student of Berryman's work will recall that Freudian excesses were a short-coming in the poet's Stephen Crane (1951), a sporadically...

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Joel Conarroe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I think what strikes any reader of Berryman is how very self-conscious an artist he is: he practices a self-conscious craft, he achieves a self-conscious and deliberate range, he is almost arrogantly self-conscious in his use of the personal. He knows precisely what he wants to accomplish and how to accomplish it. He also knows how very much of his material has to be shaped by the dark turbulence of the human psyche…. Out of the insecurities and disorders and disasters of his life, he constructs with mathematical care what may be the most mature poetry of the twentieth century. (pp. xi-xii)

Berryman, who was in love with form, recognized early on that form gains in power as it is tested. Form, order, harmony—the cohering principles—are attractive but in their purest states not necessarily characteristic of high art. The totally harmonious work, pleasant enough, can be and frequently is dull. On the other hand, out of the conflict between form and formlessness, order and disorder, harmony and the inharmonious can come work of extraordinary intensity…. [Study] taught him that the most effective forms are those that can be forced into flexibility, forms with perimeters elastic enough to provide maximum "stretch," maximum tension.

The job of the artist is to cram into such forms accurate representations of feeling. Under pressure, his works will seem almost—but not quite—to explode. The explosion, when it takes place, is within the consciousness of the audience. (p. xii)

Berryman tackles all the big subjects: the big emotions (love, friendship, hatred, fear, passion, anger), the big intellectual concerns (politics, race relations, the value of history, the nature of art), the big spiritual questions (the 'reality' of a God, the significance of good and evil, the function of sin and redemption). (p. xv)

Berryman inhabits his characters and—much more important—so do we. Precisely because they are so full of private stuff, they remind us of ourselves. Because Berryman accepts his own stubborn self and uses it, Berryman forces us to participate in and to share that self.

In recognizing this paradox—that the unique individual is in fact everyman—Berryman is freed to take liberties that in lesser writers lead to pointlessly 'confessional' writing. But confession—'exposure'—is the last thing Berryman is interested in. Truth, on the other hand, is something that means a great deal to him. By turning the events of his life into significant fictions—by being both himself and his 'other'—he is able to let us also discover truth, not truth about Berryman but truth—to hover on the edge of a dangerous phrase—about our own being and about the nature of being itself. (p. xix)

The Berryman selections [in Five Young American Poets (1940) are] ominous, flat, social, indistinctly allusive, exhausted…. [The twenty poems] give clear evidence of his literary debts (the collection is an echo chamber) as well as of his slavish adherence to conventional forms. A typical Berryman poem of the period organizes itself into stanzas, often of eight or nine lines, with a carefully worked out rhyme scheme. There is a pervasive, generally stultifying reliance on iambic pentameter; some of the work seems to have been composed by a well-programmed computer with Weltschmerz. The speaker, typically, is seated in a room at dusk, alone in thought, brooding about the dangerous reality beyond his walls, all the while making disturbing connections between this public world, with its nightmarish history and uncertain future, and his own private world, haunted by fears and spectres. Certain images appear over and over, invariably related to disease, darkness, fear, exhaustion, inaction, sleeplessness. (p. 25)

"Winter Landscape," the best known of the works in this selection, provides good examples of both the virtues and shortcomings of Berryman's early voice. A commentary on Peter Brueghel's "Hunters in the Snow," it is tightly organized into five-line stanzas, all in regular iambic pentameter, with two seemingly random rhymes. It is actually in blank verse, with stanza breaks serving to reinforce the impression of parts making up a whole, appropriate in a poem modelled on a painting. Since the poem is composed in one flowing sentence (a colon near the middle separates the details of presentation from the philosophical speculations that emerge), one reads the lines as one might look at the painting, the eye moving rapidly from detail to detail and not coming to a complete rest until the composition has been seen in its entirety.

Although its general intentions are admirable (Berryman was responding to Yeats' seductive rhetoric and to the hysterical political atmosphere of the period) the work is flawed by a ponderous, sententious tone….

