Poets of genius can write miserable novels, great novelists perfectly childish verse; yet poets and novelists have both proven masters of the letter, a genre now nearly extinct. Critics since the 1920s have bitten their nails over the death of the novel, but in the last decade or two the letter has almost vanished. For most writers, email offers no more depth than a greeting card, and future editors of a poet’s emails might prefer to build the Colossus of Rhodes out of toenail clippings. The internet didn’t kill letters—what killed them were cheap phone calls. The internet just mopped up the remains.

Reading letters is always an exercise in forensic pathology.

The reflexive monument raised to a dead writer, meanwhile, is still a fat book of letters. Reading letters is always an exercise in forensic pathology. Conceived in intimacy, dedicated to the half-truth and the whisper, letters often reveal secrets the writer kept under lock and key. Auden once wrote, in his introduction to Shakespeare’s sonnets, that much scholarship “is an activity no different from that of reading somebody’s private correspondence when he is out of the room, and it doesn’t really make it morally any better if he is out of the room because he is in his grave.” The time-honored duty of many an executor, if the writer has not risen from the grave with a flamethrower, has been to burn any letters on hand.

Fortunately for the prying class to which readers belong, a writer’s own letters have usually been scattered to the winds by the postal service, escaping the flames by the expedient of being nowhere near them. For critics, letters become as much a part of the oeuvre as rough drafts, in some cases proving superior to anything the poet or novelist cranked out. Pope, Byron, and Pound come into their own, or a different kind of own, writing to others—and who would want Keats without his raggedy, boyish, misspelled letters? Such acts of correspondence, in both senses, will perhaps never be seen again. Letters have had their day.

The Selected Letters of John Berryman, edited by Philip Coleman and Calista McRae, fills the major gap on the shelf of his books.1 The poet blustered his way through life, a learnèd brawler light footed when not heavy handed, a poet whose controlled aggression gave his poetry lift and purpose, or at worst the vomit and sawdust of a back-alley bar. Since he committed suicide one cold January half a century ago, jumping off a Minneapolis bridge, his reputation has suffered only a mild decline. The letters to his mother, published as We Dream of Honour (1988), have the claustrophobic air of an Oedipal closet-drama. Other selections have been published, those to a college friend in John Berryman in the Thirties (1987), and to various scholars in Berryman’s Shakespeare (1999); but the wait for an exhaustive selection has been long.

Berryman was born in Oklahoma in 1914, christened John Allyn Smith, a name that might have doomed him to anonymity. His feckless and improvident father shot himself the summer of 1926 while the Smiths were living in Florida. When young Smith’s mother remarried less than three months later, the boy’s last name was discarded; by taking his stepfather’s name, John Smith became John Berryman. The first hundred pages of these letters take Berryman from a Catholic academy in Oklahoma through a private boys’ school in Connecticut, where he was insecure, self-conscious, bullied, lazy, and disliked—the consequent inferiority complex dogged him into adulthood.

It’s a mark of those times that in prep school Berryman went to an “orgy” as a Jewish pawnbroker and a friend as a Sikh officer, “King of the Kyber Rifles.” Another student, the poet wrote his mother, appeared as a member of the Ku Klux Klan with a “cringing submissive black slave” on a chain. It would be tempting to think that altered names, disguises, and concealment were there from the start—and that Berryman’s alter ego Henry, the rattle-brained hero of The Dream Songs, was less invention than confession.

At Columbia University, the poet began to show boundless and reckless energy, his brilliance burning like flash paper. He won a fellowship to study at Cambridge and there immersed himself neck deep in literature. By 1938 he’d moved to New York City and within a year, at twenty-five, been appointed poetry editor of The Nation. He was a little too proud of rejecting a sonnet by Auden.

Berryman was soon scheduled to appear with Randall Jarrell in a series by New Directions titled Five Young American Poets (1940). He lobbied against inclusion of a “poetess,” though Elizabeth Bishop had originally been considered. He wrote to James Laughlin, the founder of the press, “Why do you need a poetass?” and of Laughlin to a friend, “He’ll not find one . . . who will be anything but a disgrace.” (Berryman made far too many letters, especially to his publishers, a sword fight or a boxing match.)

Berryman’s early poems were mannered, urgent but lacking substance, full of sound and fury that found it hard to signify a thing. His later work was victim, as he was himself, of a grandiosity that rarely issued in success. Despite my regard for Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and The Dream Songs, his method acting is sometimes excruciating.

