John Berryman: Contribution as American Poet

Also Read

      John Berryman (1914-1972), was born in McAlester, Oklahoma. He was educated at Columbia University and Clare College, Cambridge. He taught at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Cincinnati and from 1955 until his death at University of Minnesota. His poems appeared in all small magazines and reviews during 1930s and then in 1940, his work was published in American Poets. Berryman’s life parallels Robert Lowell’s in some respects. Specializing in traditional forms and meters of poetry, he was inspired by early American history. His first collection of poems was Poems (1942) and it was followed by The Dispossessed (1948). Wide recognition came to him on the publication of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956). In 1965, he was awarded with Pulitzer Prize for his 77 Pulitzer Dream Songs (1964). The poems were self-critical and confessional. The poems feature a grotesque autobiographical character named ‘Henry’ and reflections on his own teaching routine, chronic alcoholism, and ambition. The poems, in the latter volume, became the first section of a sequence, The Dream Songs, continued in His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968), and published in its entirety in 1969. Delusions (1972) was published after his suicide, shows him looking to the end of his life, also the subject of the novel Recovery (1973). Freedom of a Poet is a collection of essays on poets and poetry appeared in 1976. He wrote also a biography Stephen Crane (1950).

      Berryman, was an explorer of the dangerous psychological territory. Lowell found him working on the burden of alien influences of Yeats and Auden. On the whole, his earlier poetry is constricted by its formal quality and attractiveness to established models. Benyman’s Sonnets for instance, written in 1940s, although not published until 1968 start from an intensely personal base, an adulterous love affair the poet had with an unspecified woman. But everything is distanced by the use of the strict Petrarch an form, archaic language, and a conventional argument that leads to us through love and loss to transference of affection from woman to muse. Only now and then, do we get glimpses of the vain, sad, lustful and comic pathetic “I” that dominates the later work.

      Like his contemporary, Roethke, Berryman developed a supple, playful, but a profound style enlivened by phrases from folklore, children’s rhymes, cliches, and slang. Berryman writes, of Henry; “He stared at ruin. Ruin stared straight back.” Elsewhere, he wittily writes, “Oho, alas, when will indifference come, I moan and rave.”

Previous Post Next Post