Mercy! my father; do not pull the trigger or all my life I'll suffer from your anger killing what you began.
- If life is a handkerchief sandwich, in a modesty of death I join my father who dared so long agone leave me. A bullet on a concrete stoop close by a smothering southern sea spreadeagled on an island, by my knee.
In the penultimate "Song" of the sequence (no. 384), the response is one of anger, "I stand above my father's grave with rage . . . // I spit upon this dreadful banker's grave / who shot his heart out in a Florida dawn." The stanza goes on to plead that "indifference come," but it never did for Berryman. A life filled with a tormenting variety of moods, three marriages, and heavy drinking - as well as a unique contribution to the poetry of the century - was itself ended by suicide. In the last years of his life, however, Berryman had risen to the first rank of American poets, creating out of his own torments an exhilaration of language and a starkness of exposure rarely matched by his contemporaries.
Three months after his father's death, Mrs. Smith married John McAlpin Berryman, and the son took the new surname. The family moved to New York, and although the marriage did not last, Berryman's stepfather provided for his stepchildren, and Berryman attended a preparatory school in Connecticut and entered Columbia University, graduating with a BA in 1936. While at Columbia he published poetry in the Columbia Review and The Nation, and came under the mentorship of poet Mark Van Doren. Two years' study at Clare College, Cambridge, followed, before he began an academic career that took him to teaching posts at Wayne State, Princeton, Harvard, Iowa (where he was dismissed for public intoxication), and finally in 1955 to the University of Minnesota. Although he was evidently a remarkable teacher, Berryman was often contemptuous of this side of his career. "A Professor's Song" describes a class marked by clock-watching, rote repetition of literary catchphrases, and student disinterest. Dream Song 35, subtitled "MLA," indicating the annual Modern Language Association convention, exhorts the gathered professors to "forget your footnotes" and "dance around Mary" - one of the professor's wives.
Berryman's poetry was in a formal mode into the 1950s, and important early influences were Yeats and Auden. His first two book publications, however, were with New Directions, the publishers of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. Five Young American Poets (1940) was followed by Poems (1942). From 1939 to 1940 he served as the part-time poetry editor of The Nation. Berryman married his first wife, Eileen Mulligan, in 1942, but before publication of his next book, The Dispossessed (1948), he had begun what was to be the first of the many extra-marital affairs that marred his marriages. A series of 115 sonnets that Berryman wrote about this affair in 1947 was published 20 years later as Berryman's Sonnets. Although affecting at times some of the characteristics of Elizabethan sonnet sequences, the verses are more direct and frank than the academic poetry that Berryman was writing at the time for publication. He separated from Eileen Mulligan in 1953 and they divorced in 1956. Her novel The Maze (1975) is based upon their marriage, while her Poets in their Youth (1982) is a biography (both written under her later married name, Eileen Simpson).
Berryman published articles and reviews on many writers as part of his academic work, and a psychological biography, Stephen Crane, in 1950. But he became famous for his sequence Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, first published in the Partisan Review in 1953, and in book form in 1956. The poem imagines the life of the seventeenth-century New England poet, and at times directly addresses her. The poem is learned and difficult, but also often concrete in its depiction of Anne Bradstreet's physical and spiritual struggles with what the poem sees as her repressive world. The 57 eight-line stanzas open with the modern poet speaking to her, but, as Berryman's notes to the poem explain, by stanza 4 his voice modulates into hers. Some of the second section of the poem is a dialogue with Bradstreet, although her voice takes over again until the final four-stanza coda. Berryman's interest did not extend to an endorsement of Bradstreet's poetry. When he annotates an early reference in the poem to Joshua Sylvester and Francis Quarles, he adds "her favorite poets; unfortunately." Writing in 1964, Robert Lowell characterized the work as "the most resourceful historical poem in our language."
Homage to Mistress Bradstreet was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, which Berryman eventually won for the first volume of The Dream Songs (1964). Between the two books he had married Ann Levine in 1956, divorced in 1959, and married again in 1961, to Kate Donahue. From the late 1950s Berryman began to be hospitalized at least once a year for alcoholism and exhaustion. The Dream Songs - 385 "songs" in all, in three-stanza, 18-line rhymed units - were completed by His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968). This volume, to complete which Berryman had been awarded his second Guggenheim Fellowship (the first was in 1952), won the National Book Award and a shared Bollingen Prize (with Karl Shapiro).
The Dream Songs, published complete in 1969, took Berryman completely away from the academic poetry of his early career. The subject and sometimes speaker is "Henry," a white middle-aged man who has suffered an irreversible loss, and who is also spoken to in Negro dialect by a white friend wearing blackface who calls him at times "Mr. Bones." The reference is to one of two minstrel characters, a duo that would appear between acts in vaudeville shows. The diction is variously slang, dialect, pig Latin, archaisms, baby talk, the language of the minstrel shows, and standard English, but the free-ranging diction is contained strictly within the regular stanza arrangement. Much of Henry's character, thoughts, and fantasies clearly come from Berryman's own life and views, although he insisted in a 1972 interview that "Henry is accused of being me and I am accused of being Henry and I deny it and nobody believes me." The Dream Songs contain elegies for various poets close to Berryman in one way or another who had died in recent years, including Frost, Randall Jarrell, Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, Yvor Winters, Louis MacNeice, Sylvia Plath, and William Carlos Williams. Dream Song 153 summarizes bitterly:
I'm cross with god who has wrecked this generation. First he seized Ted, then Richard, Randall, and now Delmore. In between he gorged on Sylvia Plath. That was a first rate haul.
The views and experiences recounted in Berryman's next book, Love & Fame (1970), are not expressed through alter egos but are autobiographical and explicit, and thus lack the wit and variety of the Dream Songs. In this same year Berryman returned to the Catholicism in which he had been raised as a child, and his last book of poems, Delusions, etc. of John Berryman (1972) reflects the spiritual struggles that now occupied him. He left unfinished a prose fiction, Recovery (1973), that came out of his sporadic attempts to conquer his alcoholism. On January 7, 1972, he jumped to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, above the Mississippi.
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