His ungainly, slightly stuffy poems of the late Thirties and Forties were intelligent but preposterous:

The Lacedemonians honoured their dead

With fire and anecdote and little praise.

They vowed to let their hair grow long and turned

Their quiet faces from the funeral blaze.

They gathered up their spoils. Othryadas

Was there, his giant shadow with the rest

Turned homeward silent from the long campaign.

They left the lighted circle with their guest.

This was to be part of a sequence dragged from the Histories of Herodotus. It’s little wonder that, when he earlier sent such things to Poetry, the editor returned them with a note: “We recognize the quality here, but I think you have strained too hard for your effects.”

Berryman struggled to find the proper form for his immense, wayward intelligence. At Cambridge he’d been awarded the Oldham Shakespeare Scholarship and, during the war, backed by a Rockefeller fellowship, had embarked on a critical edition of King Lear, that Everest of difficulty for the Shakespeare editor, unless Hamlet is even worse. As with so many of his projects, he set to work with a will, only to bog down as his ideas went six directions at once. Berryman always seemed, at least to himself, to be making great progress, solving the insoluble crux one day and the next bragging about it to W. W. Greg, the doyen of Shakespeare textual scholars—who was, to his credit, encouraging. He was even convinced by some of Berryman’s notions.

Berryman was a man whom an errant breeze could distract.

The Shakespeare edition would have been a testament to the scholarly work Berryman wanted desperately to do; but his career was littered with unfinished Bard business: Shakespeare’s Friend, in which he promised to reveal the identity of the Fair Youth in the Sonnets; a long-contracted-for life of the Bard; and a Shakespeare Handbook. The longer list of the unborn includes a memorial book for Yeats; a life of Christ for children; critical essays titled Sacrifice (on Christ, Cervantes, and Anne Frank, among others); anthologies titled The Oxford Book of Sonnets and The Blue Book of Poetry; and a volume of the poet’s selected essays, eventually published posthumously, as was a novel started and abandoned, then abandoned again.He began far more projects than he finished, often accepting advances never repaid. What he grandly planned often came, as The Key to All Mythologies for Casaubon, to nothing at all.

It’s hard to know whether the problem was Berryman or, well, Berryman—the psychology of the man was contrary (grand schemes, near inability to carry them through), and so were the habits (drinking, swearing off, more drinking). The critical edition of Lear was derailed by his inability to get access in wartime to certain rare books and by news that an established scholar was about to publish a similar edition; but Berryman was a man whom an errant breeze could distract.

The poet wasn’t satisfied unless he had conquered three cities and a principality or two before breakfast. Repeatedly, he leapt at the throat of a project and went a long way toward strangling it before something stopped him cold. Elation when he began became unendurable paralysis when things went bad. For The Blue Book, a projected anthology of poetry from Homer to Richard Wilbur, with commentary, the morning that Berryman had the idea he grabbed half-a-dozen anthologies from his shelves and started ripping poems from them. He once proposed a book on Thailand and asked for funds to spend a year there. Though euphoria too often became despair, the manic highs Death Valley lows, sometimes he’d again take up a grand scheme laid down decades before, like his life of Shakespeare. His biography of Stephen Crane (1950), though laden with Freudian paste and mortar, and the essays and reviews collected in The Freedom of the Poet (1976) are the sole triumphs beyond what he accomplished as a poet.

Berryman’s raging intelligence rarely found its measure or its medium. The poetry was long a matter of becoming; and perhaps imagination hobbled by form became its chief attraction. The vanity and jealousy often hatched by disappointed ambition were not rarely in evidence. If the writing of poetry is pathological, Berryman is a test case. There were times when he was too self-destructive to write; and times when he could do nothing else, poems gushing out of him like Oklahoma crude. One of his final books was written in five weeks. When things stalled, he had no trouble starting something new, lured away by Sirens more enticing, trading old mistresses for new, to which he was also prone. A chart of his love affairs, scholarly or otherwise, would be instructive—he was nearly as priapic as H. G. Wells, without the talent for remaining on good terms with his lovers afterward.

The New York letters reveal a young man making his way in the world, like a Renaissance artist slogging the byways of Europe in search of patrons. At Columbia, Berryman had studied under Mark Van Doren, a loyal spear-carrier for much of the poet’s life. One of his classmates was Robert Giroux, eventually his (no doubt exasperated) publisher. James Laughlin, whom Berryman met in Cambridge, in addition to selecting the poet’s work for Five Young American Poets, soon after published his chapbook Poems. Among others who befriended the poet during those years of scuffling were John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, R. P. Blackmur, Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, and Dylan Thomas. (When Thomas died in hospital in 1953, Berryman was the only one at his bedside.) John Berryman impressed his peers but kept his eye on them. The community of poets was certainly smaller then.

