Heavy Heart, Empty Heart

Remembering the poet John Berryman in his centennial year.

by James McGirk ’07GS, ’11SOA Published Fall 2014
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Like all the confessionalists, “Berryman sought to disturb the intricately wrought, self-contained poem that was the dominant mode of the 1950s,” Gilbert says. “This kind of poetry eschewed overtly biographical, social, and historical references.” It could also be dry and academic, more concerned with crafting intricately wrought allusions than delivering an emotional punch. 

But Berryman’s poems were a little more intense than the usual lyrical confessional poem. Here was a man — a scholar deeply embedded within the literary establishment — who shambled onstage wearing rubby glasses and a wild beard, sodden with drink, inhabiting a character so obviously based on himself and his horrendous family life, speaking strangled sentences so emotionally painful that his voice was little more than a croak. Where had he found Henry’s squealing, slurring voice? How had he tapped this nerve? 

As a college student, Berryman had mentors who pushed him toward the study of literature, a pursuit that was just compelling enough to distract him from the memories of his father and his father’s cuckolder, “Uncle Jack” Berryman, and the relentless monologues of his increasingly mad mother, who changed her name from Martha Smith to Jill Angel Berryman. Berryman often asked his mother to tell him about the day his father died, but she always obfuscated and poured new poisons on his father’s memory. 

Despite getting carried away with drink at Columbia (his antics, Mariani writes, included crashing a faculty dance with three friends, then escaping a security guard by sliding down a banister) and almost flunking his junior year (his scholarship was rescinded and he was asked to take a semester off), Berryman rebounded. With the help of professor Mark Van Doren ’21GSAS, ’60HON, Berryman not only graduated, plowing through and annotating sixteen books of eighteenth-century literature in five days, but had the energy to play a “nursemaid and belle” in the 1936 Varsity Show, publish two poems in the Columbia Review (thanks to Giroux, the journal’s editor),and win a Euretta J. Kellett Fellowship to sail to England and read literature at Clare College, Cambridge. 

Berryman lived most of his life as a transient academic, drifting from contract to contract. At Princeton, where he taught for ten years beginning in 1943, he became friends with Lowell and Saul Bellow, and although he published books of poems in 1942 and1948, he wasn’t nearly as recognized as his contemporaries. For decades he was better known as a Shakespeare scholar. He received a Rockefeller fellowship during the Second World War to work on King Lear, and spent years editing and standardizing the varied original quartos and folios. This close attention to the mechanical workings of Shakespeare’s poetry shaped his work as a poet. 

“The Dream Songs were his version of a Shakespeare sonnet,” Wadsworth says. “Berryman took Elizabethan syntax and applied it to modern English,” resulting in a “wrenched syntax” — the attempt to join modern English with the rules of early-modern verse. Berryman had a vast vocabulary and used multiple layers of diction to create his “songs.” 

As a teacher, Berryman nurtured many poets, including Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Levine, who wrote about his experience studying with Berryman at Iowa in an essay called “Mine Own John Berryman.” Even though Berryman had once sneaked up behind him and whacked him with a Scotch bottle (Levine had dared to ask him to stop running his hand up his wife’s skirt), Levine recalls his experience as Berryman’s student fondly, saying Berryman “took his class with a seriousness I’d never seen before. Here was this brilliant man preparing for each of our classes and letting us know that what we were doing is immensely important.” 

The Dream Songs, written over a period from 1955 to 1969 while he was teaching at the University of Minnesota, made Berryman famous, but he kept innovating, his later work becoming more prose-like. Unfortunately, his drinking continued. Alice Quinn, who is the executive director of the Poetry Society of America and an adjunct professor at the School of the Arts, describes how a friend of hers spotted Berryman before a reading at Bard College, drinking with others at a local bar, and was “so ashamed because no one was attempting to curb him in any way.” During the reading he was devastated with drink. 

In 1971, Berryman, motivated in part by the birth of his third child and the threats of his third wife, Kate, to leave him, managed to quit drinking for eleven months. But quitting was torture, flooding him with physical and spiritual pain. He was trying to write a novel called Recovery, but it wasn’t coming through.

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