The Heart Is Strange

John Berryman turns 100.
By Daniel Swift

John Berryman saw birthdays as imaginative opportunities. Lecturing at Princeton in March 1951, he pictured Shakespeare on his 30th birthday. “Suppose with me a time, a place, a man who was waked, risen, washed, dressed, fed, congratulated, on a day in latter April long ago,” he began, “about April 22, say, of 1594, a Monday.” A birthday is a chance to greet across time: to hail a predecessor. In a late poem, Berryman addressed Emily Dickinson. It is December 10, 1970, and in “Your Birthday in Wisconsin You Are 140” he raises his glass to her. “Well. Thursday afternoon, I’m in W——,” he writes, “drinking your ditties, and (dear) they are alive.” A birthday is a moment of invention. The climax of his long poem “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” is a violent, beautiful childbirth. “No. No. Yes! everything down / hardens I press with horrible joy down,” shouts Anne. “I did it with my body!” Close to the end of The Dream Songs, the cycle for which Berryman is best known, he writes: “Tomorrow is his birthday, makes you think.” John Berryman was born in McAlester, Oklahoma, on October 25, 1914, and this year marks his centenary.

Bringing a man to life: this was his imaginative project. On March 12, 1969, collecting a prize at the National Book Awards, Berryman explained that his aim in The Dream Songs was “the reproduction or invention of the motions of a human personality, free and determined.” These poems describe a sad man called Henry. “So may be Henry was a human being,” he writes in Dream Song 13:

Let’s investigate that.
. . . We did; okay.
He is a human American man.

Berryman has not been canonized, quite; he has not continued to receive the respect, even awe, accorded to his great contemporaries Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. This may be because he appears a little less serious than them. He is certainly funnier than they are, constantly mirthful about the process of critical celebration and literary canonization. “[L]iterature bores me, especially great literature,” complains “Dream Song 14.” “Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes / as bad as achilles,” it continues, and the joke is only half that Henry is no Achilles. It is also in the mismatch of classical literature and teenage ennui, balanced by the voice.

Berryman has, however, found a curious afterlife in the early decades of the 21st century. He appears unexpectedly and often in songs by indie rock bands. In “Mama, Won’t You Keep Them Castles in the Air and Burning?” by the band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, the singer intones joylessly, “I came softly, slowly / Banging me metal drum / Like Berryman.” The Australian singer Nick Cave named one of his albums Henry’s Dream (1992), and in the song “We Call Upon the Author” from 2008 he returns to Berryman. “Berryman was best!” he yelps. “He wrote like wet papier-mâché, went the Heming-way.”

Outside the confines of his own published works, Berryman’s words and image have moved into popular American myth, blended with the Faustian backstory of the blues—a singer who trades with the devil—and the old notion of the artist as troubled outsider. Like the Dream Songs, these indie rock bands are supposing a man, someone halfway between the invented and the real.

Reading Berryman involves a little time travel, and this is the magic trick of deeply sympathetic literature: to exist in one instant both in the past and present, in two places at once. Berryman’s sonnets trace the story of a love affair, and one of them describes an evening when Berryman and his lover are far from each other. They have agreed to each separately at six o’clock go to a bar. “I lift—lift you five States away your glass,” he explains, and although she has never been to this bar—“Wide of this bar you never graced”—and although there are other, ugly sounds and interruptions—“wet strange cars pass” and “The spruce barkeep sports a toupee alas”—they are for this moment with each other. “Grey eyes light! and we have our drink together,” it ends.

Written before an age of cell phones, this event seems oddly archaic, sweet and old-fashioned. It is also magical, in its faith in will over circumstance, and it is what we do—in miniature—when we read. Berryman invites us to drink with him. In reading his poems, we clink glasses across the decades.

Berryman liked language that is particular to place. When he arrived in England in 1936 he immediately wrote home to explain the local currency: “Sixpence is a tanner, the shilling a bob, the pound a quid.” He was on his way to Cambridge University, where he had been awarded a fellowship and where he dressed in tweed suits and changed his voice. He was 21. “I suppose it is correct to say that I prefer their accent to the ‘American’ accent,” he wrote. For the rest of his life he followed English spelling both in private letters and in his published work. W. S. Merwin was a student of Berryman’s at the University of Iowa in 1946, and he recalled his teacher’s voice: “[H]e snapped down his nose with an accent / I think he had affected in England.”