Like many young poets, Berryman was stuck in the rut of period style, producing earnest imitations of Auden written by Yeats or Yeats written by Auden. Most who met him saw immediately the savage gifts that in his poems failed to blossom. (That, perhaps, was the problem. Brilliance doesn’t blossom—it gallops in like the horsemen of Genghis Khan.)

Berryman was an overwhelming force when loosed upon the classroom during the Nicotine Years of American pedagogy, when seminars met in clouds of smoke. Through the Forties and into the Fifties, the poet taught at Harvard and Princeton in addition to universities out in the boonies without ever landing at one. His was a heavy, dominating presence, unlike Jarrell with his stiletto wit (move in close, aim for the liver and kidneys); Lowell, who preferred to sit back and make shrewd remarks from the wings; or Bishop, so modest she seemed to be performing some act of self-erasure. (Years later at Harvard, she managed to chase off more students than not.)

As a writer, Berryman was willful, capricious, very broadly read, and greedy for recognition. Those early poems were so bland that, as so often for young poets, they lived in a charged world rendered lifelessly.

Motions of waking trouble winter air,

I wonder, and his face as it were forms

Solemn, canorous, under the howled alarms,—

The eyes shadowed and shut.

Certainly for this sort of thing it is very late,

I shudder, while my love longs and I pour

My bright eyes towards the moving shadow . . where?

Out, like a plucked gut.

Canorous? (OED: melodious, resonant.) The general has here murdered the private, whatever the private was meant to be. The two-dot ellipsis was one of Berryman’s irritating quirks, like his preference for British spellings and, later, ampersands.

At first almost indifferent to its source, “Winter Landscape” begins under a prosaic shroud: “The three men coming down the winter hill/ In brown, with tall poles and a pack of hounds/ At heel, through the arrangement of the trees.” Not until two stanzas later does the poem rise from the dead, as if Berryman had donned Auden’s magic cloak. The men

Are not aware that in the sandy time

To come, the evil waste of history

Outstretched, they will be seen upon the brow

Of that same hill: when all their company

Will have been irrecoverably lost.

Berryman wasn’t the first or last poet to be captivated by Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow. Walter de la Mare got there sooner (“Brueghel’s Winter”), and William Carlos Williams later (“The Hunters in the Snow”); but the younger poet brought his own dry, intransigent manner to the painting. The poem lurking in the background is of course Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” written after seeing a different painting by the artist, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. The lines that bring history into view suggest how much Berryman wanted to filch from the older poet’s vest pocket—but his homage hasn’t captured Auden’s panache or comic shudder.

Many poets in the Thirties could have written “Winter Landscape”—Auden had a lot of followers then. The finer touches in Berryman, however, like the “arrangement of the trees,” never quite bring the scene into focus. Though the judgment on history is sudden and acute, the painting remains featureless, generic as a mannequin. With more severity, Berryman’s could have passed for a poem by Anthony Hecht, the Hecht of a quarter-century later—but never one by Auden.

For more than a decade, the letters show, Berryman was a young poet miserable at being unrecognized, miserable at not finding an academic job worthy of him. (He had written Mark Van Doren in 1944, “Each year I hope that next year will find me dead.”) For a man who had accomplished little, he was unsurprisingly arrogant. He wrote, shortly before publication of his first book of poetry, The Dispossessed (1948), “I see Lowell as my peer. No one else.” That month Lowell won the Pulitzer Prize.

Berryman’s book was received coolly, Yvor Winters remarking in TheHudson Review on the narrowness of the poems, most having a “single all-inclusive topic: the desperate chaos, social, religious, philosophical, and psychological, of modern life, and the corresponding chaos and desperation of John Berryman,” the poems “moving in this undefined rhythmic fog.” Until he could “think more and feel less,” Winters judged, “he will not be a poet of any real importance.” Randall Jarrell, considered even by Berryman the best critic of the day, was more ferocious:

John Berryman is a complicated, nervous, and intelligent writer whose poetry has steadily improved. At first he was possessed by a slavishly Yeatsish grandiloquence which at its best resulted in a sort of posed, planetary melodrama, and which at worst resulted in monumental bathos.