The pamphlet [Poems (1942)] as a whole, which is very curious, serves to illustrate both the ways in which Berryman's poetry at this stage of his career is utterly unexceptional and the kinds of inhibitions he had to break through to discover an original style. Poems has practically no voice at all; it could have been written by any one of a score of post-Yeats-Eliot-Auden writers confronting the political realities of 1939. The reason for this absence of a unique presence, of a special language, is that the poet, dealing with ideas and politics, almost wholly ignores his feelings. (p. 29)

Certain characteristics that dominate the work help account for its sterility. One is the introduction of topical events that assumes a conditioned response from the politically sympathetic reader…. Another, borrowed from Yeats ("Did she put on his knowledge with his power / Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?") is the significant unanswered question that has as its principal function the resurrection of sagging lines….

Another verbal mannerism, learned from Auden, is the capitalized abstraction: "Our Man of Fear," "the God Exaggeration," "The Hero." There are phrases throughout the book which, if not quite clichés, are flat, tired, ordinary. (p. 30)

[One] gets the impression of a sensibility that is blocked off from a sense of its personal needs, that speaks instead for a generation. For all his references to heartbreak, fear, sorrow, and hate the poem's speaker appears to be far more aware of civic woe than of his own. It is hard to believe that this voice would modulate into that of Henry Pussycat, a creature for whom nothing in the world is more important, newsworthy, or in an odd way, universal than his own private sorrows. Poetry of feeling, of course, is not necessarily more powerful than poetry of social awareness, but it is clearly more compatible with Berryman's gifts. It took him a great many years to realize this. He was in his early work as thoroughly the product of the Age of Anxiety as he was later on the product, and victim, of the Age of Catharsis. (pp. 31-2)

The sense of hopelessness about the state of the world comes through unambiguously in poem after poem [in The Dispossessed]. (p. 32)

Images of night run persistently through this gloomy book, and relate to the brooding sensibility at its center. He associates sunlight and daytime with art, the spirit, and the intellect. Night and darkness are related to the disturbances of man, be they political or sensual (though at this point in Berryman's work the senses are still in harness). And there are so many occasions of night falling or of a night wind rising that these devices finally function as a sort of deus ex nocturna, a way of giving resonance and mystery to lines that otherwise might remain coldly intellectual…. (p. 33)

In addition to sharing repeated, ritualistic, lighting and sound effects, the lines are also indistinguishable rhythmically; any one stanza could be substituted for any other without causing the slightest structural disruption. This is revealing, since it points up just how conventional Berryman's rhythms are at this point, and since rhythm, more than anything else, is what distinguishes one poet from another, just how conventional a poet he was…. Nevertheless, the book is technically interesting and even shows flashes of originality. This is because of Berryman's versatility in the use of stanzaic patterns and because of his extraordinarily skillful use of complex rhyme schemes, many of which employ approximate rhymes to good effect. (p. 34)

Berryman at this stage was most comfortable … with the Yeatsian eight-line stanza…. This stanza, like the octave of a sonnet, affords both rigorous formal constraints and room for considerable flexibility, permitting the technically facile craftsman to create the illusion of freedom within a rigorously circumscribed space…. [It] is understandable that he chose it for Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. The work of The Dispossessed, moreover, looks ahead even further in time: the nine "Nervous Songs" (inevitably, for one especially responsive to the later Berryman, the most successful section of the book) introduce for the first time the extended sonnet that was to become the vehicle of the Songs, the eighteen-line lyric composed of three self-contained but fluid six-line stanzas. (pp. 34-5)

Reading straight through The Dispossessed one moves suddenly from language that is lucid, uncluttered, rather fluid, into passages that are clogged, wrenched, often tortured—a dizzying leap from diction that resembles sometimes Yeats and sometimes Auden to that suggesting, more than anyone else, Hopkins. The difference is largely one of compression (again looking toward Mistress Bradstreet), which, coupled with a jagged cacophony, sometimes makes for difficulties of interpretation. A few of the poems, notably "The Long Home" and "Narcissus Moving," are incomprehensible, largely because Berryman has not yet honed the complex new language to his purposes. Others ("A Winter-Piece" and "The Dispossessed" for example) are uneven, the shifting language occasionally working brilliantly, sometimes remaining private and unduly obscure. Since these strange poems help prepare the way for the later sequences, one welcomes them. Their value, however, is historical rather than aesthetic. (pp. 35-6)

