He was the author of The Dream Songs and he did not make a habit, in his poetry, of being clear. This infernal monster of American letters to whom fame arrived late, winner of the Pulitzer and National Book Award, John Berryman was considered in his final decade to be one of the single most important American poets then writing. At almost half a century after his death, these days he is frequently confused with the exploits and iniquities of his invention, a figure named Henry, greatly resembling the poet himself, whom Berryman described in one interview as “a white American, sometimes in blackface, in early middle age.”
It must be said that this description has done little to clarify matters. At the height of the civil rights movement he told one interviewer, “I hate the South because they put down Negroes there: it’s as simple as that.” Taken on its own, the statement hardly resolves the conundrum of monstrous Henry, who can often be found in The Dream Songs speaking thus: “We hafta die. / That is our ’pointed task. Love & die. / —Yes; that makes sense. / But what makes sense between, then?”
For Berryman that between, that vast interregnum between love and death, was the problem. He attempted to solve it through an immense consumption of alcohol, a voracious sexual appetite and above all an incredible devotion to poetry, through all that time shaking his fist at the God—as he described Him in a letter to his second wife Ann Levine in 1955—whose “beneficent attempts to get me obliterated at the age of 10 or 11 failed.” In his last days, flailing to maintain a tenuous sobriety, he attempted a kind of razor-wire reverence, and finally, in the winter of 1972, in his fifty-eighth year of life, he leapt from a bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis and died.
At his acceptance speech for the National Book Award some three years earlier, Berryman had claimed he’d “set up the Dream Songs as hostile to every visible tendency in both American and English poetry.” The songs are by turns joyous, horrific, lubricious, vindictive, tender, shambolic, scatological, playful, funereal, sottish, ornery, indignant, loving, sorrowful, obscure, dizzy with reference to the living and the dead, shot through with grief and despair, and ultimately immensely personal. The whole human experience finds itself on display there, a kind of “World Almanac / which I read less for what it say than for / what’s missing: the editor of the Atlantic burned, / for instance, & Christ came back.”
Although Berryman had frequently insisted that The Dream Songs—made up of 385 eighteen-line sections of three stanzas apiece—were one continuous long poem, he eventually confessed in a letter to his publisher, Robert Giroux, that someone had observed to him “that the book is not at all like just a book of poems or a poem, much less part of a poem, but is like the lifework of a poet. Something in this.” I’d say more than something. More like exactly what makes the Songs so hard to pin down, to classify. Every character and every voice presented to us—likeable or not, permissible or not, clean or unclean—is a version of Berryman himself. In Song 327 he quibbles directly with that most famous of dream interpreters, Freud: “I tell you, Sir, you have enlightened but / you have misled us: a dream is a panorama / of the whole mental life.” The songs mirror this. They’re an attempt to construct the panorama of a whole lived life—in this case, Berryman’s.
We know more about that life, now, as the past few months have seen the publication of Berryman’s Selected Letters, edited by Philip Coleman and Calista McRae, as well as a collection of profiles and interviews with the poet, Conversations with John Berryman, edited by Eric Hoffman. He was born in McAlester, Oklahoma in 1914. Though christened John Allyn Smith, named after his father, also called John Allyn Smith, he was called Billy until the age of three. The family moved around: after settling in Anadarko in the western part of the state in 1921, the Smiths decamped for Florida in 1925, where early one morning the boy’s father would allegedly shoot himself outside his young son’s window. The circumstances surrounding Smith’s death were highly ambiguous. Though he was shot in the chest, the powder burns that would’ve implied a self-inflicted wound were conspicuously absent, and there was no investigation—leaving enough uncertainty that there is some reason to suspect that the future poet’s father may have actually been murdered by his mother and her lover, a man named John Angus McAlpin Berryman. As Shakespeare scholar Anne Barton notes, the boy’s mother took “about as long over it as Gertrude in Hamlet.” She married the man barely two months after her husband’s death.
The young John Allyn and his brother Robert would take their stepfather’s last name. In an even more bizarre move, after the marriage his mother, whose given name was Martha, would take to calling herself Jill Angel; later, while her son was a young man, she apparently would insist that he introduce her to his friends as his sister rather than his mother. The name-confusion persisted at least into his mid-twenties. He signs one 1936 letter “John McAlpin Berryman,” using not only his stepfather’s last name but also his middle name; in a 1937 letter to the literary critic Cleanth Brooks he signs as “J.A.M. Berryman”; in a dispatch to New Directions publisher James Laughlin in 1938 he signs with both John Berryman and J.A.M. Berryman, one typed and one handwritten. His official biographer, John Haffenden, notes that in 1947 Berryman took to reciting “‘John Berryman’ over and over again, to perhaps as many as five hundred times.” Two years later he would respond to an editor’s request for biographical information by saying he thought “all biographical facts ought to be posthumous.”
