John Berryman: A Bridge Too Far

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

Here is a long look at the poetry of John Berryman, one of the most original and prolific American poets of the 20th century. My review as Books page editor for The Wichita Eagle was written in 2014, centenary of Berryman's birth. Now, seven years on, I find myself returning to Berryman for inspiration from his marvelous technique in The Dream Songs. And that, in turn, seems to justify taking a good look back at what the poet achieved in his short lifetime. (All work below copyrighted by The Wichita Eagle newspaper.]

Poems celebrate centenary of John Berryman’s birth

John Berryman won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for his two volumes of The Dream Songs.


“The Heart Is Strange: New Selected Poems” by John Berryman, edited by Daniel Swift (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pages, $26)

“The Dream Songs” by John Berryman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 469 pages, $19)

I can’t go into the meaning of the dream

except to say a sense of total loss

afflicted me thereof:

an absolute disappearance of continuity & love

and children away at school, the weight of the cross,

and everything is what it seems.

There is nothing quite like John Berryman’s “The Dream Songs” in the annals of modern American poetry. Nothing quite so atrocious with its minstrelsy, jokiness and fractured syntax. And nothing quite so daring with its antic energy, eccentric irreverence and fractured syntax. Berryman took the dream part of “Dream Songs” seriously. And what we get in these nearly 400 poems is the phantasmagoria of a besotted brain staving off the urge to annihilate itself.

Berryman couldn’t resist that urge, as it turns out, even while he claimed that Henry, the protagonist of “The Dream Songs,” was not himself. Yet when Henry says in Song #40, “Got a little poison, got a little gun, / I’m scared a lonely,” he clearly alludes to the desperate straits that Berryman found himself in. Thus, in 1972, with a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, a newfound religious commitment and endless rounds of rehab and psychotherapy under his belt, he leapt to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, landing on the frozen riverbank below. It’s rumored that he waved goodbye before he jumped. He certainly made quick work of it.

In this centenary year [2014] of Berryman’s birth, his publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has brought out the big guns, reissuing the original “77 Dream Songs,” plus a series of sonnets that Berryman kept hidden for two decades to cover up an affair, as well as the entire “Dream Songs” corpus, which adds more than 300 songs to the first 77. It is an impressive and intimidating body of work, bold and teeming with pathos, as innovative in its reach as it is perplexing.

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag

and somehow a dog

has taken itself & its tail considerably away

into mountains or sea or sky, leaving

behind: me, wag.

Now, in addition, we have “The Heart Is Strange,” a new selection of Berryman’s other poetry that features the challenging long work, “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” the 17th-century American poet (considered the country’s first), and excerpts from his final two books, “Love & Fame” and “Delusions, Etc.,” with their explicitly religious sentiments, along with juvenilia and two poems never before published.

Whether Berryman’s selected poems can stand on their own without a representation of “The Dream Songs” remains to be seen. Daniel Swift has done an admirable job of introducing and editing them. But it feels as if something monumental has been misplaced between the years of 1953 and 1970.

* * *

Berryman was no saint, to be sure; his hard drinking and womanizing only fueled the psychic imbalance he so fearlessly wrote about. He never got over the thought of his father killing himself with a shotgun in front of his 12-year-old son’s bedroom window. Indeed, the images of a self-inflicted end haunted Berryman throughout his life: “I totter to the lip of a cliff,” he writes in Dream Song #120. He tottered and then he leapt.

But if we set aside “The Dream Songs” long enough to consider Berryman’s other works, we find that the later poems jettison his obsession with a tortured grammar, and more straightforwardly tell the tale of a damaged heart:

I certainly don’t think I’ll last much longer.

I wrote: ‘There may be horribles.’

I increase that.

Such anguish and despair paint the well-worn caricature of the mid-century confessional poet. Suicide seemed to taunt the likes of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, who succumbed with fewer theatrics than Berryman did. And before he pushed off the bridge’s railing that frigid January day, he had milked his own soulful suffering for hundreds of pages, creating a kind of jazz riff out of grief.

I spit upon this dreadful banker’s grave

who shot his heart out in a Florida dawn

O ho alas alas

When will indifference come, I moan & rave

I’d like to scrabble till I got right down

away down under the grass

And so we find a strange beauty in the confessions of this brilliant, broken man, a man grasping for transcendence – clear voiced, blurry eyed, devoted ever to the making of song.

Forsake me not when my wild hours come;

grant me sleep nightly, grace soften my dreams;

achieve in me patience till the thing be done,

a careful view of my achievement come.

* * *

Nothing succeeds like excess. And Berryman pursued excess the way a paparazzo barrels through a crowd toward his big payoff shot. Berryman yearned for the attention that his peer Robert Lowell received in the early 1950s, and it was late in life before he gained any enduring recognition of his poetic gifts.

Still, once begun, his career catapulted through the second half of the 20th century – an epic achievement on the scale of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” Nearly 60 years on, “The Dream Songs” resounds with a chorus of voices, at times contradictory but never conciliatory, inimitably fresh and impenetrably dense, periodically bleak, yet comic and fruitful to the end.

“The Heart Is Strange” grants us a glimpse of Berryman’s broader “achievement come.” But the book’s strengths only drive us back toward “The Dream Songs,” Berryman’s magnum opus – a volume that has no predecessors and no viable successors to this day.

Should we judge a man by his life or his work? Perhaps it’s a both/and answer, not an either/or. In any case, we give Berryman the last word:

in a modesty of death I join my father

who dared so long agone leave me.

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