Just as his voice was a copy, so too were his habits. In March 1937 Dylan Thomas visited Cambridge, and Berryman took up heavy drinking in imitation of the great Welsh alcoholic. In the summer of 1941 he was courting his wife-to-be in New York City, and one night they tried to find a restaurant for dinner. “How much easier it would be if we were abroad,” he told her. “Now, if we were in Paris, we could go to La Coupole.” He was imagining them as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, or himself as Hemingway, figures of another generation.

Reading Berryman’s early poetry is like playing a guessing game: who does he sound like now? He is Thomas here, and then he is Yeats; here he is Auden and here he is Eliot. His titles echo others; he is borrowing his syntax and vocabulary; he is a young man, taking what is good, trying out what works. It is by walking through this funhouse of mirrors and influence that he became himself, for across his career and culminating in The Dream Songs, Berryman will turn mimicry to his advantage and invent a poetics that is also an echo chamber. He will find a voice that is recognizably his own—perhaps the most distinctive voice of 20th-century American poetry—but he will find it in the voices of others. As he wrote in an early poem: The heartbreak is familiar but the heart is strange.

It is conventional to describe Berryman as “confessional”: as one of a group of American poets of the 1950s and 1960s, including also Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, for whom the use of personal material was a special and distinguishing mark. The tenacity of the term “confessional” lies partly in a way of reading: we feel that the real biographical experience gives the poem weight, and yet this is also, of course, a deliberate literary effect. Particularly in Berryman, there is a careful balance of new freedom and old rules. That which is hidden is set against that which is displayed, as if each poem were half a secret.

Berryman was highly sensitive to form. In 1932, William Carlos Williams instructed his generation:

Don’t write sonnets. The line is dead, unsuited to the language. Everything that can ever be said from now until doomsday in the sonnet form has been better said in twelfth-century Italian.

Berryman’s career might be understood as a rebuke to this. In 1934, he wrote his first surviving poems: four Shakespearean sonnets, to celebrate his mother’s 40th birthday. The following year he tried to seduce a Barnard student by writing sonnets for her, and when in February 1947 he began an affair with a married woman he met in Princeton, he turned again to this form. “I wanted a familiar form in which to put the new,” he wrote in his journal. “Clearly a sonnet sequence. And this gave me also a wonderful to me sense of continuity with lovers dead.”

Her name was Chris. The poems insist upon this: they are little boasts. He describes her blond hair and her clothes, her naked body as she sleeps. “You, Chris, contrite I never thought to see,” begins one: “Whom nothing fazes, no crisecan disconcert, / Who calm cross crises all year.” He lists the days upon which they met—July 3, July 4—and he wishes to invent a new poetic language to express their specific love.

I prod our English: cough me up a word,
Slip me an epithet will justify
My darling fondle

Yet perhaps the problem is precisely that these sonnets have what Berryman called “a sense of continuity.” Like the emotions, these poems are deeply referential: Berryman mentions or alludes to Marlowe, Petrarch, Wyatt, Sidney, Hölderlin, Donne, the canon of love poets. They suffer the sadness of comparison. “Could our incredible marriage . . . like all others’ . . . ?” trails off one of the sonnets, as if understanding that this is only one more love affair in a historical sequence of lovers and their sonnets, of passions bound by time. The poems are aware of the world around them. Both lovers were married to other people, and while Berryman considered submitting a few of the poems to magazines under the pseudonym Alan Fury, he withheld them from publication.

Twenty years later, after he had found success—77 Dream Songs was published in 1964 and won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry—he returned to these sonnets and edited them for publication. He replaced the repeated name “Chris” with the almost rhyming “Lise,” presumably to disguise his lover’s identity, but what is most odd about this—and what reveals most about Berryman’s deep ambivalence toward the question of confession—is that having begun to erase the traces of her identity, he only went halfway. He changed her name but not the elaborate system of puns and echoes built upon that name. The eighteenth sonnet, for example, now addresses “You, Lise, contrite I never thought to see, / Whom nothing fazes, no crise can disconcert.” He retains sonnet 87, which is an acrostic: the first letter of each line spells out “I CHRIS AND I JOHN.” This is a halfhearted discretion, as if he wanted to be caught. This is the poetic equivalent of the married man who leaves his lover’s lipstick on his collar.

