Old Henry Never Wept

The University Avenue Bridge spanning the Mississippi River looking south. Saint Mary’s Hospital sits on top of the hill in the distance. The lower part of the bridge carries vehicles. The upper part is pedestrian and bike only.

His gift receded. He could write no more. Be silent then, until the thing returns.

John Berryman, Dream Song 310

Untitled published in Henry’s Fate

Henry scampered, young. Henry doddered old
Steps bother him.  Packages in both hands
unbothered him.
His figure altered not, he remained slim
but the memory loss.  Persons from other lands
read him their poems bold,

demure, in Chinese, Bengali, Spanish, and chanted
in high Cambodian.  Henry was enchanted
on an Iowa afternoon
but what did it have to do with his failing life,
his whiskey curse, his problems with his wife,

when ‘Let’s have a new tune’
said Hayden to somebody?  He brought his trouble home
and they were grand, and foreign poetry
was foreign poetry;
valiant, but not as brilliant as a comb
to make him less dishevelled.  Old Henry never wept
but then he never slept. 

Jan 1968


Paul Mariani’s biography contains a detailed accounting of the events leading up to Berryman’s death.  It is a death spiral.  After Hazeldon, Berryman’s care was largely overseen by Dr. Zosel at St. Mary’s Hospital.  Berryman was admitted to St. Mary’s repeatedly, in ever worsening physical and mental states.  Mariani attributes Dr. Zosel as stating in an interview, that Berryman was not fully committed to a higher power that Zosel believed was necessary for recovering addicts to be successful. Berryman was willing to share in other’s recovery, but increasingly felt suicide was his only solution to stop his own madness. 

Berryman was deeply disturbed by world events and particularly what was happening with the United States role in Vietnam and Cambodia.  He felt some kind of obligation for poets to bring a clarion call to sanity, but watched as many of his fellow poets (Schwartz, Pound, Jarrell, Plath, etc) had succumbed to declining mental health and feared he was on the same path.  Berryman’s cycles of seeking help, detoxing, then getting out, then regressing and abusing alcohol in massive quantities in an attempt to sleep and write, were wildly out of control. 

Berryman was in demand for readings and interviews coming off the attention and accolades of the Dream Songs, but he was not adept at managing his schedule.  He bungled a request from Meredith to participate in a symposium and went to the wrong city on the wrong date in the fall of 1970, flying home in a stupor.  As his disappearance stretched on for several days after his return flight had arrived, Kate became increasingly distressed and sought help.  He finally sheepishly appeared on their doorstep, 3 days late. Its not surprising, Kate and his doctors immediately transported him to St. Mary’s for a week long stay in a locked ward to sober him up.  Things were grim in the fall of 1970.  Everyone, including Berryman, was at wit’s end.  This is the context that leads up to Berryman writing his mother the letter I shared excerpts in the previous blog. 

Remarkably, Berryman rallied.  He pulled himself together, stopped drinking enough to resume life.  He put together an impressive list of travels and readings throughout the year of 1971.   He surrounded himself with support and did his best to stay sober.  He received a Senior Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.  He was working hard and writing. Kate got pregnant again. But Berryman’s wins, again, proved to be short lived.  A fissure had opened with his lifelong friend Allen Tate, who was hurt by some of the material in Love and Fame, published in 1970.  Berryman questioned himself and whether he was losing control of his literary focus, questioned Tate’s criticism, and generally questioned the state of the universe. 

Berryman was attempting to remain productive, at least in the creation of drafts, and was telling his editor Giroux in June of 1971; “All’s well, better than well, everything plunging ahead, especially the novel…”   Berryman’s mother moved to Minneapolis that same month and barely had she arrived when Kate went into labor and gave birth to their second daughter.  Life was complicated in the Berryman household but had all of the reasons to embrace it.  

