John Berryman and Robert Lowell at the Guggenheim Museum, Halloween 1963.
In celebration of American Archives Month, we continue to share literary ephemera from our archive that document the story of American poetry.
Though American Archives Month is winding down to a close, bringing with it the start of Halloween fun and festivities, we remember another Halloween, back in 1963, when John Berryman and Robert Lowell read at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. This unforgettable reading was the first public presentation and recording of Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs, which would be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux the following year and earn Berryman the Pulitzer Prize.
Known for its unusual syntax, diversity of voices, and mix of high and low diction, The Dream Songs presents the alternately tragic and comic character of Henry Pussycat, who Berryman described as “a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr. Bones and variants thereof.” Lowell would call the collection "spooky" and "a maddening work of genius"—a perfect match for a Halloween night.
Though Halloween invites a celebration of monsters and ghouls and things that go bump in the night, Berryman dealt with his own personal variety of demons and ghosts—the suicide of his father, alcoholism, mental instability—until he took his own life in 1972. Still, the haunting songs of Henry and Mr. Bones remain as part of Berryman's legacy. Relive Berryman’s Halloween reading with audio from the event, and find out more about Berryman below.