Whatever their relative merit, [the poems of the second section of The Dispossessed] are important poems in the early Berryman canon; they represent a breakthrough of the most crucial sort, involving a willingness to let the senses play some part in his life as a poet. (p. 41)

[In the three love poems of Section IV of The Dispossed] Berryman demonstrates absolute control of terza rima, transcending its technical restrictions to create an effect that is fluid and open. The tone is consistently affectionate without ever lapsing into sentimentality, and the diction is sharp, interestingly quirky rather than strained. The image patterns of light and darkness, heat and cold, storm and quiet, and of "new musics," are elegantly worked out and coalesce in a way that is engagingly solemn and luminously clear. (p. 43)

[In addition to the love poems] the other major achievement of The Dispossessed [is] the sequence of nervous songs [in which] Berryman for the first time adopts the dramatic mode. The nine soliloquies are spoken by an odd collection of men and women who seem on the surface to have little in common but who are actually variations on a single type. They are solitary figures, and all are slightly (or not so slightly) neurotic, agitated, living on the edge of breakdown, confused, tormented, obsessed. Their songs are "nervous" in that they express emotional tension, restlessness, agitation—a disordered state of the nerves…. Though some are more effective than others, the nine poems stand as a compelling series of psychological studies. In its form, the three six-line stanzas with flexible rhyme schemes, and in its mood of intense auto-revelation, the sequence is an important forerunner of The Dream Songs. (p. 45)

The 115 poems [in Berryman's Sonnets, published in 1967, twenty years after they were composed] are the record of a story "Knock-down-drag-out love," and as such they represent, in their confessional intensity and personal imagery, a major departure from the work of The Dispossessed. (pp. 51-2)

Since the sonnets contain patterns of recurring imagery, themes, characters, and settings, there is a temptation to find in the sequence a carefully worked out organizational plan. Any such strategy, however, would be in the mind of the reader rather than of the poet. The poems are diary entries (and love letters) chronicling events and emotions over which the poet has little control. They chart a love affair over a period of several months, and as such the highs and lows are determined by the course of the relationship rather than by the exigencies of literary form. There is a gently unobtrusive temporal framework, worth noticing but not, ultimately, terribly important. (p. 62)

Since the poems were, apparently, written in the order in which they appear, there are occasionally illuminating transitions and continuations, as one sonnet picks up an image, or carries forward a dialogue, or suggests a response to the poem that precedes it. (pp. 63-4)

The final four poems also form a small, unified section, serving, after the erotic intensities that make up most of the book, to bring the sequence to a gentle conclusion…. At the end of number 115 we see that the experience of the liaison is the source of creative energy, more important to the poet, perhaps, than is the relationship itself…. (pp. 64-5)

[The sequence] is important in the development of Berryman's craft because for the first time, in any really substantial way, he drops the mask of neutral objectivity, abandons the cool, slightly exhausted and more than slightly derivative voice, and emerges as a unique man who records his own sensibility in a voice that, at least in the strongest, truest sonnets, is recognizably his own…. It is the experiments with colloquial language, slangy, often inelegant, hot off the heart, going directly to a feeling without attempting to sublime it into formal art, that give this book of utterly conventional structures its unconventional power and importance. (pp. 65-6)

The seeds of the so-called confessional mode can clearly be discovered in [the sonnets]. Much of their quirky strength and odd appeal derive from the sort of vulnerability that makes it necessary for their creator to play games with himself, to adopt masks as a way of separating himself … from some of his darker, perhaps even weaker, personal qualities, though these are invariably revealed…. (p. 67)

