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John Berryman


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.

His early work was published in a volume entitled Five Young American Poets in 1940 and reflects the influences of the Irish and British poets W. B. Yeats, W. H. Auden, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the 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 the time.

It was not until the publication of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (Noonday Press) in 1956, when he 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 irreppressible alter egos "Henry" and "Mr. Bones" in a sequence of sonnet-like poems whose 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 as The Dream Songs (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969).

But the psyche that had been plumbed could not bear the strain; Berryman, who never recovered from the childhood shock of his father's suicide, was prone to emotional instability and heavy drinking throughout his life. Tragically, 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.

Selected Bibliography


Collected Poems 1937-1971 (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989)
Henry’s Fate and Other Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977)
Delusions, Etc. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972)
Selected Poems, 1938-1968 (Faber and Faber, 1972)
Love & Fame (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970)
The Dream Songs (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969)
His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968)
Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and Other Poems (Noonday Press, 1968)
Berryman’s Sonnets (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1967)
Short Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967)
77 Dream Songs (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1964)
His Thoughts Made Pockets & the Plane Buckt (C. Fredericks, 1958)
Homage to Mistress Bradstreet ( Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1956)
The Dispossessed (W. Sloane Associates, 1948)
Poems (New Directions, 1942)


The Freedom of the Poet (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976)
Recovery (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973)
The Arts of Reading (1960)
Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography (Sloane, 1950)

By This Poet


Dream Song 4

Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken páprika, she glanced at me
Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the fact of her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her

or falling at her little feet and crying
'You are the hottest one for years of night
Henry's dazed eyes
have enjoyed, Brilliance.' I advanced upon
(despairing) my spumoni.—Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls.

—Black hair, complexion Latin, jewelled eyes
downcast . . . The slob beside her     feasts . . . What wonders is
she sitting on, over there?
The restaurant buzzes.  She might as well be on Mars.
Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.
—Mr. Bones: there is.

Dream Song 1

Huffy Henry hid    the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point,—a trying to put things over.
It was the thought that they thought
they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
But he should have come out and talked.

All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry's side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don't see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.

What he has now to say is a long
wonder the world can bear & be.
Once in a sycamore I was glad
all at the top, and I sang.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.

Dream Song 29

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry's heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry's ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of.  Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late.  This is not for tears;

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody's missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.