John Berryman (1914-1972) was born John Smith Jnr. in rural Oklahoma, the product of an unhappy marriage between a small-town banker and schoolteacher. When he was eight, Berryman suffered the defining trauma of his life when his father killed himself with a shotgun only yards from his son’s bedroom window. His mother remarried the family’s landlord only a few months later and the boy adopted his stepfather’s surname. They moved to New York where Berryman received a good education, graduating from Colombia University in 1936 and winning a scholarship to Cambridge Unviersity for two years. Returning to the States, Berryman took posts as a college lecturer, including a stint at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop where his classes became legendary for their combination of insight and toughness. By this time, Berryman’s chaotic adult personality was established: fuelled by an alcoholism he was never able to conquer, he could be by turns, witty, brilliant, unpredictable and offensive. After a fracas with another teacher, Berryman left Iowa and was offered tenure at the University of Minnesota through the influence of his friend, mentor and fellow poet Allen Tate. It was during this period of stability, offered at least by his professional life, that Berryman conceived and wrote most of his magnum opus, The Dream Songs.

There are flashes of inventiveness in his earlier work, particularly in his 1956 collection, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, but nothing quite prepares you for The Dream Songs with their extraordinary mixture of narrative voices, disorientating syntax and dazzling linguistic accomplishment. The first 77 appeared in 1964 and were awarded the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, but Berryman continued to add to them until they numbered 385 at the time of his death. His poetic career has been described by one critic as “a ventriloquist’s search for an appropriate dummy” and certainly an interrogation of voice is at the heart of The Dream Songs‘ restless energy. They concern a character called ‘Henry’ who sometimes speaks in the first person but is also often spoken about, in particular by a friend who calls him ‘Mr Bones’. In this combination of different perspectives, and high lyrical style with low comedy, Berryman fractures the lyric ‘I’: there is no single first person perspective with whom the reader can identify. That the extravagance of The Dream Songs doesn’t collapse into chaos is due to Berryman’s technical mastery, both of tone and, in particular, form: each poem has a sonnet-like structure with three stanzas of six rhymed lines each. The Dream Songs were interpreted by many as autobiographical and Berryman was seen as a ‘confessional’ poet alongside others of his generation such as Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. Berryman hated the label and vehemently denied that Henry is himself in disguise. Whether he identified with him or not, Berryman created in Henry, with his rants, laments and piercingly acute observations, one of the most memorable characters in 20th Century literature and, paradoxically, established a unique poetic voice for himself. The Dream Songs made Berryman famous but subsequent collections were less well received and this, together with Berryman’s heavy drinking, contributed to profound depression. Berryman ended his life on a cold January morning in 1972 when he waved at onlookers and then threw himself from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minnesota.

Berryman’s Archive recordings capture him at the height of his creative powers, when The Dream Songs were an unpublished work in progress. It’s fascinating to hear Berryman, even as early as 1963, already distancing himself from the material. Both of the featured poems show Berryman’s ability to shift perspective and tone several times within the space of a single poem: consider for example how many different people are speaking in the famous opening poem of the sequence ‘Huffy Henry’, or look at the contrasting lyricism and colloquialism of ‘The greens of the Ganges delta’. An initial encounter with The Dream Songs can feel bewildering but they have a cumulative power. As Berryman said in the 366th poem of the sequence: “These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand,/They are only meant to terrify & comfort.”

Recordings used by permission of the BBC.

Poems by John Berryman

Huffy Henry - John Berryman
The greens of the Ganges delta - John Berryman

Books by John Berryman