John Berryman Reads

John Berryman was born John Smith in McAlester, Oklahoma, in 1914. He received an undergraduate degree from Columbia College in 1936 and attended Cambridge University on a fellowship. He taught at Wayne State University in Detroit and went on to occupy posts at Harvard and Princeton. From 1955 until his death in 1972, he was a professor at the University of Minnesota.
Berryman graduated from Columbia University in 1936. A pamphlet entitled Poems was published in 1942 and his first proper book, The Dispossessed, appeared six years later. Of his youthful self he said, ‘I didn’t want to be like Yeats; I wanted to be Yeats.’ His first major work, in which he began to develop his own unique style of writing, was Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, which appeared in Partisan Review in 1953 and was published as a book in 1956. Another pamphlet, His thought made pockets & the plane buckt, followed. It was the collection called Dream Songs that earned him the most admiration. The first volume, entitled 77 Dream Songs, was published in 1964 and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The second volume, entitled His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, appeared in 1968. The two volumes were combined as The Dream Songs in 1969. By that time Berryman, though not a “popular” poet, was well established as an important force in the literary world, and he was widely read among his contemporaries. In 1970 he published the drastically different Love & Fame. It received many negative reviews, along with a little praise, most notably from Saul Bellow and John Bailey. Despite its negative reception, its colloquial style and sexual forthrightness have influenced many younger poets, especially from Britain and Ireland. Delusions Etc., his bleak final collection, which he prepared for printing but did not live to see appear, continues in a similar vein. Another book of poems, Henry’s Fate, culled from Berryman’s manuscripts, appeared posthumously, as did a book of essays, The Freedom of the Poet, and some drafts of a novel, Recovery.
The poems that form Dream Songs involve a character who is by turns the narrator and the person addressed by a narrator. Because readers assumed that these voices were the poet speaking directly of himself, Berryman’s poetry was considered part of the Confessional poetry movement. Berryman, however, scorned the idea that he was a Confessional poet.
Berryman committed suicide in 1972.

0 thoughts on “John Berryman Reads

  1. I first came to know about John Berryman thru a local Professor who taught at the University in town. His area of research and personal interest was Berryman’s ‘Dream Songs’ of which the used/rare bookstore that i patronized had a copy. I was struck by the mastery of form in his work which was at once modern displaying slang and vulgar sentiments but at the same time, and paradoxically it would seem, to be written with such economy and interwoven with Shakespearean meter and varying rhyme scheme. The whole of the ‘Dream Songs’ constitute a poem even though it is comprised of individual ‘dream sonnets’ of 18 lines in 3 6 line stanzas.
    Wonderful imagination! God rest his soul.

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