After his father’s death the family moved to Manhattan. Berryman was sent to prep school at South Kent, where he found himself so depressed that at the age of fourteen he would write to his stepfather: “I have none of the fine qualities or emotions, and all the baser ones. I don’t understand why God permitted me to be born. I’m undesirable and a nuisance everywhere I go.” He concluded his letter with an unutterably sad postscript: “I’m a disgrace to your name.”
He attended Columbia, then shortly afterward found himself bitterly lonely on fellowship studying Shakespeare at Cambridge. When the war broke out he was declared unfit to participate, likely on account of his documented history of psychiatric treatment, and a stint teaching at Wayne University (now Wayne State) in Detroit, when he’d developed a minor form of epilepsy, likely psychosomatic. He struggled so badly to find steady work in the early forties that for a brief time he went door to door selling encyclopedias. He eventually found a temporary position at Harvard, where he taught for three years, moving to Princeton shortly after his first marriage. He would spend the better part of a decade there—and the drinking would begin. After visiting positions at Cincinnati, the University of Washington (where he filled in for the poet Theodore Roethke, who had gone in-patient) and Iowa (where he filled in for Robert Lowell, who would also soon go in-patient), from which he was dismissed after a drunken altercation with his landlord, the writer Allen Tate invited him in the fall of ’55 to come up to Minneapolis, and helped him find employment in the humanities department at the University of Minnesota. Berryman would remain there until his death.
One can glean much of this material from The Selected Letters, but for those not already familiar with Berryman’s biography, or not already enthusiastic about the poetry, the volume may well make for tough sledding. With the exceptions of his letters to his mother, wives, lovers and close friends such as Saul Bellow and the poet William Meredith, Berryman reserved most of his personality for the poems (and, if the excerpts included in his official biography are any indicator, in his diaries, which thus far remain unpublished). Far more letters painstakingly outlining the nuts and bolts of the publication of various groups of poems are included here than necessary. To the extent that more evocative correspondence exists, it seems for reasons obscure to me to have been left in the stacks. A handful of early letters to his close friend E. M. Halliday, written in the poet’s early twenties, hint at Berryman’s closeted bisexuality. (One letter finds him waiting with “ears & penis pricked.”) Only a handful of letters to Berryman’s mother—a dominating and domineering force in his life right up to his death—are included here, even though he wrote thousands to her in his lifetime. A selection of their correspondence was published in 1988, called We Dream of Honour, but the volume is out of print, which makes the choice to include so few here all the more baffling. (To sample but one bit of their correspondence quoted in the Haffenden biography: when Berryman was 45 years old she wrote to him after a particularly unsuccessful visit, saying “An unloved child is so cold, a child needs love so, until now it could not get through to me that a child might not love the warm, loving mother who loved him for himself, for what he was… … Once and forever, I recognize that you do not, can not, love your mother.” In the margin of my copy I wrote: Jesus Christ, and congratulated myself on not having such a mother!)
Only a single letter is included to Chris Haynes, the woman with whom Berryman had an affair in 1947, someone so pivotal to him that their relationship inspired a sonnet sequence of over a hundred poems, not published until 1967 as Berryman’s Sonnets. That sole letter is itself a beauty: “You asked me a silly question once, & again: why I love you. … The real reasons are like the life of the sycamore: inexplicable, immediate, some harmony and flow in one direction.” Indulging his love of hyperbole, in the same letter he told his paramour that “with independence and vitality that could save a nation, you have an elegance the most absolute I ever saw.”
When he finally published the sequence of over a hundred sonnets he’d feverishly written for her—or, more accurately, the version of her to whom he’d addressed all those lines—he’d summon her back to him one final time, adding as the penultimate sonnet a fresh fourteen lines reaching across those lost decades:
You come blonde visiting through the black air
knocking on my hinged lawn-level window
and you will come for years, above, below,
& through to interrupt my study where
I’m sweating it out like asterisks: so there,—
you are the text, my work’s broken down so
I found, after my grandmother died, slow,
and I had flown far South to her funeral spare
but crowded with relations, I found her last
letter unopened, much less answered: shame
overcame me so far I paused & cried
in my underground study, for all the past
undone & never again to walk tall, lame
at the mercy of your presence to abide.