So the voices—the formal and the vernacular—alternate, respond to each other [in the Sonnets] together suggesting the nature of the speaker in ways neither could do by itself. The careful, stately lines, grievous and sublime, would be impressive but ultimately dull without the nervous interruptions of the Groucho mode—the puns, bawdy jokes, word play, self-deflating epithets, outlandish diction, personal anecdotes. If the sequence suffers from this slightly schizophrenic behavior it is not because the voices interrupt each other too often, but because they do not do so often enough. The Dream Songs is an eccentric masterpiece precisely because the vernacular mode is given full play, the exuberant persona permitted totally to crowd out the more conventional aspects of his sensibility when there are reasons for this to happen. In the Sonnets the disreputable side of the lover is still held in check; it threatens on occasion to burst forth in all its inventive vitality, but Berryman was not yet quite prepared to run the risks of such public behavior. (p. 68)

His beautiful tribute [Homage to Mistress Bradstreet], long in the making (he accumulated details for nearly five years), was the result of a total immersion in the work of the Puritan poet [Anne Bradstreet] and of the history of Colonial America. It has about it, as a result, an authority and a degree of erudition that both attracted and puzzled readers at its first appearance in Partisan Review in 1953…. The poem was published without notes and with no introductory apparatus, and as a result the demands it made were very rigorous indeed. (p. 69)

With the publication of this book [Berryman] suddenly and spectacularly emerged as a major figure in contemporary letters. (p. 70)

The poem's stanza is composed of eight highly compressed lines filled with jagged rhythms, puns, repeated words, assonance, allusions, rhetorical climaxes, rhymes, and slant rhymes. The rhythms and the rhyme schemes vary subtly from stanza to stanza, but all the stanzas, or virtually all, share certain characteristics. In all but two (and in these the absence of closure is significant) the first and final lines rhyme, thus giving each small unit, even those eleven without end punctuation, a sense of self-containment. The first and last lines of the final stanza end with the word "loves," the repetition producing a sense of resolution even firmer than that created by rhyme. Each stanza is thus a small push forward, the momentum slowed briefly before the insistent advance begins again.

This overall sense of acceleration and retardation is reinforced by the measure of the individual lines and by frequent punctuation. In each stanza the first two lines, often fairly regular iambic but in any case containing five strong stresses, give way to the shorter third line, made up of three stresses, so that the initial motion is brought to a semi-halt. The momentum then increases gradually in the fourth line, of four stresses, accelerates in the fifth and sixth, which have five stresses each, and is then again balked in the short seventh line, an echo of the third, with three stresses, often in as few as four words. The conclusion then resolves the sense of flow and stasis with a long line, six stresses, that moves slowly and...

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Fleur Adcock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The posthumous collection Henry's Fate] begins with 45 Dream Songs, not necessarily rejected by Berryman but uncollected; they followed on from His Toy, His Dream, His Rest in 1968 and were written "just out of habit", as he admitted. But a habit is not always a mere tic, a mannerism, and many of these are well worth having. They seem in fact to suffer less from mannerism (using the word now of style) than some of the earlier Songs; even allowing for the fact that familiarity has reduced the impression of obscurity in Berryman's work, his crabbed, knotted language and dislocated syntax are here less evident as a barrier to understanding…. Not all of these work; some are merely silly or self-obsessed. But there are some good pieces, including several on his tour of European cities ("my God what visible places".) Assuming that one can take the Dream Songs at all, with their first-person/third-person Henry and their relentless tricksiness, one can well take these.

The remainder of the book is in three sections: finished poems in forms other than that of the 18-line Dream Songs; a few fragments and unfinished poems (interesting to scholars and aficionados but not in themselves very satisfying); and finally a group of poems written at the end of the poet's life when he was once again receiving treatment for his alcoholism. These are agonised and agonising, full of pain; full also, inevitably, of self-pity. But why not? It was natural in the circumstances, and as it is an emotion to which so many of us are subject we may as well have it expressed for us in literature. (pp. 84-5)

Fleur Adcock, in Encounter (© 1978 by Encounter Ltd.), August, 1978.