On October 25, 1914, banker John Allyn Smith and schoolteacher Martha Little welcomed their first of two sons, John Allyn Smith Jr.—now known to the world as John Berryman.
Berryman was born in McAlester, Oklahoma, a town of roughly 17,000 people, about the same size then as it is today, best known for housing prison inmates and a munitions plant. In 2005, Friends of Libraries in Oklahoma added to the city’s identity by dedicating McAlester an Oklahoma Literary Landmark in recognition of Berryman, who is the only Oklahoman to win the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bollingen Prize (among numerous other awards).
On the centennial of his birth, critics are questioning Berryman’s fit into the pantheon of poets. How did he contribute to the field? How distinctive is his music? What type of poet was he? What type of man? In reading his books, what can we learn about ourselves?
Forty-two years after his tragic suicide, interest in his work continues through rereleases of previous publications, the arrival of never-before-printed books, and conferences in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Dublin, Ireland.
We look because he was a poet. Because he read volumes and elevated the mind and its poetic expression above all else. His pain and accomplishments rouse our sympathy, scorn, and admiration.
In 1911, Berryman’s father, at age 24, moved from Minnesota to work with his two brothers for a bank in Holdenville, Oklahoma. One brother died soon after of pneumonia, and the other got caught up in a bank scandal and disappeared. Consequently, his father moved to another bank in Sasakwa where, at a boarding house, he met Martha Little, who was seven years younger than him and had recently arrived from Missouri. He allegedly forced himself upon her and later coerced her into marriage at All Saints Catholic Church in McAlester.
Questing for a decent salary to start a family, the newlyweds moved to Lamar, then to Wagoner, and then to Tampa, Florida, to take advantage of the land boom. There they opened a restaurant, but the boom quickly busted and Berryman’s father lost all he had gained, monetarily and matrimonially. The restaurant failed, and Martha began an affair with John Angus Berryman. John Allyn Smith, chain-smoking, drinking heavily, and disillusioned by his losses, ended his life with a bullet to his chest, a tragedy that some claim young Berryman witnessed. Several months later, Martha married John Angus Berryman, who adopted her two sons, and changed John Allyn Smith Jr.’s name to John Allyn Berryman.
The loss of his father and a love-hate relationship with his mother would color Berryman’s days for the duration of his life. He would suffer from severe mood swings (likely an undiagnosed bipolar condition), and self-medicate with alcohol, women, and writing.
Berryman was sent to boarding school in South Kent, Connecticut, in 1928, where upperclassmen bullied him. He furthered his education at Columbia University, where one of his teachers, Mark Van Doren, a poet, writer, and critic, planted the seed of Berryman becoming a poet. With a modest interest in other subjects, Berryman attended Van Doren’s classes with great enthusiasm, their only competition being a goal of bedding as many women as possible.
College established a welcomed and needed focus for Berryman: poetry. He studied Shakespeare and wrote sonnets, and experienced early success when several of his poems appeared in The Columbia Review and off-campus publications such as The Nation.
Berryman, like many Anglo-centric poets of his time, looked toward Europe—particularly the English and Irish—for their great writers. He spent two years at Clare College in Cambridge, where he reveled in Shakespeare and consumed Yeats and Auden, who influenced his form and technique. Upon the passing of Yeats, whom he considered the “latest, perhaps the last, master of English poetry,” Berryman wrote:
There passed away from eye, from hand,
The greatest among us. Let the bells toll.
He alone saw to the core, and having seen
Terror on all sides, was compassionate.
When Berryman returned from England, he wrote manically, often neglecting to eat or shave or pay rent. His first book,Poems, was published in 1942 by New Directions Publishing. Six years later, William Sloane Associates published The Dispossessed. Neither book earned him wanted recognition. In reference to the latter book, Randall Jarrell wrote in TheNation that Berryman was “a complicated, nervous, and intelligent [poet]” whose poetry “was too derivative of W.B. Yeats.”
Berryman’s devotion to writing regularly tilted into self-destruction. To fuel his writing, he drank. To celebrate a poem’s publication, he drank. To handle the disappointment of rejection, he drank. If his mother refused to read his work, or he felt desolate or suicidal, or met a publisher or a woman, he drank. In the years to come, the drinking escalated into blackouts, delirium tremens, and attempts at detoxing with periodic stays in the hospital. He managed to dry out for a period, but always the spirit of alcohol found a way to ravage him.
His devotion and the rigor of writing also kept him sober and sane. In his poem “Waking Up,” Berryman writes about alcohol’s hold on him:
Sober Henry hid his glass
Henry wd have to be sober fr here out.
It was bitter cold out
& bitter cold in…
His voluntary drug makes his brain swim,
he holds things that aren’t here,
sees what never was. It’s clear…
Berryman taught at Princeton, Harvard, the University of Vermont, Bard College, and the University of Minnesota, among others. He ran after whatever position came available, semester-long or lengthier. He exhibited little patience for idle or mediocre students and unleashed his temper to intimidate students into dropping his classes. Those who stayed, like Philip Levine, a student of his at Iowa University, said that Berryman made “the study of poetry… the center of the world.”
Berryman married three times, first to Eileen Simpson (1942–1956), then to Ann Levine (1956–1959), and then to Kate Donahue (1961–1972). Each woman, pivotal to his writing, read and commented on his work. As importantly, they held him together when his own emotional and psychological demons tore him apart. They withstood his drunken bouts, his self-loathing and doubts, his arrogant rants, and his infidelities with both single and married women, often the spouses of colleagues. Of women, Berryman writes:
Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken paprika, she glanced at
Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the act of her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her…
Simpson and Levine ultimately left him. Donahue was on the brink, but his life ended before she drew up the papers.