How does the poet stand in relation to his subject? What does he owe, and what is his duty? These are the questions behind confessional poetry, and they are the questions that Berryman is working out. In late March 1948 Berryman wrote the first two stanzas of a new, long poem. It opens as the poet directly addresses his subject:

The Governor your husband lived so long
moved you not, restless, waiting for him?

Anne Bradstreet is sometimes described as the first American poet. She arrived in New England in 1630 and her first volume of verse was published in 1650. Berryman calls to her across the centuries.

                                     Out of maize & air
your body’s made, and moves. I summon, see,
from the centuries it.
I think you won’t stay

He fears, but she comes to him. In the fifth stanza, her voice begins to take over. “By the week we landed we were, most, used up,” she recounts, and tells him of her life, her early days in the New World, the first winters, and—in a rightly celebrated passage—the birth of her first child:

One proud tug greens Heaven. Marvellous,
unforbidding Majesty.
Swell, imperious bells. I fly.

“Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” remains a startlingly bold poem, even today. It jumbles time, wrong-footing the reader with its inverted syntax and strange ellipses. Anne Bradstreet sees the ship on which they came to the New World rotting:

The Lady Arbella dying—
dyings—at which my heart     rose, but I did submit.

History is overwhelming the present here. She asks him, “Sing a concord of our thought,” and Berryman replies: “I am drowning in this past.” He goes on to describe a strange vision, a nightmare of guilt:

I trundle the bodies, on the iron bars,
over that fire backward & forth; they burn;
bits fall. I wonder if
I killed them.

She replies: “Dreams! You are good.”

The first of the Dream Songs begins:

Huffy Henry hid     the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point,—a trying to put things over.

The pieces come from elsewhere, but their density is new. A slang expression and a strange name; two characters, at least one of which is mysterious; meter jumping between iambs and trochees, and a fluid, unusual syntax. The gap in the first line appears to convert an intransitive into a transitive verb, although of course it doesn’t; rather, it only thwarts our expectation of reliable, decipherable grammar. What is Henry hiding? Or where? Perhaps he’s hiding (something) inside that space in the line. We move from past to present tense, and by the second half of the third line the pronouns have dissolved.

In October 1954, Berryman moved to Minneapolis, to an apartment near a lake, and in the winter when it froze he liked to walk out on the ice. He began to keep a journal of his dreams. By the summer, he had 650 pages of dream analysis. In June 1955, he signed a contract for two books with Farrar, Straus & Cudahy. The first was Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, which was published in October 1956; the second was a biography of Shakespeare. Berryman never finished this book. Instead, he began writing what he called from the start “dream songs,” which he did almost exclusively for the next 15 years, at the rate of sometimes two a day. They are startling poems, rich and strange, and their power comes from their mix of allusion and invention.
Writing in The Harvard Advocate in the spring of 1969, Adrienne Rich declared, “A new language is evolving in the heads of some Americans who use English.” Where other countries have “the security of a native tongue, of a Dictionary,” Americans must improvise their own language out of the basic elements of another. Only two men, Rich concludes, understand exactly what this language is: Bob Dylan and John Berryman. Both changed their names; both found long-worked-for success in 1965, which was the year that Dylan famously went electric and that Berryman won a Pulitzer for 77 Dream Songs. Both created by theft, by allusion and borrowing, and both wrote songs.

In Cambridge in 1936, Berryman was carefully listening to voices. He was surrounded by English voices, which he sometimes found hard to follow. “The rhythms of speech are very different,” he wrote to his mother not long after he had arrived: “Unless I attend very closely, I sometimes fail to understand several sentences at a time.” He was also paying new attention to the few American accents he heard. They were unusual, like rare flowers, and distance may make the familiar strange. He was reading, he went on, H. L. Mencken’s book The American Language; the fourth edition had just been published, and he described it as “really an extraordinary job, and a very good thing to be reading when I hear the island varieties of English so continually.” What he hears his Cambridge classmates speaking is not proper English, that is, but one dialect of it: one of the “island varieties.” This is in miniature the argument of Mencken’s combative and sprawling book, which defines the American language by its impatience with the rules of grammar, its fondness for neologism, and—as it is commonly spoken—a huge confusion of verbal tenses and syntactical habits.