By 1970, Berryman had published thirteen books.   He had mapped out the objectives of nearly thirteen more, but realized he would have to stop drinking if he was to complete them.  He had been working on more than one book on Shakespeare for the better part of 15 years and he was eager to see them through.   Giroux was offering a $10,000 advance on the opening draft of the novel Berryman had sent him and sent a letter back it was “marvelous.”  It’s estimated that Berryman’s income in 1971 amounted to around $46,000 in combined salary, speaking fees and royalties.  A sum well beyond his previous earnings and sufficient to allow him to indulge in purchasing rare books again.  But, as before, success rattled him.  He felt like success built the expectations of more success, brilliance can only be followed by more brilliance.  Berryman was having a tough time holding it all together.  Berryman completed the fall semester in 1971, but only barely, his teaching suffered.  He increasingly felt on edge as thoughts of suicide kept creeping in.   In a letter of condolence not long before his death, he wrote to Adrienne Rich, whose husband had committed suicide the year before:

“I hope you are not feeling responsible, but I suppose…. you probably are….Suicide is a purely personal, & aggressive act…. and in our culture w. its taboo the actor is always deranged and out of control.”

One of the unique conditions of the human experience is our relationship with death.  It’s not that other mammals don’t experience grief.   I personally have watched a dog grieve the loss of a kitten, exactly the same as his human housemates. My partner watched a horse react to the death of a long time equine companion with the same explosive grief she was experiencing.   There are lots of animals that are monogamous and mate for life and who experience loss of companionship if their mate is killed.  But no species carries the death of loved ones and even hated ones into the future like humans.   Death is messy, in lot of ways.   Our own deaths or our loved ones deaths are forever intertwined with an element of judgement around was it a good death or another kind.   Hardly anything else we experience as a natural consequence of being born is as complicated as our relationship to death. Yet for the vast majority of us, we have no control over how and when it occurs. And, if we do, there are consequences for the living.

What do whales think about when as a group, they ground themselves on a beach to die?   What is that call to action sound like in whale song?  I recognize there is no way to discuss suicide in a way that sheds any insight.  It’s not a concept that as humans we want to understand.   It’s too emotional, too complicated, too personal and beyond our ability to put into words when it happens within our inner sphere.  But I believe that in some situations, death can be a prevention of more suffering.  

In most jurisdictions, suicide is a criminal act.  There is an investigation by law enforcement afterwards because death in the modern world carries with it all kinds of legal implications around life insurance, property and inheritance.  A death certificate must be filled out with the cause of death.  No one goes to jail, but there are serious repercussions. Any commentary around Berryman’s final moments alive is bound to be clumsy and misinformed.   So I’ll make it brief.

John Berryman died, on January 7, 1972 about 9:15 am.  His death was caused by a fall from a height of approximately 100 feet.  It was the result of him jumping from the north side of the west side of the walk bridge over the Mississippi river connecting the west bank and the east bank of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.   He hit the ground near the bridge abutment and landed in the gravel parking lot or the grass adjacent, on the west side of the river that existed then.   He had no identification on his body except for a blank check. His name was engraved on the inside of his glasses that shattered, but remarkably still sufficiently legible to identify his body as they remained on his face.

I have read several accounts of Berryman’s death.  Nearly all of them have a clunky quality, without I believe intending to.  There is a tinge of anger or judgement that finds its way in. I think its because we all want a happier ending.   I think those qualities are difficult to evade when discussing suicide.  The living have a hard time conceiving why someone would take their own life.  Yet, for John Berryman, in that moment, on that day, it may have been the only way to address his pain.   The question that no one can answer is why Berryman would continue the generational ambiguity of suicide, passing it along as his three children’s inheritance, knowing how much his own father’s death had cost him.   

I walked across that bridge almost daily in the years from 1981 to 1986.  I had no knowledge of John Berryman or his poetry at the time.  The only thing I had ever seen fall from the exact place where Berryman died were stolen bowling balls from the Coffman Memorial Union bowling alley on the east side of the bridge.   A bowling ball dropped from the height of the walk bridge could crush the hood or top of a car parked below.  College students can be cruel.  