The shame, like the ghostly vision of his lover, reaches across two decades to the basement office Berryman occupied at Princeton, where he then taught, and where he’d burned so fiercely with desire that he feared, according to Haffenden, that “his trousers and even his office reeked” of semen. He weeps for the present: for his grandmother, for those two decades “undone & never again”; at the same time he endures his lover’s ghost as a mercy. He misses both the dead and the missing dead. Though he and his former lover still live, he sees himself beginning to occupy his own posterity. This is not the grand elegiac register of The Dream Songs addressed to his departed friends and colleagues, but something simpler, sadder—the irrevocable and irretrievable past.
And yet no one else could write in that grand register so well as him, evoking Shakespeare as he does in Dream Song 146: “These lovely motions of the air, the breeze, / tell me I’m not in hell, though round me the dead / lie in their limp postures / dramatizing the dreadful word instead / for lively Henry, fit for debaucheries.” And in the next song: “Nothing was true but what Marcus Aurelius taught, / ‘All that is foul smell & blood in a bag.’”
For both the sins of his life and of his work Berryman makes an easy target in today’s cultural climate. Or at least seems to. The novelist Rick Moody, who as recently as 2014 had characterized The Dream Songs as “vital, and human, and genuine, and discomfiting, and inexhaustible,” recently described the assignment to review The Selected Letters for the Poetry Foundation’s website as “stomach churning.” Claiming he has been “conscripted” into writing it, he opens with a tortured apology for writing at all about Berryman—pausing to list the poet’s multifarious sins—when the space in the magazine could instead be used to “review a new volume by an African American poet.” Moody eventually justifies his review by making reference to Berryman’s sensitive depictions of addiction and mental illness, the implication being that this aspect alone renders the work redeemable.
It’s that “sometimes in blackface”—Berryman’s frequent recourse to an exaggerated Black vernacular in The Dream Songs—that has proved particularly difficult for some critics and readers to stomach today. Writing recently in the New York Review of Books, Kamran Javadizadeh argues that Berryman’s use of this dialect in his magnum opus “tethered his greatest poem to the ground of whiteness,” a choice he suspects will forever dictate the terms of its appeal for future (and present) generations. “Dreaming as a white man in blackface held out a mirage of timelessness,” Javadizadeh writes. “It seemed to offer Berryman the ability to hold together a self that threatened to fall apart, to address himself, from an apparent position of coherence and stability, to a past by which he had been wounded and to a future that he meant to haunt.”
Javadizadeh is a careful and sympathetic critic: he acknowledges that The Dream Songs can still deliver the “prickly thrill … of receiving, unsolicited and without explanation, a casual friend’s dreams in the mail.” Still, I am unconvinced by the idea that Berryman used blackface for its so-called timelessness, or that anything in The Dream Songs aspires to a “position of coherence.” Though his poems are more accessible than they’re generally given credit for, clarity and coherence appear far from Berryman’s aim. “These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand. / They are only meant to terrify & comfort.” Not an intellectual exercise: “the wound talks to you.” The songs are the continual performance of a person coming apart—and all the comedy and tragedy that entails. In a letter to the poet Richard Wilbur, written in 1957, two years after Berryman had begun writing the songs, he described the project as “a slaughterhouse of grief.”
Perhaps Berryman’s best apology to his future critics can be seen in the 1962 letter that gave his reason for being unable to find any poems to send to the New York Times: “my poems such as they are are all the work of an actual human being.” An actual human being, then—and one locked in an emotional abattoir equipped with a stage. He writes of “the knowledge that they will take off your hands, / both hands; as well as your both feet, & likewise / both eyes.” In a separate poem he describes “his old phantasy, / of having his left leg sawed off / at the knee, without anesthetic,” and in another song grimly declares that “One day when I take my sock / off the skin will come with it.”
If there is coherence here, it’s the coherence of madness, that necessary tincture of sanity that allows Berryman’s wild gestures to appear under the guise of legibility. The only stability afforded by The Dream Songs is the consistent uneasiness of an extended nightmare, the kind one wakes from gasping only to fall right back into, greeted with the startling image of a “single man / upon the trampled scene at 2 a.m. / insomnia-plagued, with a shovel / digging like mad, Lazarus with a plan / to get his own back.” Disinterment, disarray, exhumation: “I miss him,” he writes in Dream Song 111: “When I get back to camp / I’ll dig him up.”
In the nightmarish illogic of the songs, celebrating all the violent pleasures and delicious terrors of the flesh, the darkness only abates long enough for a burst of silliness, as in Dream Song 75, when he imagines the first appearance of the songs in the world:
Turning it over, considering, like a madman
Henry put forth a book.
No harm resulted from this.
