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John Berryman was born John Smith in McAlester, Oklahoma, on October 25, 1914. He received an undergraduate degree from Columbia College in 1936 and attended Cambridge University on a fellowship. He taught at Wayne State University in Detroit and went on to occupy posts at Harvard and Princeton. From 1955 until his death in 1972, he was a professor at the University of Minnesota.
Berryman’s early work was published in a volume entitled Five Young American Poets (New Directions, 1940) and reflects the influences of Irish and British poets W. H. Auden, Gerard Manley Hopkins, W. B. Yeats, and Americans Hart Crane and Ezra Pound. Tremendously erudite and a brilliant teacher, Berryman, in his early work Poems (New Directions, 1942) and The Dispossessed (W. Sloane Associates, 1948), displayed great technical control in poems that remained firmly rooted in the conventions of his time.
It was not until the publication of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (Noonday Press) in 1956, when Berryman was already in his forties, that he won widespread recognition and acclaim as a boldly original and innovative poet. Nevertheless, no one was prepared for the innovation that would follow, a collection that would seal Berryman’s reputation as an essential American original: 77 Dream Songs (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which was published in 1964 and awarded a Pulitzer Prize, unveiled the unforgettable and irrepressible alter egos “Henry” and “Mr. Bones” in a sequence of sonnet-like poems. Their wrenched syntax, scrambled diction, extraordinary leaps of language and tone, and wild mixture of high lyricism and low comedy plumbed the extreme reaches of a human soul and psyche. In succeeding years, Berryman added to the sequence until there were nearly four hundred collected in The Dream Songs (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969).
Berryman, who never recovered from the childhood shock of his father’s suicide, was prone to emotional instability and heavy drinking throughout his life. On January 7, 1972, he died by jumping off a bridge in Minneapolis.
John Berryman was elected a Fellow of the Academy of American Poets in 1966 and served as a Chancellor from 1968 until his death.