I took  a stroll on Thursday of this week all the way from the West bank to the East Bank on the north side and then back on the south side of the walk bridge in the open air.  As you can see from the pictures, the bridge span is quite long. It has a quality of infinity when you begin on one side, especially in winter, which is why there is a covered portion in the center, for comfort to get out of the wind and elements when the view intimidates you.  The bridge hasn’t changed much in the 40 years since I walked it daily and the more than 50 years since Berryman made his final traverse.   It is the same structure, with a slightly newer coat of paint.  However, the University on either side of the bridge has fundamentally changed.  The spectacular architecture of The Weisman Art Museum now anchors the south side of the bridge on the East Bank, which didn’t exist when either of us walked the span.  The west, south side of the bridge is the same group of buildings from 40 years ago, but nothing remains of the fine arts complex on the north side of the west side of the bridge.   The funky bowels of that group of buildings that had the hot glass, ceramics and metal casting studios,  have been replaced by a modern library, several lecture halls, along with an expansion of the complex supporting the Law Department.   I think Berryman would be appalled.  Out with art, in with more law, was not what he was about, even if they have named the complex after Vice President Mondale.

Image (45)

The picture below would likely be similar to Berryman’s last panorama alive.  The parking lot immediately below has been replaced by a park, no errant bowling balls able to reach unsuspecting cars anymore.   I am not even sure that I have the right side of the bridge figured out from the biographies,  was his final moments on the north or south side? I suddenly have doubts as I write this. The north side makes the most sense in some ways, in terms of his state of mind.  If he jumped from the north side, he was looking across to the buildings that housed the English department, and beyond the Humanities Department, where he spent his career lecturing on the East Bank.   He would have been looking across the ice of the Mississippi to the place of where his greatest triumphs occurred.  The south side of the bridge looks at a big sweeping bend in the Mississippi, with St. Mary’s hospital overlooking the sprawl.   I don’t think that would have been his choice, despite it being the prettier view.

My experience in January,  when I walked that bridge, is that  not many people choose the open air portion of the bridge on the north side, because that’s where the wind tends to blow.  You can see in the pictures from this Thursday,  the pedestrians are sparse.  In 1972, there were several people who witnessed Berryman’s final moments.   No one was able to intervene. There is no doorway nearby that specific spot where someone could have rushed out from inside the enclosed walkway and pulled him to safety.  Berryman was alone at the end. 

On Thursday, I stood and reflected with my hand on the railing in about the same spot as Berryman’s.   I read several Dream Songs in his honor out loud, but didn’t make a show of it.  No one noticed.  I then headed to have a celebratory drink in his honor at one of the many fine dive bars that existed in his day on the West Bank.  All of them were closed, most of them permanently.  The few that were still around were not yet open for the day at 11:30 am.  I settled for a cup of coffee instead and asked the 20 something behind the counter if he had ever heard of John Berryman.   He looked at me quizzically, thought for a second, like it was something he might have heard about in a lecture long ago, and said.  “No.”

Image (47)


I can almost feel the strain of relief come through the computer, coming from those of you that read this blog regularly, glad that we are done with Berryman.  I admit, this month and a half has been difficult for me too.  We all have suffered for Berryman’s art.  As I lay down the Berryman journey and skip to Valentines Day, remember that Berryman was a romantic at heart.  I suggest that  we collectively heal by indulging our own romantic nature next week;  with valentines, champagne, sweets, and sweet nothings, the works.  And whether you toast Berryman or eschew him, be sure to toast yourself as a survivor in this increasingly crazy world. And if you are of the mind, toast Henry too.


Dream Song 360

by John Berryman

The universe has gifted me with friends,
was special of it, whom I not deserve
save for my own love back
imperfectly manifested with amends
which Henry had need of, graded on a curve
by certain, Henry on the track

strapped, awaited the train.  Instead came a cable
from the most beautiful woman in the United States,
devout & lovely: ‘Why do you honor me?’
she weirdly askt.  Henry relaxed & stable
but busy busy made reply: ‘We awaits
a lady even more worthy of honor:

until then suffer us to make do with you,
which is forever?  Gulls here beside the sea
approve poor Henry’s choice.
Allow then in our end that we make do
with the mysteries of you which are one mystery’
half-enhanced by Henry’s voice.


