The Life of John Berryman

The romantic myth of the poet holds that the production of art requires intense self-sacrifice on the part of the writer, who must be willing to accept personal suffering as the cost of his art. John Haffenden’s account of the life of John Berryman is a chronicle of personal suffering, often intense and costly to Berryman and to those close to him, which ultimately ended in suicide. An alcoholic haunted by the suicide of his own father, Berryman, who married three times, was also a chronic adulterer. Yet, he produced a body of poetry recognized for its excellence by his contemporaries, who gave him the Pulitzer Prize as well as a host of lesser awards, and by his fellow poets, who found in his work a model for the “confessional” style of verse.

Such a career begs for examination in the light of the romantic myth. Was Berryman’s art dependent on his self-destructive behavior? Certainly, as Haffenden points out, Berryman at times believed that he could write poetry only when drinking. He first achieved his intensely personal poetic voice when he turned the experience of a troubled love affair into a long series of sonnets. Yet, such beliefs can also be self-justifying, functioning as an excuse for personal excesses. As Haffenden notes, Berryman was extremely ambitious; he sought fame and treasured recognition as much as he feared bad reviews. One must wonder to what extent his own acceptance of the romantic myth prevented him from changing behavior he himself was able to recognize as self-destructive.

Another matter related to this myth is the poetic self whom the poet creates. Berryman assigned the name “Henry” to the persona of his works; readers may want to know the relationship between such a fictional self and the real self of the poet. Such a persona can serve as a distancing device, to separate art from life, or it can serve as a complicating factor, to lead the reader into endless speculation about the extent of autobiography in a poem. In Berryman’s case, it is necessary to know what role he assigned to his poetic alter ego.

Such questions have a great deal of merit in the light of recent trends in American poetry, for the “confessional” school marked a major departure in literary history. T. S. Eliot, for example, sought the elimination of self from art and pursued a level of anonymity, a hiding behind masks and adopted roles, that gives...

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