“The chief grammatical peculiarities of vulgar American lie . . . among the verbs and pronouns,” Mencken summarizes, and notes the common habits of misusing superlatives, exchanging adjectives for adverbs, and failing to find agreement between verbs and their subject. Pronouns tell us who is speaking and what is spoken of; verbs clarify the actions taking place; in that first Dream Song we are told “What he has now to say is a long / wonder the world can bear & be.” The sense is clear but the grammar is not. Berryman, who spoke with an English accent, wrote The Dream Songs in American.

The Dream Songs blur tenses, places, and people; they are not smooth. “A shallow lake, with many waterbirds,” begins “Dream Song 101,” and beneath the line is the footstep of iambic pentameter, Shakespeare’s meter; the rest of the poem does not conform to this, but it is established here at the start and then recalled, like a ghost, throughout. We are at a lake; it is unusual for a Dream Song to begin with such a simple setting and soon it takes back even this. “I was showing Mother around, / An extraordinary vivid dream,” it goes on, and the line break switches the meaning. The speaker was showing his mother around the lake in his dream; the speaker was showing his dream to his mother.

In the fourth line three more characters appear: “Betty & Douglas, and Don.” “He showed me around,” adds the speaker in an attempt at clarification, but now we are in a tangle of dreams and characters. A policeman arrives: “I askt if he ever saw / the inmates.” There was some trouble—“Don was late home”—but the poem refuses to explain. “I can’t go into the meaning of the dream,” the speaker says, “except to say a sense of total Loss / afflicted me thereof,” and we are back in a loose iambic pentameter. The poem’s informality of subject and association dances against a hard poetic formality. Berryman was—we sometimes forget—a great Shakespeare scholar, and even as The Dream Songs are deeply American they always remember traditional English prosody and patterns of sound and image that might be lifted straight from the late plays of Shakespeare. They are, perhaps, best understood as a simple but unlikely mix: Shakespearean American.

In the end, John Berryman did two things, and in so doing he summarized two great themes of his life’s work. First, he looked back. Love & Fame (1970) and Delusions, Etc. (1972) set out a verse autobiography, as Berryman ranges over his time and his memories of what had made him.

I fell in love with a girl.
O and a gash.
I’ll bet she now has seven lousy children.
(I’ve three myself, one being off the record.)

So begins Love & Fame, and the poems here are in loose quatrains, sometimes casually rhymed, informal and powerful. They consider Berryman’s young romantic and sexual entanglements, and his longing to be a poet. This collection displays what Berryman calls in that same poem “a sense of humour / fatal to bardic pretension.” He acknowledges his youthful absurdity. In another poem he recalls of his earliest poetry: “I wrote mostly about death.” Blessed by wryness, the older man looks back, with affection, upon who he once was.

What is perhaps most striking about these late poems is that he is writing the voice of his earlier self even while that younger self is—as an apprentice Great Poet—trying to work out what his voice is going to sound like. It is a switchback trick of sympathetic recall and a careful balancing act.

It might be tempting to read these late poems as the moment Berryman at last became a confessional poet. He narrates his studies in Cambridge and return to the United States. He finds success, has affairs and a first breakdown. He is increasingly explicit, about both sex and his life; he includes his home address in Minneapolis in one poem. But he warns: “I am not writing an autobiography-in-verse, my friends,” and we may see these poems in two slightly different contexts. Berryman was first admitted to the hospital for alcoholism in 1959, and for the rest of his life he was regularly in treatment. In 1970 he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Their Twelve Steps of recovery insist upon self-evaluation. These are also exercises for a writer: during 1971, as he was writing these last poems, Berryman was simultaneously at work on a novel—about a man undergoing treatment for alcoholism—called Recovery. The novel, while unfinished, is structured upon the steps of treatment.

