Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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posthumous collection, The Freedom of the Poet (1976), gathers a representative sample of his criticism, published and unpublished.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.


(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,...

(The entire section is 661 words.)


(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...

(The entire section is 510 words.)