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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Mariani reports that Berryman’s boss at Minnesota, Ralph Ross, saw him that summer, and, in a letter to their friend Allen Tate, noted Berryman’s lack of warmth, concluding, “the only John one could love was a John with 2 or 3 drinks in him, no more & no less, & such a John could not exist.” 

On January 5, 1972, Berryman relapsed. After writing a note to his wife that read, “I am a nuisance,” he strolled out onto the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, which overlooked a chunk of rock. In what would be a dress rehearsal, he climbed over the railing, clutching the knife with which he planned, as Mariani describes it, to “slash his throat so that he would feel faint and have to pitch forward.” He even wrote a sonnet beforehand describing how he would do it, “unless my wife wouldn’t let me out of the house, /unless the cops noticed me crossing the campus up to the bridge /& clappt me in for observation, costing my job —” The next day, he walked out on the bridge to complete the act, but a friend spotted him and they talked books for a few minutes and he lost his nerve. The day after, he walked three-quarters of the way across the bridge, climbed the rails again, and tipped over the railing, not needing the knife. He battered himself against the rock, rolled down a small slope, and was swept away into the icy flow of the Mississippi. 

In October 2014, Bob Giroux’s old publishing house, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, republished Berryman’s work with new introductions, including reissues of Berryman’s Sonnets, 77 Dream Songs, and the complete Dream Songs, as well as Poets in Their Youth, a memoir by Eileen Simpson, Berryman’s first wife. At Columbia, Wadsworth is helping to organize a Berryman program this winter in conjunction with the Heyman Center for the Humanities and the Poetry Society of America.

Not that Berryman has ever left Columbia. Lucie Brock-Broido’82SOA, the director of the poetry program at the School of the Arts, reads aloud one of Berryman’s last poems, “He Resigns,” for each of her classes, hoping that none of her poets will have to experience what he did. 

Age, and the deaths, and the ghosts. 
Her having gone away 
in spirit from me. Hosts 
of regrets come & find me empty. 
I don’t feel this will change. 
I don’t want any thing 
or person, familiar or strange. 
I don’t think I will sing 
any more just now; 
ever. I must start 
to sit with a blind brow 
above an empty heart. 


James McGirk ’07GS, ’11SOA is the author of American Outlaws, slated for release as an Amazon Kindle Single in October.

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