A scholar and professor as well as a poet, John Berryman graduated from Columbia in 1936, then went to study at Cambridge University for two years on a scholarship. Early on he wrote a critical biography of the American writer Stephen Crane, and first achieved national attention for Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956), a dense, brilliant book-length dialogue with the seventeenth century poet Anne Bradstreet. Berryman taught at Harvard and Princeton, among other places, finally taking a position at the University of Minnesota, where he remained until his death. He was a major figure in American poetry in the second half of the 20th century and was considered a key figure in the Confessional school of poetry. He taught many well-known future poets , one of whom (Philip Levine) characterized him as brilliant, mesmerizing, difficult, and demanding, but the best teacher he ever had.
But it is The Dream Songs that made him famous and on which his literary reputation will rest. The book is listed on the American Academy of Poets website as one of their Groundbreaking Books of the 20th Century, and was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. There are 385 of them, composed in a form consisting of three stanzas divided into six lines per stanza, in free verse with irregular rhyme schemes. The songs are all numbered but some of them also have individual titles. The poems teem with allusions to past and present events (capturing the Fifties and Sixties decades very well) and to literary figures, many of which are elegies for Berryman’s recently deceased poet friends, including Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, and Theodore Roethke. It is a veritable literary Spoon River Anthology with its many paeans to the great writers throughout history he felt connected to.
Its main protagonist is named Henry, a white American in early middle age who sometimes makes up in blackface as a minstrel. An unnamed friend who speaks in several of the poems calls him “Mr. Bones” and he then often refers to himself as that in future poems. Although Berryman insists Henry is not him, the dream songs portray many experiences of his life, like his troubles with women and his obsession with death and suicide, mainly his father’s suicide. He compares Henry to Tolstoy’s treatment of Anna Karenina, in that, as Tolstoy did with his heroine, Berryman took Henry further than any normal life could take us.
The best summation of these poems I’ve read is by Kevin Young, an African-American poet who edited The Selected Poems for the Library of America edition who states in his introduction to that volume “The voice shifts from high to low, from archaic language to slang, slant rhyme to full, attempting to render something of jazz or, more accurately, the blues—devil’s music. What emerges and succeeds is something of a sonnet plus some—a devil’s sonnet, say (the three sixes stanzas too obvious to be ignored). Berryman’s heresy is against the polite modernism that preceded him. That the poem can let in all sorts of Americanisms—… and not as signs of culture’s decay, but of its American vitality, is fearless and liberating.”
Among my favorite ones are Numbers 1, 4, 14, 28, 29, 40, 145, 149, 155, 187, 206, 224, 265, 301, 312, 324, & 347 – so many good ones I’d like to quote them in full but I’ll let you discover them on your own. The frankness of Berryman’s work influenced his friend Robert Lowell and other Confessional poets like Anne Sexton. Despite the grim subject matter of some they are often hilarious, but can also bring you to tears. Some of it is tough going and its not for the faint-hearted, but the improvident beauty studding every poem is well worth the effort.