Jarrell had been even crueler in a review of the 1941 edition of New Directions’ annual anthology: “John Berryman’s ‘Five Political Poems’ have lots of Yeats, lots of general politics, a 1939 reissue of 1938, and a parody of ‘Lord Randall’ that—but nothing can make me believe that Mr. Berryman wrote this himself.” (Berryman had written two poems titled “1938” and “1939.”)

Lowell was more complimentary in a letter: “The new difficult poems seem to me the most wonderful advance that anyone has made. . . . You seem to have the equipment to do almost anything now.” He had reservations, but the praise was perhaps enough to let Berryman bear the criticism, as well as the rage criticism usually ignited in him. Groveling in despair came easily—he was capable of doing so without any reason at all. Berryman at the beginning was a humid, passion-stricken poet looking for a way to evade the models of his models. The prolonged period of frustrated apprenticeship produced little of his better work, much less of his best.

The first breakthrough came in Berryman’s Sonnets, written at Princeton, where he spent most of a decade as an instructor. In 1947, having begun a feverish affair with a grad student’s wife, the poet threw himself into sonnets for her. (When the sonnets were published in 1967, her real name, Chris, became Lise to protect her identity.) Sonnet 1 begins,

I wished, all the mild days of middle March

This special year, your blond good-nature might

(Lady) admit—kicking abruptly tight

With will and affection down your breast like starch—

Me to your story, in Spring, and stretch, and arch

The starch is silly enough, probably a finalist that year for the Bad Rhyme Award. The sonnet ends, “Luck lies with the bone,/ Who rushed (and rests) to meet your small mouth, risk/ Your teeth irregular and passionate.” Giddy and slightly dopey, the poems are written in what Berryman somewhere calls his “nervous mutter.”

Late the winter before The Dispossessed appeared, Berryman had plunged into a long poem that progressed by starts and fits over the next five years. It should be no surprise that a man with problems of identity would become a modern Browning. The poem was Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956), composed in faux-Jacobean American:

By the week we landed we were, most, used up.

Strange ships across us, after a fortnight’s winds

unfavouring, frightened us;

bone-sad cold, sleet, scurvy; so were ill

many as one day we could have no sermons.

The beginning of real reputation had been made. Reviews were sparse but highly favorable. The New York Times Book Review called the poem “masterly in construction, a book made to stand as a landmark in American poetry, and withstand much reading.” The poet was devastated not to win the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award, both taken by Richard Wilbur. The Pulitzer judges briefly considered Homage but called it “bizarre”—the finalists, apart from Wilbur, were Rolfe Humphries and John Hall Wheelock. Among the finalists for the nba were Leah Bodine Drake and Charles Edward Eaton.

The private idiolect of the sonnets to Chris, soon patented, soon even quirkier, characterized much of his later poetry. Nervy, reckless, brash, full of mangled or juddering syntax, it can be seen in poems in the pamphlet His Thought Made Pockets & the Plane Buckt (1958):

It kissed us, soft, to cut our throats, this coast,

like a malice of the lazy King. I hunt,

& hunt! but find here what to kill?—nothing is blunt,

but phantoming uneases I find.

From there to his alter ego Henry and the Dream Songs is a brisk two-step.

Berryman’s bad behavior, usually involving drinking, for once saved him. He was invited to be a visiting instructor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the spring and fall of 1954. He started badly, the evening he arrived, falling drunk down an unlit staircase and through a half-glazed door in the house where he was renting an apartment, breaking his wrist. The spring otherwise went well, apart from a drunken brawl over Berryman’s pugnacious attempt to sleep with a workshop poet’s fiancée. At the beginning of the fall semester, after an argument in a bar, Berryman lost his house key and tried to break in. When the landlord wouldn’t open the door, the poet took a shit on the man’s porch. Arrested for being drunk and disorderly, Berryman was fired by the university the following day. Allen Tate stepped in to save him, finding him a position at the University of Minnesota, where the poet taught until his death. There’s something sad and Keatonesque about these scenes, but then Keaton was paid to be sad.

Berryman shortly fled even further into the contortions (part slang, part syntax shoved into a blender) that became the tongue-tied tongue that rarely spilled into his letters. The voice often seems mere playacting—the brashness, the slippery rhetoric, and the torments of the Dream Songs possess a tinge of bamboozlement in their arch masquerade. Their undifferentiated muchness makes them as hard to take as they are hard to believe, but the gargantuan enterprise is overwhelming—it’s like being dipped in vats of liquid pain. However Berryman gained distance from his insecurities, absurd pretense could become hammering truth. It’s perhaps unfair to quote Dream Song 14, long the most frequently anthologized:

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.

