“These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand. They are only meant to terrify & comfort.”
A scholar, a professor, and a poet, John Berryman’s most successful work was in the form of ‘The Dream Songs’, a collection of 385 intensely personal and intimate poems. Through this sequence, he invented a new ‘confessional’ genre of poetry that allowed him to express his turbulent and often dark emotions.
Berryman had a troubled life right from the start. His father shot himself right outside his window and this event haunted the poet throughout his life. His struggles with depression, alcoholism and specially with his own failed marriages would be seen to influence his later works, as can be seen with this example-
“Them lady poets must not marry, pal.
Miss Dickinson—fancy in Amherst bedding hér.
Fancy a lark with Sappho,
a tumble in the bushes with Miss Moore,
a spoon with Emily, while Charlotte glare.
Miss Bishop’s too noble-O.
That was the lot. And two of them are here
as yet, and—and: Sylvia Plath is not.
She—she her credentials
has handed in, leaving alone two tots
and widower to what he makes of it—
surviving guy, &
when Tolstoy’s pathetic widow doing her whung
(after them decades of marriage) & kids, she decided he was queer
& loving his agent.
Wherefore he rush off, leaving two journals, & die.
It is a true error to marry with poets
or to be by them.”
The poet’s greatest selling point was the frankness with which he wrote. The Dream Songs was written using slangy diction accompanied by a fractured, nervous sort of syntax. This series also caused great controversy by bringing up the sensitive issue of nineteenth century minstrels shows where white performers used black paint to enact racist stereotypes.
What moved Berryman most were Shakespeare’s later works. He would recite dreamlike, little-known speeches, notable for their experimental syntax and melodramatic flights of psychology. He would also, during the course of his life, draw inspiration from the works of W.B. Yeats.
John Berryman’s literary triumphs couldn’t fend off his demons and his life came to a tragic end in January 1972 when he jumped off The Washington Avenue Bridge while waving at a passerby. The desolate poet could never really find his inner peace but his poems continue to humour, sadden and puzzle readers till date. In his own words, he possessed, “A mind so dark it made one wonder if the Renaissance had ever really taken place.”
By Sanjana Ahuja