When a 57-year-old John Berryman waved to the onlookers and threw himself from the Washington Avenue Bridge on a cold January morning in 1972, he extinguished a major American writer and probably Minnesota's most daring poet. How he arrived at that messy end is probably the state's most twisted and famed literary story prior to that of Michael Dorris.
When Berryman was 8, living with his family in Florida, his father walked outside at dawn with a shotgun and killed himself just beyond his son's bedroom window. Only months later, Berryman's mother married the landlord, her paramour while John's father was alive. The new family quickly moved to New York City, where Berryman would eventually receive a fine education and begin writing poetry.
By most accounts, though, Berryman never quite evolved into a sane, stable adult. Gangly and often bearded, Berryman was an insomniac, a hypochondriac, an accident-prone, chain-smoking alcoholic, and a depressive with suicidal tendencies, inept at carrying out daily tasks like cooking or driving a car. Socially, Berryman played the troublemaker, proclaiming his erudite opinions with belligerent force, womanizing with unsubtle abandon, leaving enemies in his wake.
Despite all this, he managed to charm plenty, and nurtured deep friendships, especially with other prominent literary types such as Randall Jarrell and Adrienne Rich. He also managed to teach, conduct extensive scholarly work, and, most important, write poetry. Still, at age 39, having published two verse volumes with only modest success, he'd not acquired the fame he coveted, and things began to come apart.
Living and teaching in Iowa City, Berryman fell into a nasty argument with another teacher. Later that evening, by then drunk, he entered an argument with his landlord, dropped his trousers, and shat on the man's front porch, an offense for which he was arrested and jailed. The incident made local news, and within days Berryman was fired.
Fortunately, disaster became an opportunity. With nowhere to go, he called his friend Allen Tate, a then-famous poet/critic at the University of Minnesota, who promised to find Berryman a gig in their humanities department. Tate made good on that promise, and Berryman moved to Minneapolis (hometown of his father), beginning his tenure during the University's literary heyday when writers like James Wright and Saul Bellow served on faculty. It was in this city, during this final third of his life, that Berryman conceived and wrote most of his magnum opus, The Dream Songs, a long poem in 385 parts.
In a late interview in the Paris Review, Berryman revealed a key local moment in the work's genesis. One night, he and his second wife (of three) were bar-hopping down on Hennepin Avenue, playfully listing their least-favorite names. She decided that the one she found "most unbearable" for men was "Henry." Thus an unforgettable literary character and The Dream Songs' antihero was born.
Henry seemingly shares many features with Berryman: He's a poet and a drinker, flirting with fame, women, and suicide, and bemoaning the deaths of poet-friends like Roethke and Delmore Schwartz. But as Berryman points out so vehemently in his note to the final edition: Henry is "not the poet, not me" but "an imaginary character... 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. Requiescant in pace."
For Dream Songs' duration, Henry shadowboxes with himself, others, the world, and the poem he inhabits. Haunted, deluded, regretful, self-destructive, self-pitying, histrionic, he's also capable of sporadic empathy and eloquence, revealing epiphanic truths for humankind. These contradictions make him downright funny and even, in a weird way, lovable. This is why we keep coming back to him--as a sort of incorrigible sibling--as described in "Song 75":
Turning it over, considering, like a madman
Henry put forth a book.
No harm resulted from this.
Neither the menstruating stars (nor man)
Bare dogs drew closer for a second look
and performed their friendly operations there.
Refreshed, the bark rejoiced.
Seasons went and came.
Leaves fell, but only a few.
Something remarkable about this
unshedding bulky bole-proud blue-green moist
thing made by savage & thoughtful
began to strike the passers from despair
so that sore on their shoulders old men hoisted
six-foot sons and polished women called
small girls to dream awhile toward the flashing
& bursting tree!
Like most Songs, this one turns us inside out, upside down. It rearranges our molecules, tells us that being here is always to be a little bit elsewhere. Things (books, stars, dogs, trees) evade definition, resist what they seem. And in this we can rejoice, Berryman says, while we hoist our strange children into the air.
What we must despair, the poem suggests, is poetry's absence in the public eye, the conspiracy of indifference toward more difficult, beautiful metaphors, and the attraction toward easier, mediated untruths. And that is what Dream Songs does best--despair Henry's (and everyone's) lost bliss and innocence; despair his wavering ability to save himself.
If the dominant tone is serious, before long the poem undercuts this with bladed comedy. Often that shift comes through a collapsing of old and new. Berryman fluently references classical mythology, Christian allegory, world history. He broods with Shakespearean drama, and gushes like a Romantic (which sometimes requires exclamation points!). But within this field of nostalgia lie more contemporary land mines in the form of pranks, punch lines, inebriated chatter, hip idiom, blackface dialect, and baby talk. Taken together, this dark humor drops like a shower of rhetorical fallout from Cold War America.
Berryman holds this seemingly discordant mix together with impeccable metrical finesse and a pervasive personality. Sometimes the voice becomes incoherent ("Millenia whift & waft--one, one--er, er...") But it turns dangerously acute at any moment ("Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.")
After finishing his triumph, Berryman lost some of his touch, publishing two volumes that don't rate as highly. Love & Fame and Delusions, Etc. tend to be more self-consciously confessional, as if the author can no longer hide behind the doppelgänger that is Henry. After winning a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for Dream Songs, Berryman cringed at seeing Love & Fame panned in reviews. He heard the same criticism in letters from some old friends, including Allen Tate, who also scolded the author for being vulgar and patronizing.
Berryman's recklessness was catching up to him. Even though he made some real attempts to go sober, even writing a novel called Recovery, Berryman never entirely changed his self-destructive ways. He'd started to drink again just before his death. The last poem he wrote, found crumpled in his wastebasket, was a return to the old form of The Dream Songs.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.