Fate Across All Them Rolls

John Berryman

“What is needed is suicide each year, the dead one then to phoenix into change”.

John Berryman, Diary in 1940

Dream Song 290

by John Berryman

Why is Ireland the wettest place on earth
year-round, beating Calcutta in the moonsonn
& the tropical rain-forest?
Clearly the sun has made an exception for Ireland,
the sun growled & shone elsewhere: Iowa,
detestable State.

Adorable country, in its countryside
& persons, & its habits, & its past,
martyrs & heroes,
its noble monks, its wild men of high pride
& poets long ago, Synge, Joyce & Yeats,
and the ranks from which they rose.

Detestable State, made of swine & corn,
rich & ignorant, pastless, with one great tree in it
& doubtless certain souls
perplexed as the Irish whether to shout or mourn
over man’s riddling fate: alter, or stet
Fate across all them rolls. 

Before I continue the story, I want to call out a word in the poem above.  I enjoy writers and poets, who force me to head to the dictionary; writers who stick in seemingly innocuous words in key places that my brain thinks I know the definition, but is really my ego glaring at me, and then my curiosity gets the better of me and I look it up.  I own a 1947 copy of the complete Oxford dictionary which is a good 6 inches thick.  I still look up words in it once in a while just for the smell of the woodiness of the volume and a hint of the cigarette smoke still clinging to its edges from an owner long ago.   

The word is stet.   It can be both a verb and noun, which is imminently useful to a poet, giving the reader much more leeway in their interpretation.  As a verb, in several dictionary’s that I consulted, the first thing it says is:  let it stand, which is quite a statement to make in reference to fate, particularly riddling fates.   But there is a human quality to stet as well, in its meaning, that brings human decision making into play, more so than is implied by the word fate.   The definition goes on to say this: stet is an instruction, a printed instruction (biblical?) to indicate that a correction or alteration contained within the instruction, should be ignored.  

Berryman did not ignore his fate, he commiserated over it every hour of every day practically.  He did ignore most instructions like they were a swarm of bees driving him away.  Berryman detested following rules and was both bombastic in his opposition to even the most benign of them, as well as completely clueless to most of them, most of time.  Other’s in his company preferred the latter in his presence, as it opened the door to more interesting conversation topics. 

The years 1962 to 1968 would prove to be his most successful financially, academically and in many ways, personally of his life.   Unfortunately, success did not breed happiness, in fact it feels like reading his biographies that the more awards, recognition and encouragement that Berryman received, the more miserable he became.   He was in no condition to be in the spotlight, unless it was a very, very small stage, on off, off, off Broadway.   He wrote in a letter to a friend and collaborator, Valerie Trueblood, recounted in Haffendon’s biography, ‘I have done without readers all my life,’ … ‘but now I am both famous & isolated, I need them.  Just locate my errors & weaknesses, that’s all, exc. also obscurities.”   Berryman realized he could not read his own work with the kind of exacting edits that were required.  He needed editors to help protect him from himself.  

Before the year long sabbatical at Brown began in the fall of 1962,  Kate and Berryman spent several weeks at Middlebury College in Vermont during the summer. William Meredith invited Berryman to lunch and the two hit it off immediately when both showed up with a pint of gin.  The two would spend hours together from that point on, discussing literature, sharing drafts of poems they were working on and drinking.  Berryman also met with Robert Frost several times that summer, who was 81 at the time, and still a physical and mental force of nature.  Frost intimidated Berryman in every way and it only fueled his insecurities.   But this summer was an apex in Berryman’s life.  His friends rallied around him, Kate was by his side.  Berryman was completely focused on writing the Dream Songs, draft after draft, but was conflicted on what to do with them.   He had doubts as to how to arrange them, doubts about whether they were merely snap shots, Polaroid pictures, or whether they stitched together a grander narrative of something more substantial.   

