Berryman, John Allyn

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BERRYMAN, John Allyn

(b. 25 October 1914 in McAlester, Oklahoma; d. 7 January 1972 in Minneapolis, Minnesota), Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and critic known for bringing American idioms to poetry, and for creating Henry, the despairing protagonist of 77 Dream Songs (1964).

Berryman was the only child of John Allyn Smith, and Martha Little, and was first named John Allyn Smith, Jr. His father was a bank clerk in a series of small Oklahoma towns, and his mother a teacher, but in 1925 the family moved to Tampa, Florida, where they opened a restaurant. Within a year the restaurant folded, and Berryman's parents separated. Deep in debt from failed land speculations, Berryman's father committed suicide on 26 June 1926, an event that would trouble the poet for the rest of his life. When his mother remarried in September the same year and moved to Manhattan, Berryman took the name of his stepfather, John Angus McAlpin Berryman, a New York bond broker. He adopted the name legally in 1936.

Perhaps as a consequence of his unsettled background, Berryman was an outsider at South Kent School in Connecticut, where he entered as a boarder in 1928. He excelled in class, coming first through four consecutive years, but was bullied because he was an inept sportsman. Entering Columbia College, New York, in 1932, Berryman began to show promise as a poet. Under the watchful eye of poet Mark van Doren, Berryman won college poetry prizes, was published in The Nation in 1935, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in English. He subsequently spent two years as a Kellett Fellow graduate student at Clare College, Cambridge, in England. He married Eilleen Patricia Mulligan on 24 October 1942, the same year that his first individual collection of poems, Poems, appeared.

By the early 1950s Berryman was a popular visiting lecturer at universities around the United States, and was gaining stature as a poet. Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, which first appeared in Partisan Review in 1953, won the University of Chicago's prestigious Harriet Monroe Poetry Prize in 1957. Told in the voice of Anne Bradstreet, the seventeenth-century poet, Homage anticipates Berryman's use of borrowed identities in his masterpiece, The Dream Songs (1964).

Berryman began working on The Dream Songs in 1955 while living in Minneapolis, but the early parts of the sequence were first published in 1964 as 77 Dream Songs. The final part of the sequence, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, was published in 1968. In fact, The Dream Songs make most sense in terms of 1960s culture. Their protagonist, Henry, is a hero for the age. He is despairing, morally confused, and beyond salvation. Though chronologically part of a generation of poets who favored short, descriptive, fragmentary poems, Berryman's work in the 1960s is on a large scale. He is often labeled a "confessional" poet, along with Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. Confessional poetry tends to consist of personal recollections and expressions of feeling, features that allow it to meet the individualistic mood of the period. But unlike most other confessional poets, Berryman distances himself from the subject of the poetry by using narrative, and developing it in the voice of fictionalized characters. In the case of The Dream Songs, one of these alter egos is a white man made up as a black, who acts as an alter ego for Henry and his life of trivial excess. Through these other voices, and his challenging use of idiomatic American English, Berryman manages to express not only his own despair, but also the troubled spirit of the times.

With his large beard and thick glasses, Berryman was a well-known figure in literary circles in the 1960s. 77 Dream Songs won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1965, placing Berryman among the top rank of American poets. By 1969, when the entire series was published as The Dream Songs, the sequence ran to 385 songs, each composed in a three-stanza, eighteen-line rhyming format.

As he became more famous, Berryman's already shaky mental health grew increasingly unstable. He had divorced his first wife on 19 December 1956, and married twenty-four-year-old Elizabeth Ann Levine just a week later. They had one son, but Berryman's frequent infidelities, developing alcoholism, and repeated hospitalizations for nervous exhaustion brought the marriage to an end in 1959. Yet, as his health declined, Berryman's work seemed to improve. After his second divorce he taught at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Brown University, where he was considered a brilliant teacher, and continued to write scholarly articles and books. He married again on 1 September 1961, to twenty-two-year-old Kate Donahue; they had two daughters.

Although he had worked as an academic at the University of Minnesota since 1955, and would continue to do so until his death in 1972, after the success of 77 Dream Songs in 1964, Berryman was free to travel and write. He completed the remaining 308 sections of The Dream Songs on a Guggenheim Fellowship, traveling to Ireland, and continuing to drink heavily even while undergoing treatment for alcoholism. By the mid-1960s, Berryman's hospital treatment for nervous exhaustion was an almost annual event, yet between 1967 and 1970 he won the Academy of American Poets Award (1967), the National Endowment for the Arts Award (1967), the National Book Award (1969), and shared the Bollingen Prize (1969) with Karl Shapiro. In what would turn out to be the last few years of his life, Berryman had become a major figure in American literature, and an important influence on American poetry. Berryman reached his academic peak when he was named Regents' Professor of Humanities at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, in 1969.

Yet, despite his success, and the relative stability of his home life, Berryman continued his alcoholic decline. By 1969 he was obsessed with his father's suicide to the point of breakdown. That year he began treatment for alcoholism on three separate occasions, and in 1970 experienced what he called a "religious conversion" to a form of Catholicism, his father's religion. Berryman completed two more volumes of poetry, Love & Fame (1970) and Delusions, Etc. (1972). Berryman was one of the most innovative and perceptive poets of the human condition after World War II. In particular The Dream Songs, with their multiple voices, dynamic linguistic styles, and wild stories, express the tension between freedom and terror that characterizes the postmodern culture of the 1960s. For Berryman himself such despair was much more than a literary argument. He killed himself by jumping from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis. He is buried in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Berryman's papers are at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. His essays and short stories are published in The Freedom of the Poet (1976), and his letters are published as We Dream of Honor: John Berryman's Letters to His Mother (1988). Berryman's autobiographical account of his rehabilitation is Recovery: A Novel (1973). Biographies include William J. Martz, John Berryman (1969); J. M. Linebarger, John Berryman (1974); John Haffenden, The Life of John Berryman (1982); and Paul L. Mariani, Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman (1990). Peter Stitt's interviewwith Berryman, "The Art of Poetry," in Paris Review 53 (winter 1972), has special impact because of its closeness to the date of the poet's suicide. An obituary is in the New York Times (8 Jan. 1972).

Chris Routledge