He was not thinking only of the shape of his own life, however. In his late poems Berryman turned to writing the lives of others: poets and artists, historical figures he admired. Delusions, Etc. includes a memorial poem for Dylan Thomas and the birthday song for Emily Dickinson; he wrote a biographical sketch of George Washington in seven fragments and a cycle of mostly quatrains in which he addresses Beethoven. He describes Beethoven’s famous late style: “Straightforward staves, dark bars, / late motions toward the illegible.” In these last works—his own late style—Berryman is again experimenting with how to plot a life in poetry.

Second, he embraced the end. His last two collections each include a cycle of devotional verse: “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” and the moving “Opus Dei,” which is composed of nine poems following the order of Latin liturgical hours. Like all devotional verse—and Berryman here sounds at times like George Herbert, perhaps the greatest devotional poet of all—these poems contemplate the limits of the self, and human life. Like recovery, devotion is the art of imagining what might come next, outside this known world.

The drama and the tension—the beauty—of these late poems is that of a man torn between the fascinations of the self and the chance of a greater order. He is never wholly convinced. He is at best a “pseudomonk,” as he calls himself in “Terce,” but the cycle of prayers enacts a drama of submission. This is not easy. It ends: “This fireless house / lies down at Your disposal as usual! Amen!”

On the morning of Friday, January 7, 1972, Berryman took the bus from his home to the university, but instead of going to his office he walked onto the Washington Avenue Bridge. He climbed over the railing, and then—according to one witness—waved goodbye before jumping. His body landed on the embankment of the west side of the Mississippi River. This great poet of shifting personalities could only be identified by the blank check in his pocket, and his glasses, which had his name on the frame.

There is a strong temptation to read Berryman’s life as tragic, to see in it a parable of art and suffering. His biographers and critics find it hard to resist this precisely because Berryman himself leads them to it. In 1955, he wrote a fragmentary memoir of his school days, and he called it “It Hurts to Learn Anything”; throughout his life he repeatedly expressed his belief in a kind of equation of suffering and creativity. In 1965, when asked by a newspaper interviewer about the elements of good poetry, he replied, “Imagination, love, intellect—and pain. Yes, you’ve got to know pain.”

I don’t want to leave him like this, however, as a poet of retrospect and endings, as an artist of the grave. This misses something his writing life powerfully was: a joy of voices, antic and alive. There is the tragic urge, but there is also its counter: the pull toward life. In a very late Dream Song—written, according to his biographer Paul Mariani, in 1969, after the publication of His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, which completes the Dream Songs—Berryman considered this divided sense:

A human personality, that’s impossible.
The lines of nature & of will, that’s impossible.
I give the whole thing up.

His larger project, across his life, was the attempt to capture in verse “a human personality,” and the challenge remained daunting. But then he turns before the poem finishes:

Only there resides a living voice
which if we can make we make it out of choice
not giving the whole thing up.

Happy one hundredth birthday, JB.

Excerpted from The Heart Is Strange: New Selected Poems by John Berryman. Published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2014 by Kathleen Berryman Donahue. Introduction and selection copyright by Daniel Swift. All rights reserved.
Originally Published: October 22nd, 2014

Daniel Swift is the author of Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot’s War and Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age. He teaches at the New College of the Humanities in London.

  1. October 23, 2014
     Michael R. Jones

    To add to Berryman references in rock, see "Stuck Between
    Stations" by Minneapolis band The Hold Steady. There are
    numerous references to the poet therein. (The band,
    elsewhere, also references Yeats and Blake, not to
    mention Nelson Algren, Graham Greene and Joan Didion.

  2. October 26, 2014
     Amish Trivedi

    Dr. Swift, et. al.:

    In response to the point about Berryman that "the real
    biographical experience gives the poem weight," I just
    wanted to mention that the University of Minnesota,
    who have Berryman's papers, are missing diaries from
    1947 to 1956. By "missing" I mean that, by request of
    his wife during this period of time, they were given
    over to her and, despite her passing in the last few
    years, have not been returned. While we have
    biographical data from this period, what we're missing
    in the biographies of Berryman are HIS words outside
    of his own work. Where the primary source might have
    illuminated this work, we as outsiders are without it.
    Kind of fascinating to me.