When Berryman took up the topic of writing about 17th-century Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet, it wasn’t so much out of admiration for her work as it was that she represented yet another woman—a poet no less—to possess. He claimed Bradstreet summoned him from her nearly 300-year-old grave, and he obliged. The result was Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, originally published in the Partisan Review in 1953, then as a book in 1956. The book’s 57 lyrical stanzas examine her life and art and garnered substantial praise. The work placed him on par with fellow male poets whom he considered peers and competition. Said Delmore Schwartz about the book, it is “the most distinguished long poem by an American since The Waste Land.” From Homage to Mistress Bradstreet:
Jaw-ript, rot with its wisdom, rending then;
then not. When the mouth dies, who misses you?
Your master never died,
Simon ah thirty years past you—
Pockmarkt & westward staring on
a haggard deck
it seems I find you, young. I come
I come to stay with you,
and the Governor, & Father, & Simon, & the huddled men.
In Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, Berryman steps away from the shadow of Yeats and begins to develop his own voice. The primarily iambic rhythm of his lines breaks from those of his awed predecessor, and a lusty, more American vernacular emerges. The break is essential to establish himself as anything other than a copyist.
Berryman’s American vernacular and distinctive style takes firm hold in 77 Dream Songs, a series of short, 18-line lyrics in three stanzas that earned him a Pulitzer Prize. He then feverishly wrote its sequel, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, which won him the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize. Both books were published together as The Dream Songs in 1969 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Dream Songs, drawn from years of psychoanalysis, a response to Whitman’s Song of Myself, and a desire to conceive an epic work, is based on a character named Henry—ranter, lamenter, minstrel singer, and an irrepressible voice who permits a range and depth of expression previously unseen in Berryman’s writing. As a literary foil for Berryman (though Berrymen denies the connection), Henry, often using broken English and made-up words, gushes on about paternal suicide, addiction to sex and alcohol, and displeasure with the horror of the Vietnam War. Visible is a fragile ego, at times bloated with self-importance, other times desperate for inflating.
Visible, too, are constant shifts in tone, diction, and syntax, a loosening into slang and wordplay. The iambic music is still present but mixed with blues and jazz. He riffs on his earlier reliance on intellectualism and permits a deeper, more personal engagement with language and topic. In “Dream Song 40,” he writes:
I’m scared a lonely. Never see my son,
easy be not to see anyone,
combers out to sea
know they’re goin somewhere but not me.
Got a little poison, got a little gun,
I’m scared a lonely
The tremendous inspiration and output of these poems—385 in The Dream Songs, and many more unpublished—came at a high price. His hospital stays increased in frequency and length; he lost entire days to delirium as the demons of alcohol and depression tightened their grips. Doctors warned that a failure to control his drinking would have fatal consequences. His third wife, Kate Donohue, threatened him with divorce.
The Dream Songs delivered accolades, celebrity, and steady employment. Berryman wrote another collection with Henry, a series of criticism, and a novel. He underwent a religious awakening that is represented in the last book he completed, Delusions. Several more books were in the works, but the darkness pursuing him for decades began to close in.
While teaching at University of Minnesota, Berryman walked to the Washington Avenue Bridge over the Mississippi River, climbed onto the railing, waved to passing students, and plummeted to his death.
What makes a good poet? It depends on who does the asking and the context from which they judge. Berryman stated that great poetry springs forth from pain and anguish, a definition that suits him perfectly.
“My idea is this: The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him …Beethoven’s deafness, Goya’s deafness, Milton’s blindness, that kind of thing,” Berryman said in a 1970 interview.
Rarely did he praise female writers other than Adrienne Rich and Elizabeth Bishop. Works by writers of color, other than Ralph Ellison, did not appear on his radar. He disdained the work of Allen Ginsberg, describing Howl as “public masturbation.”
Many have categorized Berryman as a confessional poet, a label he abhorred. He preferred the moniker “middle generation”: those belonging to the period between the modernists and the post-modernists.
Berryman viewed poetry from a white male perspective, a sexist and patriarchal myopia largely shared by many of his time, a take on intelligence that left vast segments of the population without voice or consideration. He held a parochial vision and understanding of history and culture, empty, for the most part, of countries outside the U.S. Yet no life of easy, settled privilege awaited him as he might have hoped. The interlopers were many: World War II, his father’s suicide, mental illness, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, womanizing, alcohol. All appear in his poetry.
Many poets of his generation such as Randall Jarrell, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton took their own lives. There’s something beguiling or fetishistic about an artist’s tragedy, a demise that penetrates the work in one field and bleeds into another. Berryman’s death has been the source of lyrics for the Brooklyn band The Hold Steady and for rockers Okkervil River. Berryman makes an appearance in James Franco’s The Broken Tower, a movie about the ill-fated poet Hart Crane.
Were it not for Dream Songs, Friends of Libraries in Oklahoma likely would not have dedicated the McAlester as an Oklahoma Literary Landmark. It’s unlikely, too, that the centennial of his birth would warrant much attention.
In The Dream Songs, Berryman let down his metered guard and let language flow elegiacally. In it, we see a search for knowledge and values, a reflection of personal and political tumult, a voice wrestling with violent feelings of love, death, religion, and politics. He captures a difficult yet distinctive music. To read him is to wrestle with poetry and the collision of life with art.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 20, October 15, 2014.