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Picture of John Berryman, poet; twentieth century American Literature and poetry


 
January 7, 1972
John Berryman   (1914 - 1972)
 
Berryman: Dream Songs to Suicide
 
by Steve King

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On this day in 1972 American poet John Berryman committed suicide at the age of fifty-seven. His 77 Dream Songs won the 1964 Pulitzer, and the writing of some 300 more over the subsequent years earned Berryman international fame, but his personal problems kept pace. These seem to stem from the severe trauma of his father's early suicide, but whatever the cause, living became a volatile and destructive mix of compulsions -- work, alcohol, sex, and four packs a day.

Berryman hated and scoffed at the label of "confessional poet," but he wrote openly about all his troubles, and sometimes optimistically: when asked in 1970 about his poetic direction, he talked of his "secret hope" that he might be visited by something like Beethoven's deafness or Milton's blindness, thus becoming the "extremely lucky" artist "who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him." The poems written over the last eighteen months reveal the raw, downward trail of his unluck, and a gradual giving-up on religion, writing, teaching, marriage and change. From the rehabilitation center in May, 1970, this pledge:
    Under new management, Your majesty:
    Thine. I have solo'd mine since childhood, since
    my father's suicide when I was twelve
    blew out my most bright candle faith, and look at me....
From another stay in rehab that autumn, still hanging on:
    Surely he has a recovery for me
    and that must be after all my complex struggles: very simple.

    I do, despite my self-doubts, day by day
    grow more & more but a little confident
    that I will never down a whiskey again
    or gin or rum or vodka, brandy or ale.

    It is, after all, very very difficult to despair
    while the wonder of the sun this morning
    as yesterday & probably tomorrow.
    It is, after all, very simple.

    You just never drink again all each damned day.
From the spring of '71, back teaching at the University of Minnesota:
    My Lord, I'm glad we don't
    on x or y depend for Your being there.
    I know You are there. The sweat is, I am here.
From a few weeks before his suicide -- dry now for eleven months, but in despair after having judged his novel-in-progress, Recovery, worthless, and his research book on Shakespeare pretty much the same:
    O yes, I've had to give up somewhat here,
    illusion on illusion, big books long laboured, a power
    of working wellness to some, of securing this house,
    the cocktail hour, --
    but I am not without a companion: there's left Fear.
The fear must have left soon after: Berryman started drinking again on January 5th, and jumped from Minneapolis's Washington Avenue Bridge two days later.

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Related authors:  Anne Bradstreet, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath
 
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