He signed his earliest poems as John Allyn McAlpin Berryman. The name was a marriage of his father’s and his stepfather’s names. It was then shortened to just “John Berryman,” but this, he began to believe, was a terrible betrayal.
“What I should have done,” he told his first wife Eileen Simpson, “What I cannot forgive myself for not having done, was to take the name John Smith. This act of disloyalty I will never, never be able to repair. To ‘make a name’ for myself…Can you see how ambivalent my feelings are about this ambition?”
His father was John Allyn Smith, a banker whose suicide, when Berryman was eleven, was to have a major influence over the poet’s life. His father shot himself outside of his son’s window.
His mother claimed his father was too cowardly to kill himself, and that it had been an accident. She remarried quickly to a man she may have been having an affair, John Angus McAlpin Berryman. The surname was adopted and John Smith became John Berryman.
His father’s death robbed the young poet of a strong mentor, leaving Berryman too much in awe of others. He was influenced by T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden and Saul Bellow, and it took him time to filter these writers out of his work. He also had an uneasy relationship with his mother, who dominated much of his life. He was haunted by his father’s early death, and feared he would fail in life as his father had. There was a premonition of what the future would bring at the party for his engagement to Eileen Simpson in 1942. Berryman was getting drunk, and an argument was simmering between him and his mother, as Eileen later recalled in her memoir Poets in their Youth:
Soon after the party broke up. John and I were staying with his mother [...] He was, as he said, high as a kite. Never having seen him either high or boisterous before, I was amused. [...] The vodka had done its work; he was not merely high, he was drunk. I was just taking this in when there was an exchange between mother and son to which John reacted with a flare-up of anger such as I’d come to expect whenever they were together for too long. I entered the kitchen at the moment when he turned from her, threw open the door to the terrace and with the skill of a gymnast leaped over the ledge of the shoulder-high wall that enclosed it. The ledge was wider than a foot, but not much. Below was the cement sidewalk. As Mrs Berryman shrieked, John started walking, slowly putting one foot in front of the other: the drunk giving himself the test he always fails. It was this scene, and the moment of paralysis I felt before going to him, that remained framed in my memory.
Thirty years later, in January 1972, there was no one to save Berryman jumping from the ledge of the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He landed on the edge of the west bank that flanked the ice-covered Mississippi River.
In his song “We Call Upon the Author,” Nick Cave declared:
Bukowski was a jerk! Berryman was best!
He wrote like wet paper-maché
But he went the Hemingway
Berryman and Bukowski both wrote from the turmoil of their lives. Both were drunks, had fractured relationships with others, and mythologized their lives in writing. But Cave is right, Berryman was a better poet than Bukowski, and his poetry demands more from his readers. Perhaps because of this, Berryman was never as fashionable as Bukowski, and only truly received the acclaim he rightly deserved after his death. His greatest works are Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956), 77 Dream Songs (1964), His Toy, His Dream His Rest (1968), The Dream Songs (1969), Love & Fame (1970), Henry’s Fate & Other Poems, 1967-1972 (1977).
This is John Berryman filmed in a bar in Dublin, 1967, discussing his Dream Songs, his alter ego “Henry,” his biography on novelist Stephen Crane, and reciting his poem “Dream Song 14”:
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) “Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.” I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored….
This year marks the centenary of Berryman’s birth, which is to be hoped will bring a new generation of readers to his life and work.
More poetry and words from John Berryman, after the jump…