Berryman had reached out to Robert Lowell when his marriage with Ann unraveled. Although the two had not been in contact for more than 10 years, the two instantly bonded again and remained good friends in the coming years. Lowell was incredibly kind and encouraging.  I think it was an opportunity for Lowell to extend the hand of grace that had been extended to him many times before. Berryman would read drafts of the latest Dream Song he was working on at the time with whoever was in his company, and Lowell, Merrideth, Richard Wilbur, Allen Tate, Saul Bellows and other writers delighted in their promise,  keeping the light of hope in him that there was something worthwhile on his arduous literary journey. 

His first daughter was born in the fall of 1962.  Berryman was besotted in his joy and jealously.   He missed not being the entire focus of Kate’s mothering, yet, the next several years were likely the happiest of Berryman’s adult life.   By all accounts in his biographies the year at Brown was stellar in terms of his skills as a professor.  His student’s loved him and he for the first time in many ways, loved the preparation and delivery of his lectures.   He was alive in the moment of juggling being a professor, being a new father and still finding time to write creatively into what was now becoming something he felt worthy of the altar of literature where he worshiped.  

His long time editor and publisher, Robert Giroux, was also encouraging of what he was reading and hearing from Berryman.   All of Berryman’s allies were telling him the same thing, stop judging your writing, ignore your inner voice that it is inadequate and disjointed, and organize the best of them into a volume.  Just do it,  put it out into the world. Berryman, in desperate need of money and validation, listened.  In 1964, 77 Dream Songs was published.  Berryman had compiled the best of the more than 300 that he had written up to this point, into a volume that gave him agency as a writer.   The reaction of the literary world was immediate.  Berryman was awarded the Russel Liones award by the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964.  This would be followed by the Pulitzer Prize in 1965 and with it a Guggenheim fellowship and the financial support to spend a year in Ireland, to commune with the ghosts of his heroes, most importantly Yeats.  

You would think that with all this success that Berryman’s health was on the upswing, but in fact in each of these years, Berryman was hospitalized repeatedly for mental health and/or alcoholism.  He was in dramatic decline. It takes an almost athleticism of self abuse to keep the disparity of addiction and success far enough apart to keep going.  It’s not clear at what point Berryman was proscribed Thorazine, but it was the new psychiatric drug treatment of choice at the time.  Thorazine is a lithium based neurological “wonder” drug, that was used to treat bi-polar, schizophrenia and other severe neurological disorders.  I have known a couple of people who were proscribed Thorazine.   Each of them said it was the worst experience of their lives.  Although it reduces the outward mania and depressive states of a patient, it also, in the case of my friends experience who have described it, robbed them of a vitality of their inner selves.  It was torture to have everyone around them applaud their new flatlined emotional states as an “improvement”, while they were screaming silently, inwardly, into the void, “HELP”, even louder.  Anyone who has ever been proscribed Thorazine and its generic analogs are instructed that on no condition to mix it with alcohol.  The combination has severe side effects, causing even worse depression, gross impacts of the central nervous system, to the point of an inability to operate machinery or drive a car and it increases the risk of accidents and falling.   The degree to which Thorazine caused these side effects was not as well known then as it is today.   If you read Berryman’s biography, and the multiple references to his clutzy nature, his falls and piddly accidents, you can get the impression that he was just unlucky or physically inept or drunk.  But I suspect that Berryman’s well intended doctors predestined him to this fate of self injury that were the result of his countless accidents and he would have been better off to stet their prescriptions. 