Neither the menstruating stars (nor man) was moved
Bare dogs drew closer for a second look
and performed their friendly operations there.
Refreshed, the bark rejoiced.
Seasons went and came.
Leaves fell, but only a few.
Something remarkable about this
unshedding bulky bole-proud blue-green moist
thing made by savage & thoughtful
began to strike at the passers from despair
so that sore on their shoulders old men hoisted
six-foot sons and polished women called
small girls to dream awhile toward the flashing & bursting
Like a bad dream which I feared contained some awful portent of my own future—the destruction of my only received certainties—I kept him close to me for most of a decade. I’d grown up in a hothouse milieu of fundamentalist evangelicalism that embraced a nightmarish view of the world; what most moved me when I first read him, and still moves me now, was ultimately Berryman’s quarrel with that first destroyer of human life, the Creator Himself:
Why did we come at all,
consonant to whose bidding? Perhaps God is a slob,
playful, vast, rough-hewn.
Perhaps God resembles one of the last etchings of Goya
& not Valesquez, never Rembrandt no.
ill-pleased, & with a touch of paranoia
who calls for this thud of love from his creatures-O.
Perhaps God ought to be curbed.
Those etchings of Goya’s are some of the most nightmarish pictures in the whole history of art. I’m tempted to think that Berryman might not have simply imagined God as resembling them, but also Henry—and therefore himself—as doing so. If anyone were to paint Berryman’s portrait, it should have been Goya, with those garish, harsh angles: a giant stuffing a child into its mouth, a winged monster reading a book, a man hoisting an ax over his father’s grave, as Henry does in the penultimate song, where “The marker slants, flowerless, day’s almost done,” asking himself
When will indifference come, I moan & rave
I’d like to scrabble till I got right down
away down under the grass
and ax the casket open ha to see
just how he’s taking it, which he sought so hard
we’ll tear apart
the mouldering grave clothes ha & then Henry
will heft the ax once more, his final card,
and fell it on the start.
A final exhumation—but that desired indifference never seemed to come. The madness lingered, abetted and returned again. His madness, like his drunkenness, had undermined his health and destroyed his life. On the other it had animated and energized him.
He drank and wrote and drank and wrote his way into something like twenty separate hospital stays, tried rehab twice, went to AA, became, for a second time, a Catholic. Having been an altar boy in Oklahoma, he attended mass regularly for most of the last year of his life. In that year a new crop of projects tried to burst out of him: a novel, later published as Recovery; a finally finished study of Shakespeare, which he’d worked on off and on for more than two and a half decades; a simple “Life of Christ” for the use of his daughter, Martha, then aged eight; and then, perhaps, a new long poem in blank verse, written for his children. In the euphoria of sobriety, so very like the euphoria of his two-decades-long drunkenness, he declared himself in possession of no less than five separate book-length projects. Aside from a last collection of lyric poems, nothing he could finish. The lights would darken again, as they always had for him, and that darkness would be deeper, without his chosen anesthetic, than any he’d known before. In his last poetic sequence “Opus Dei,” he addressed himself directly to God: “I’m not a good man, I won’t ever be, / there’s no health in here. You expect too much.”
For most of the final month of 1971 he fought off thoughts of suicide. In December he bought a bottle of whiskey, drank it, and afterward decided that it—his delicious life—was over. Horror and shame filled him. Three years earlier, in June 1968, he’d written a Dream Song that lay unpublished until after his death, for his last wife, Kate:
Who coined despair? I hope you never hear,
my lovely dear, of any such goddamned thing.
Set it up on a post
and ax the post down while the angels sing,
& bury the stenchful body loud & clear
with an appropriate toast.
Who made you up? That was a thin disguise:
the soul shows through. You are my honey dear.
Come, come & live with me.
I can deal with everything but your eyes
in tears—tears I invented & put there,
during our mystery.
He wanted to ax down despair for her, but he could never for any lasting time do it for himself. But God knows, if anyone knows, he tried, and he transmuted that attempt into one of the most generous and powerful works of poetry to be written in our language.
In one of the most famous songs, no. 76, he declared that “life is a handkerchief sandwich.” Ten songs later, in one of the many that find Henry on trial, he claims that “Henry lies clear as any onion-peel / in any sandwich, say. // He spiced us: there, my lord, the wicked fault / lodges…” It is indeed a strange taste he leaves in our mouths. We who no longer believe in sin may have trouble swallowing the handkerchief sandwich he once claimed life was made of. Most of us no longer use handkerchiefs at all, perhaps because they end up absorbing too much snot and too many tears. If Berryman made one thing clear, it’s that of such stuff the songs of dreams are made.