The ending is even better.

Early Berryman had been too much under the thumb of older poets to reach deep into the muck of his talent. He belatedly chose, as so many American poets have, to follow the radical path Emerson proposed in his essay “The Poet” (1844): “Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boa[s]ts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas, are yet unsung.” Bradstreet and The Dream Songs were a way of saying what Berryman could not otherwise have said.

Early Berryman had been too much under the thumb of older poets to reach deep into the muck of his talent.

Many of the letters of his last decade are overwhelmed by the poet’s moaning over his writing, his health, his reviews, even after he’d won the Pulitzer Prize for 77 Dream Songs (1964), followed by the National Book Award and Bollingen Prize for His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968), the two books soon married as The Dream Songs (1969). The awards and lavish praise ought to have been enough, but he vacillated between believing he was the best poet of his generation (except, he admitted, for Lowell) and thinking his poetry so much rubbish. (His young daughter Martha understood better, saying, “God is famous; but he doesn’t win prizes like Daddy.”) No sooner had Berryman finished a piece with that heroin high writers know than he became discontented and depressed. This happened more rapidly with his poems than with his lovers, but both eventually fell victim to his moods and his appetites.

There’s very little to salvage from the poetry Berryman wrote pre-Bradstreet, and just as little from the books he wrote after The Dream Songs. Love & Fame (1970), Delusions, Etc. (1972), and the posthumous scatterings of Henry’s Fate & Other Poems (1977) are rushed, scatty, too often prosaic. I’m fond of “Washington Triumphant” and “Beethoven in Love” in Delusions, Etc.; but overall there’s too much Henry, who hasn’t left the scene (more than forty unpublished Dream Songs in Henry’s Fate), and ever more autobiographical nattering, as well as an embarrassing series of addresses to the Lord (“Sole watchman of the flying stars, guard me/ against my flicker of impulse lust”). Berryman’s poetry hadn’t been much good until he made a jazzed-up version of himself part of the act and let the nicotine and alcohol do the talking. It was a grand strategy, but hell on the lungs and liver. Late Berryman seems to have been written by an empty shell—the poems have lost the intensity and static charge that makes The Dream Songs, for all their overbearing nonsense, a work that with Lowell’s Life Studies (1959) defines the generation born into Modernism. The Beats existed in a parallel universe.

The Dream Songs have been scathingly criticized, especially in the last decade, for the use of blackface drawn from minstrel shows, though even at the time the blackface caused discomfort. The defensive note Berryman belatedly included in His Toy, His Dream, His Rest doesn’t help much: “The poem . . . is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss.” The minstrelsy appears different from Emerson’s vantage—not, or not just, deaf self-indulgence, but a misconceived attempt to employ that residue of the American past as a symbol of the poet’s own turmoil. Written with brassy confidence and the trappings of American slang, the Dream Songs give a central role to that ghastly remnant of slavery to speak a savage, private truth.

Unfortunately, the blackface ignores its terrifying origins. The costume party at Berryman’s prep school ought to show how few second thoughts, or first thoughts, there were in those days. Worse, one interviewer felt no compunction over referring to Mr. Bones as “like a nigger minstrel,” while Berryman himself used “coon” more than once in the poems. Blackface was Berryman’s way of rejecting who he was, to say what he could not say himself—Mr. Bones was his conscience, his doppelgänger, his private hipster with elemental access to the oppressed. The longing is similar to that in Norman Mailer’s sometimes despised essay “The White Negro” (1957). The poet’s blackface may one day seem, as it largely did at the time, a striking and disruptive artistic ploy—one that has aged badly, like the “comic” scenes with black actors in Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story. The tactics of poetry should be judged by the spirit of their day, not by the poet’s incompetence as a fortune teller, though we can condemn, or lament, that spirit.

If we must treat all literature as if it were written the day before yesterday, rejecting the original context, we must hurl from the shelves The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Oliver Twist, Heart of Darkness, and much else. (Imagine if every shift in religious or political doctrine still required a holocaust of books.) We can admire what we do not accept, not knowing what we are doing or saying today that will horrify later generations—perhaps wearing leather goods or owning pets.

