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Posts Tagged ‘John Berryman’


July 27, 2015 | by

Confessional poetry and The Twilight Zone.

A still from “The Masks.”

Who wants to be a confessional poet?

Those we’ve saddled with the label—Lowell, Berryman, Snodgrass, Sexton, et cetera—usually react to it with frustration, if not outright hatred. That should come as no surprise. Most poetic movements are met by some degree of disapproval, or at least discomfort. Writers are practically obliged to deny this critical tendency: how dare we readers, critics, English students, reduce entire books, careers, or generations to a singular term. Maybe writers resent words like confessional, imagist, or even Romantic because they inevitably blur a poet’s individual edges into something bland, familiar, and more easily shared. Or maybe the anxiety stems from the fact that labels like this often hover over living writers like tombstones, as critics prepare to title their chapter in literary history.

For whatever reason, confessional poets really hate being called confessional poets. Several of them have unleashed their outrage in the pages of The Paris Review. For example, Berryman: Read More »

Henry Doesn’t Have Any Bats, and Other News

June 26, 2015 | by


John Berryman

  • In Moscow, a new exhibition remembers Soviet Photo, the USSR’s premier photography magazine. Among its many treasures: gymnasts, factories, eggs … and a picture of Khrushchev and Castro drinking ebulliently from horns.
  • Whither the aphorism? It’s a more popular form than ever—insert obligatory Twitter reference here—but are we using it to its fullest potential? “An aphorism is not a truth but a kind of test (an assay), a statement you are meant to run up against to decide if you agree. If you don’t agree, that is not necessarily a failure of the aphorism. The best aphorisms are not the most true but the most undecidable, those worth endlessly testing.”
  • For that matter, whither the NYPL? It, too, doesn’t seem to live up to its full potential: “The New York Public Library has been under intermittent financial pressure for most of its history, but in the last few years it has been enveloped by a controversy that has exposed the institution to unprecedented public scrutiny. What stands revealed is a library that is abandoning its core mission of research and is losing its way in the digital age.”
  • “Though psychoanalysis didn’t help Berryman’s alcoholism or state of mind, it did serve to open him up to his inner self, and it was amid the rubble of that excavation that he found his alter-ego: messy Henry, destructive Henry, hateful Henry, devious Henry, pathetic, sozzled, recidivist Henry, self-loathing Henry, song and dance Henry, peccant Henry, grab-ass Henry, stricken-with-guilt Henry, Henry the enduring ruin … ‘Henry does resemble me,’ Berryman told an interviewer, ‘and I resemble Henry; but on the other hand I am not Henry. You know, I pay income tax. Henry pays no income tax. And bats come over and stall in my hair—and fuck them, I’m not Henry; Henry doesn’t have any bats.’” August Kleinzahler on John Berryman.
  • At the Beinecke Library, the Yale Collection of American Literature houses innumerable rarities and treasures. It also has those insipid “Cultivating Thought” cups and bags from Chipotle. “As much as it sounds like a joke, it fits into a tradition of American writers trying to reach unusual audiences through unusual (if brief) work—and of libraries collecting their labor.”

Peacock-eating for Poetical Public Relations, and Other News

February 25, 2015 | by


A mural in Switzerland. Photo: Roland zh

  • In a 1914 publicity stunt—back when poets were free to partake of the great PR machine—Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, and four others gathered at a luncheon to eat a peacock. “The papers were alerted, and news of the meal spread far and wide, from the London Times to the Boston Evening Transcript.”
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard, your humble correspondent, is traveling across America for The New York Times Magazine: “The editor proposed that I travel to Newfoundland and visit the place where the Vikings had settled, then rent a car and drive south, into the U.S. and westward to Minnesota, where a large majority of Norwegian-American immigrants had settled, and then write about it. ‘A tongue-in-cheek Tocqueville,’ as he put it.”
  • Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Wagner: the Romantic legacy of these composers lives on … in first-person shooters. “The grandiloquent sounds of the nineteenth century are still alive in the new millennium … but only when someone is getting bludgeoned, bloodied, blown-up, or decimated with automatic weapons … Even heavy metal isn’t heavy enough for most composers seeking to juice up their combat scenes. We need something with a little more sturm und drang.
  • Starting to write a book is hard. Then there’s the whole middle part—also difficult. And finally there’s the end, which is no cakewalk, either. Can we learn anything from the last sentences in famous novels? “For writers, the last sentences aren’t about reader responsibility at all—it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop worrying about what comes next, because nothing does. No more keeping the reader interested, no more wariness over giving the game away. This is the game.”
  • On rereading Eileen Simpson’s Poets in Their Youth, a 1982 memoir of her turbulent marriage to John Berryman: “For a long time I could not shake the belief that these poets, all of them dead before their time from madness, self-neglect or suicide, paid a noble price for their pursuit of truth and beauty … I don’t think that anymore. Now, it’s Simpson herself who seems to be the hero … Simpson, who became a psychotherapist and went on to publish several books, writes with an almost uncanny clemency and a kind of cerulean objectivity. Where there might have been bitterness there is, instead, compassion.”


