John Berryman Analysis
by John Allyn Smith

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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Walt Whitman begins his great poem “I celebrate myself and sing myself.” John Berryman certainly sings himself. To what extent can he be said to celebrate himself?

What features of Berryman’s poetry seem calculated to overcome the modern reader’s resistance to long poems?

What does Ann Bradstreet represent to Berryman—an alter ego, a fantasy lover, an afflicted fellow poet, a victim of Puritan culture, or some blend of these and/or other possibilities?

The sonnet cycle has been practiced and its conventions explored and exploited for centuries. What distinctive techniques and content does Berryman bring to Berryman’s Sonnets?

Contrast “Huffy Henry” of The Dream Songs and T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock as antiheroes.

In some writers creativity and self-destructiveness seem to be like two sides of a coin. To what extent is this true of Berryman?

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

In addition to his poetry, John Berryman produced a considerable number of reviews and critical pieces. A posthumous collection, The Freedom of the Poet (1976), gathers a representative sample of his criticism, published and unpublished. Berryman did not produce much prose fiction, preferring to use verse as a narrative vehicle. He did, however, write several short stories, and an unfinished novel, Recovery (1973), was published as he left it at his death. Other critical writing includes Stephen Crane (1950), a critical biography with a psychological slant, and The Arts of Reading (1960), a collection of essays coauthored with Ralph Ross and Allen Tate. Berryman also edited a 1960 edition of Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller: Or, The Life of Jack Wilton. Berryman may be heard reading his poems on several recordings produced by the Library of Congress.

Achievements

(Poets and Poetry in America)

In Beyond All This Fiddle (1968), A. Alvarez remarks thatJohn Berryman is one of those poets whom you either love or loathe. Yet even the loathers have grudgingly to admit that the man is extraordinary . . . with a queer, distinct voice of his own.

No doubt, there are “loathers” who would apply “extraordinary” in no laudable sense, and who would use far cruder adjectives than “queer” and “distinct” in describing Berryman’s voice. Still, decades after his death, Berryman’s place in modern poetry seems as secure as that of any of his contemporaries, living or dead—Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, Richard Wilbur, Adrienne Rich, or W. D. Snodgrass. Though he died a most unsatisfied man, his poetic career certainly brought him his share of recognition and praise: the Levinson (1950) and Guarantors Prizes from Poetry and the Shelley Memorial Award (1949), an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1950), the University of Chicago’s Harriet Monroe Poetry Prize (1957), the Brandeis Creative Arts Award (1960), the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Russell Loines Award (1964), the Pulitzer Prize in poetry (1965) for Seventy-seven Dream Songs, and both the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, shared with Karl Shapiro, (1969) for His Toy, His Dream, His Rest. He became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1965 and served as chancellor for the Academy of American Poets from 1968 to 1972. In addition, he won grants and fellowships from such organizations as the Guggenheim Foundation (1952, 1966), the Rockefeller Foundation (1944), the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1950), and the Academy of American Poets (1966). He was much in demand for public readings, even though, especially toward the end of his career, his alcoholism and unpredictable personality made some of these appearances traumatic for both poet and audience.

In his poetry, Berryman moved from an ordered, restrained style, imitative of William Butler Yeats and W. H. Auden to a passionate, energetic, deeply personal mode of expression, held in check—though just barely in places—by skilled attention to rhythm and sound. So decisive was this movement that comparing such early poems as “Winter Landscape” with a random sample from his later work, The Dream Songs, is almost like comparing two different poets. It is easy enough to look back at Berryman’s early work and find it too poised, too urbane and academic. A number of critics, however, have objected to much of his later work, finding in it too little restraint and much too large a dose of the poet’s raw experience. He is placed by some, with Anne Sexton and Lowell, in the “confessional school.” The label does not quite apply, for Berryman’s work at its best—and, unfortunately, he did frequently allow it to be published at its worst—remained for him a means of using personal experience to get at human experience. He retained too much formal control to be considered a Beat poet and was too inventive in his use of language to be classed with the vernacular mode of William Carlos Williams. Whatever else may be said about him, Berryman is one of the most individual voices in twentieth century American poetry.

In spite of his successes, however, it is difficult not to wonder whether Berryman has been overpraised. His Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, for example, was extolled by Robert Fitzgerald (American Review, Autumn, 1960) as “the poem of his generation,” while Edmund Wilson, solicited for a back-cover blurb for a 1968 paperback edition of the poem, responded with, “the most distinguished long poem by an American since [T. S. Eliot’s] The Waste Land.” There must certainly be a middle stance, somewhere between overpraise and Stanton Coblentz’s view that “Seventy-seven Dream Songs has all the imaginative fervor of a cash register.” Such a moderate perspective would see Berryman as a major poet of his generation, and view Seventy-seven Dream Songs as one of the major poetic events of the 1960’s. His Collected Poems, 1937-1971, was published in 1989.

Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. John Berryman. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. Collects twelve critical essays on Berryman’s poetry, representing a variety of approaches. Contains a good index, a chronology, and a bibliography.

Haffenden, John. John Berryman: A Critical Commentary. New York: New York University Press, 1980. This rather dense study examines Berryman’s major poetry, showing the connections between Berryman’s personal and poetic challenges. Although students may find this work difficult, they will be enlightened by the extensive reproductions of Berryman’s drafts, notes, and diary entries. Includes a composition chronology and an index.

Haffenden, John. The Life of John Berryman. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982. This long and sometimes difficult volume draws heavily on Berryman’s unpublished diaries, letters, and notes to tell the story of the poet’s life from his father’s suicide to his own. The contrast between Berryman’s artistic successes and personal failures is at the center of this unblinking biography.

Haffenden, John, ed. Berryman’s Shakespeare: Essays, Letters, and Other Writings by John Berryman. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1999. In this collection of Berryman’s best short writings on Shakespeare, he explores the complex power of England’s greatest dramatist and how knowledge of his work might be enlarged. An intimate, intricate view of Shakespeare’s work.

Halliday, E. M. John Berryman and the Thirties: A Memoir. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. A close friend of Berryman, Halliday presents his recollections of his friendship with Berryman from 1933 to 1943. An account of college life in the 1930’s, glimpses of other writers, and excerpts from Berryman’s letters to Halliday make this a touching and fascinating memoir.

Hirsch, Edward. “One Life, One Writing! The Middle Generation.” The American Poetry Review 29, no. 5 (September/October, 2000): 11-16. The quest for identity is a key theme in the poetry of Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, Theodore Roethke, and Berryman. Hirsch examines their poetry and finds in each a deep sympathy, an attentive regard, an overwhelming and overwhelmed reverence for all living things.

Linebarger, J. M. John Berryman. New York: Twayne, 1974. After a brief biographical chapter, Linebarger examines Berryman’s poetry, dividing it into four periods. This fine introduction to Berryman’s work is perhaps the best available for the common reader. The volume includes a chronology, an annotated bibliography, and an index, but contains few quotations from the poetry.

Mariani, Paul. Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman. New York: William Morrow, 1990. This highly readable biography conveys at every point Mariani’s admiration for Berryman. As he traces Berryman’s brilliant and tragic life, Mariani does not flinch from what was unattractive about the poet. Instead, he describes with respect Berryman’s struggles to overcome his weaknesses. Includes extensive quotations from letters, essays, and poems, and numerous photographs.

Thomas, Harry. Berryman’s Understanding: Reflections on the Poetry of John Berryman. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988. A collection of critical essays, reviews, interviews, and memoirs. Covers the canonical criticism of Berryman’s work and the uses of that criticism to document the ongoing work of intelligent, imaginative reading.