Letters, if not literature themselves, are servants to literature. They give the public face the texture of the private world. Depressively entertaining as Berryman’s are, they are unlikely to provide a future audience more than those of Dickens, or Shaw, or Elizabeth Bishop. They of course cannot answer the question that will always be asked: were Berryman’s poems any good? That raises a second question. Without the flaws and addictions, would we have had those poems at all? Had Berryman died at thirty-eight, as Dylan Thomas did, there would be no career to discuss.

We see in these letters the poet’s repeated exasperation and disappointment, as well as his elation when he has made (or sometimes just thinks he has) a breakthrough. The letters record the terrible strain on Berryman of his artistic gifts. Like most writers, when he doubted his work, he doubted absolutely; and when he didn’t he couldn’t understand why the world wasn’t laying honors at his feet.

Judged now after two-thirds of a century, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet is an astonishing act of stage ventriloquism—and it provided the opening for The Dream Songs. Still, the life the songs render is almost a Punch and Judy show, compared to Lowell’s brute, Rembrandt-like Life Studies (1959). Berryman and Lowell both suffered incarceration in the mad house. It’s not surprising, after the merry-go-round during Berryman’s last decade or more of drinking, depression, hospitalization, and the psychiatry of prescription drugs (Sparine, Thorazine, Haldol, Serax, Tuinal, Phenobarbitol) that suicide seemed the only escape.

Letters are the source code of biography. This meticulous and generous selection of the poet’s typed and scrawled outgoing mail is infinitely suggestive. The editorial accuracy, especially where Berryman was writing by hand, seems all the poet could have wished for. (I noticed only one minuscule error in the two letters I provided.) More context, however, would have benefitted the book and gratified the reader. The endnotes are cursory and often frustrating, telling us who was who but rarely what was what. Someone who walks into a letter and then walks out, never to be seen again, receives a note; but events obscure to the reader pass unexplained. Why not mention that the “letter of protest” partly written by Berryman was about the incarceration of Ezra Pound? What was the Brandeis Award Berryman received? What prize was the man in Chicago supposed to send him? What was the “current mail embargo” in 1971? Repeatedly the poor reader who turns to the notes for enlightenment is left in the dark. A line or two scattered between letters would have sufficed.

In Berryman’s letters, wives come and go (there were three of them) almost without a whisper. What we miss is the poet’s seamy side—the year before he died, according to John Haffenden, the best of Berryman’s biographers, he was writing “erotic letters” to two women, to one after placing an ad in the personal columns of The New York Review of Books. There’s no reason to have excluded, for example, the long, unsent letter to Chris Haynes, for whom Berryman’s wrote his sonnets, saying that he could “fuck you until we’re happy . . . and then speak slowly of what we are.” After Berryman divorced his second wife, he seems rarely to have seen their son Paul, though the poet invoked a concatenating list of excuses, too many to be convincing.

A lost Dream Song or two may still be discovered among Berryman’s books and letters, but probably nothing that adds to the over four hundred we have

The Dream Songs are a continuing curiosity, lethal to fledgling poets trying to imitate the manner. It’s like walking into an Iron Maiden and pretending everything will be okey-dokey. Fifty years after his death, the matter of Berryman’s reputation is still unsettled. Was he a poet who, like Delmore Schwartz, only rarely found the medium for his brilliance? Or was he a poet, also like Schwartz, who has slid downward from the dizzy heights of contemporary reputation to the stature of one whose work, however good in the period (like Roethke, like Jarrell), offers less to a later generation?

Despite its contrivance, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet should rank as one of the most important long poems written after the war. The best of the Dream Songs will survive for their quirky attack, their formal ballet, and their ability to reveal the artist behind the artistry. The sequence is welded to its limitations—Berryman often wrote in a frenzy, sometimes radically revising or simply discarding what he didn’t like. The flaws of the Dream Songs can be ticked off rapidly—unevenness, ham-handed blithering, repetitiveness, and galumphing expression. Young poets may always respond to the over-dramatic one-man show of unrelieved pain, the raw view from the psychiatrist’s couch.

A lost Dream Song or two may still be discovered among Berryman’s books and letters, but probably nothing that adds to the over four hundred we have. The late work will likely never seem important, except in service to Berryman’s life, where those poems seem a long negotiation with the past, setting scenes while settling scores. Brooding, carnal, the great mind little consolation to those around him, the self-portrait in The Selected Letters is never pretty. Though much remains unsaid, what Berryman says is infuriating, disorienting, and masterful.


  1.  The Selected Letters of John Berryman, edited by Philip Coleman and Calista McRae; Belknap Press, 736 pages, $39.95.

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