Berryman and Yeats Light Up

October 24, 2014 | by

Tomorrow marks the centenary of John Berryman’s birth.


Craven_a_virginia_s_20_h_white_red_with_a_cat_jamaicaI went in and asked for Mr. Yeats. Very much like asking, “Is Mr. Ben Jonson here?” And he came down. He was much taller than I expected, and haggard. Big, though, big head, rather wonderful looking in a sort of a blunt, patrician kind of way, but there was something shrunken also. He told me he was just recovering from an illness. He was very courteous, and we went in to tea. At a certain point, I had a cigarette, and I asked him if he would like one. To my great surprise he said yes. So I gave him a Craven “A” and then lit it for him, and I thought, Immortality is mine! From now on it's just a question of reaping the fruits of my effort. He did most of the talking. I asked him a few questions. He did not ask me any questions about myself, although he was extremely courteous and very kind. At one point he said, “I have reached the age when my daughter can beat me at croquet,” and I thought, Hurrah, he's human! I made notes on the interview afterward, which I have probably lost. One comment in particular I remember. He said, “I never revise now”—you know how much he revised his stuff—“but in the interests of a more passionate syntax.” Now that struck me as a very good remark. I have no idea what it meant and still don't know, but the longer I think about it, the better I like it. He recommended various books to me by his friend, the liar, Gogarty, and I forget who else. The main thing was just the presence and existence of my hero.

—John Berryman, The Art of Poetry No. 16, 1972



An ad for Berryman‘s books from our Winter 1972 issue, in which his Art of Poetry interview appeared.


From the Land of Pleasant Living, and Other News

October 3, 2014 | by


A Baltimore icon slips into Russian hands.

  • Remembering John Berryman, whose centenary is later this month: “Berryman has not been forgotten, but his gnomic revelations have less force than they used to. His drinking and womanizing, his unsoothable anguish, seem less the stuff of heroism than of mutinous neurotransmitters. I can all too easily imagine him today, sitting at a seminar table in Palo Alto or Iowa City, buoyed by a decent dose of Wellbutrin, listening as some regular contributor to the Northwestern Maine Quarterly Review piously instructs impious John to simmer down, center himself, drop the unceasing allusions to Shakespeare, find his voice and tell us how he really feels.”
  • “As well as categorizing novels as well or poorly written, popular or unpopular, one could also, and perhaps more usefully, distinguish those that become part of the conversation, and those that do not. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections became part of the national conversation; Lydia Davis’s short stories, for all their brilliance, did not … John Updike’s Terrorist was arguably his least talked-about novel … But how does a book enter the conversation today?”
  • A good problem to have: “I am in the slightly embarrassing position where I write poems saying I am about to die and I don’t.”
  • An 1894 map by the New York Tenement-House Committee divides the city by nationality. But you won’t find Scotch, English, Welsh, Scandinavian, and Canadian New Yorkers on the map, because they were, according to its creator, “in small numbers and perhaps less foreign than the others.”
  • The Orioles are in the playoffs, which means Baltimoreans are swilling profligate amounts of Natty Boh, the greatest bad beer in the world and one of the city’s most cherished brands—it dates back to 1885. (At least one Baltimorean would drink a can right now, even though it’s nine-thirty A.M. and he’s in New York.) The only problem? “National Bohemian hasn’t been locally owned since the nineteen-seventies, and it hasn’t been brewed in Maryland in more than a decade … Last month, it was announced that the brand’s owner, Pabst, is being purchased by the Russian beverage company Oasis.” Say it ain’t Boh.


A Partial List of Things John Berryman Found Delicious

July 31, 2013 | by


  • Saul Bellow’s “Leaving the Yellow House”[1]
  • His own poetry[2]
  • Autolycus of The Winter’s Tale, deemed an “irrelevance”[3]
  • “Bunny,” met in London[4]
  • The Irish, who “all speak English and are blazing with self-respect”[5]
  • A stone[6]
  • A breeze[7]
  • Theodore Roethke’s detail[8]
  • A tribute, written by T. S. Eliot, about Ralph Hodgson[9]
  • Dialogue in Don Quixote[10]
  • An unspecified “new taste sensation”[11]
  • Your “end”[12]
  • An unspecified “author,” also “rational & passionate”[13]
  • The body of a married woman, seen in a restaurant[14]
  • His friend Ernest Milton Halliday’s marks at Columbia University[15]
  • Risk[16]

[1] Saul Bellow’s foreward to Recovery/Delusions, Etc.
[2] Saul Bellow’s foreward to Recovery/Delusions, Etc.
[3] Berryman’s Shakespeare
[4] Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman
[5] Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman
[6] “Dream Song 121”
[7] “Dream Song 339”
[8] Freedom of the Poet
[9] Freedom of the Poet
[10] Freedom of the Poet
[11] “Gislebertus’ Eve”
[12] “Shirley & Auden”
[13] “A Prayer for the Self”
[14] “Dream Song 4”
[15] John Berryman and the Thirties: A Memoir
[16] Stephen Crane

Elon Green is a freelance writer who oftentimes contributes to The Awl.