Why John Berryman’s Poetry Matters Today

John BerrymanNext year sees the centenary of the birth of the American poet, John Berryman. In this research conversation, which discusses her thesis on Poetic Self and Public World in John Berryman’s ArtAmy Jordan explains how Berryman’s poems present a compelling document of post-war America and a critique of the modern American Dream.

Arguably, John Berryman is a less well known poet compared to his contemporaries such as Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell. What is it that got you interested in his work?

I’ve been a Berryman enthusiast since I first encountered The Dream Songs as part of my undergraduate degree at Durham.  However, it was only when planning my MA dissertation, which examined the theme of degeneracy in some of his contemporaries’ works, that I began to question his current reputation.

Whilst we readily discuss the political and public aspects of Lowell’s Life Studies or Plath’s “Holocaust poems” in Ariel, Berryman is almost always portrayed as an unhappy recluse: an alcoholic, chain-smoking womaniser whose inner torments drove him to leap from a bridge to his death in 1972.  Yet as I returned to his poetry and prose, what I found there offered a counterbalance to this view.  I discovered a series of texts and protagonists that were deeply affected by the flux of mid-century America’s social and political life.  I also discovered the poet’s intense ambitions regarding his own public status.  Unlike for Lowell, literary renown didn’t come early or easily to Berryman – his “breakthrough” poem, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, appeared when he was thirty-nine.  Reading him in this light, I hoped to spark fresh discussions of his work through demonstrating its concern with the poet’s role in contemporary society.

“who else could declare with such a tone of deadpan conspiracy, ‘Life, friends, is boring’?”

More selfishly, though, I suspected (correctly!) that the vast body of Berryman’s poetry would be hugely rewarding to explore in depth.  If his verse is tragic in places, it’s also darkly funny in others – who else could declare with such a tone of deadpan conspiracy, “Life, friends, is boring”, or justify two decades’ drinking with “Man, I been thirsty”?

You say in your thesis that John Berryman has previously been considered as a “confessional” poet.  What does this mean? Confessing to what?

The notion of a poem as an intimate revelation from speaker to reader dates back to the origins of poetry: we can cite examples from Catullus to Wordsworth and Whitman.  Yet after M. L. Rosenthal suggested Lowell’s Life Studies to be “confessional” in 1959, the term came to define a specific group of writers that also included Snodgrass, Sexton, Plath and Berryman.

The “confessional” poetry of the Fifties and Sixties tapped into a post-war enthusiasm for the psychoanalyst’s couch.  Its highly personal, emotional works and shocking titles (Lowell’s “To Speak of the Woe that Is in Marriage”, for example, or Sexton’s “Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator”) exposed the taboo experiences of addiction, alienation and mental illness.  The label’s notoriety granted many of these writers a degree of celebrity in the popular literary magazines.  But by implicitly equating the “I” of the poem with the “I” of the poet, it also threatened to damage their reputations: in Berryman’s case, the “booze, blows, grunts… [and] grand groans” of his Dream Songs are still most frequently read as an expression of his own psychological troubles.

In recent years, critics have worked to broaden the definition of “confessional” poetry, arguing that its private agonies are capable of reflecting wider public concerns.  Nevertheless, in deference to Berryman – who always reacted to the term  “[w]ith rage and contempt!” – I avoid using it to describe his work.  My research, in fact, shows that Berryman’s awareness of the label led him to repeatedly sabotage the “confessional” guise in his mature poetry.  The speakers of these texts promise us shocking revelations, but they backtrack at the crucial moment.

So if Berryman is not revealing himself, what is he trying to show in his poetry?

In the course of my research, I explored two ways in which Berryman’s oeuvre presents a challenge to notions of a “confessional” poetry.

The Dream SongsOften, as in Song 29, where the protagonist is tortured by thoughts of a crime he didn’t commit, there is simply nothing to confess.  Yet The Dream Songs has already told us that his mirror is “a murderer’s”: in a country which is no stranger to civil and military violence, he can no longer be sure of his innocence.  These thwarted revelations and misplaced guilt feelings recur throughout Berryman’s work, and suggest his personae to function as vehicles for a broad spectrum of national tensions.  Through voicing not personal malaise but the sorrows of others (from murderers to disillusioned settlers and persecuted minorities), his speakers expose the troubled legacy of the American Dream.

However, I found that Berryman was withholding revelations in his poetry on a secondary, more fundamental level.  If his personae make false confessions, the act of confessing itself is usually framed as a performance.  They speak amid stage trappings such as lights, curtains and scene changes, or in the context of dreams or prayers.  This tendency, which few critics have noted, supports my theory that Berryman’s concerns regarding contemporary society also betray a concern for the poet’s role within it.  In Song 67, a poet-surgeon offers to dissect his identity before an eager audience, but succeeds only in questioning literature’s ability to effect a change (or, as he goes on to point out, to make a living).  His operations must take place “in complete darkness”, for what he promises to reveal is inaccessible: even the most moving poetic confession is ultimately a guise performed on stage.

You said earlier that critics have been trying to expand the definition of “confessional poetry” to show how it is not simply concerned with the psychology of the poet but also engaged with public concerns.  Is Berryman also a political poet, then?

Berryman’s own liberal intellectual leanings are fairly easy to discern from the interviews he gave throughout his career.  When considering the political element of his poetry, though, it’s important to keep in mind one remark of his from 1968: “I’m completely against… war – I hate everything about it.  But I don’t believe in works of art being used as examples.”  Whilst many Berryman poems refer to national events surrounding their composition (“Formal Elegy”, for example, marks John F. Kennedy’s assassination), they are reluctant to respond with explicit social commentary.  Rather than seeking to guide and direct their readers in the time-honoured tradition of public poetry, these works offer a discord of voices that contrasts optimism with fatalism and aggression with victimhood. In criticising American society, they also criticise themselves implicitly as its products.

For these reasons, I’ve avoided ascribing a single political agenda to Berryman’s oeuvre.  I find it more accurate to describe his poetry as the psychogeography of a nation: it maps an artistic and an ethical struggle to participate responsibly in the “common human life” of mid-century America.

The centenary of Berryman’s birth (1914) is next year. Why would you advise readers to revisit Berryman’s work today?

“his mature work establishes him as a precursor to the modern media age”

In breaking away from the dominant focus on Berryman’s notorious biography, I wanted to celebrate his poetry’s extraordinary linguistic inventiveness, and to centralise his position as a writer actively engaged with his country and its literature.  His verses remain significant today both as a compelling document of the absurdity, black humour and terror of post-war American existence and as a key influence on generations of poets from William Meredith to Nick Demske.  Moreover, his mature work’s capacity to absorb and respond to its own success – boasting of appearances in Life magazine and the Times Literary Supplement – establishes him as a precursor to the modern media age, in which celebrity is as much self-created as it is granted by others.

Revisiting Berryman in this light opens the way for new studies of the American canon that I hope will liberate his reputation from the limiting “confessional” label.  Through recognising the extent of his accomplishments and ambition, we might compare his work with “counter-cultural” literary movements such as Beat poetry, or discuss his long poems Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and The Dream Songs as part of the American epic tradition.

In my next research project, which will examine selected poets’ changing perceptions of their fame, I intend to explore some of these avenues further.

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