Hazard Faces a Sunday in the Decline

By William Meredith
We need the ceremony of one another,
meals served, more love,
more handling of one another with love, less
casting out of those who are not
of our own household.
‘This turkey is either not cooked
enough or it’s tough.’
The culture is in late imperial decline.
The children don’t like dark meat or
pepper. They say the mother sometimes
deliberately puts pepper on the things
the grown-ups like better.
Less casting out of those in our own
household with whom we disagree.
The cat will not hear of cat food,
he waves it away. He has seen
the big thrush taken from the cold
box, dressed and put in the hot.
‘If I set the alarm clock, will you turn
on the oven when it goes off?’ then
she went off to see the profane
dancers of the afternoon. It was done.
The fact that I don’t like his pictures
should not obscure the facts
that he is a good man
that many admire his work (his canvases
threaten my existence and I hope
mine his, the intolerant bastard)
that we are brothers in humanity
& the art. Often it does, though.
The cat has followed Hazard from his studio,
he looks mean. He upbraids
the innocent dog and
all of us, he casts us out.
‘There’s pepper in this gravy. We’re
supposed to eat dry turkey and you’ve
put pepper in the gravy.’
The meal is served, nevertheless
with felt love, some godless benediction.
The grown ones have wine after the other
bottle. They cast out a lot. ‘The dancers
this afternoon were, well, thinky,’
she says. She toys with her glass.
‘He is strictly a one-joke painter,’
he replies, ‘painted that one twenty
years ago and is still putting pepper
on it, ha hah. Finish your turkey
you two and leave a little gravy for someone else.’
The cat is taking notes against
his own household. He watches.
Hazard would like once to see
things with the cat’s eyes, flat.
Now it is time to go to bed. Hungry
and alone most go to bed in this
decline and in all others, yet
Someone has fed us again and blessed us
with the manners of bohemia. Among barbarians,
a lot is expected of us, ceremony-wise.
We rise to that expectation.

Married Life Is A Boat

John Berryman

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. There is nothing permanent except change.


Dream Song 257

by John Berryman

The thunder & the flaw of their great quarrel
abased his pen.  He could not likely think.
He took himself out of it,
both wrong & right, beyond well beyond moral,
in the groves of meaningless rage, which ache & stink
unlike old shit

which loses its power almost in an hour,
our burgeons.  When I trained my wives, I thought
now they’ll be professional:
they became professional, at once wedlocks went sour
because they couldn’t compete with Henry, who sought
their realizations.  The J. P. coughed. 

Married life is a boat
forever dubious, with the bilge stale.
There’s no getting out of that.
Gongs & lightning crowd my returned throat,
I always wept at parades: I knew I’d fail:
Henry wandered back on stage & sat. 

Berryman took a sabbatical to the University of California Berkeley following his divorce from Ann in the fall of 1959.   He was in ill health, with a persistent cough, which he blamed on a mysterious malady he had contracted on his trip to the orient, rather than his smoking.  He was desperately lonely and oddly disconnected once again from the rest of the English department, given that they had recruited him to come to California.  He managed to stay the entire academic year and fulfill his contract, but it was not without tribulations.   He eventually was able to cobble together some connections to get him out of his apartment, befriending several poets and writers in the bay area, including Thom Gunn and Anthony Ostroff.  

Berryman was glad to return to Minneapolis in the spring of 1960 and immediately began chasing younger women.  In fact, it almost reads in his biographies like he had started these relationships with these two women before he left.  Now back in town, he threw himself headlong into both relationships, professing his love. There is a disingenuous quality to Berryman pursuing two young women simultaneously, as if he was hedging his bets.  Wisely, both women fended off his advances, while still maintaining some kind of a friendship for a bit.  Berryman obviously could be quite charming when he put the full intensity of his intellect upon an individual, particularly women and for some reason, particularly devout Catholic women.  Something about Berryman’s world view and presence was cathartic for young Catholic women trying to figure out their sexuality and adulthood in relationship to their faith. Was he a father figure, an accomplished artist, or was he an entry into a world of all that was forbidden?  Who knows, but Berryman instantly was embroiled in drama after drama, both at the University and with these two young women, which always eventually fueled the onset of illness. 

He was also broke, as he had agreed to pay child support to Ann for Paul around $100 a month.  Berryman couldn’t really manage a budget and was always in arrears.  Ann sued him in court that summer, something that would reoccur several times over the next 10 years.  Berryman would respond to these legal actions by frantically trying to generate additional funds by writing for awards or grants, or by accepting additional lectures on top of his teaching load.   He would eventually dig himself out of debt with Ann and pay his legal fees, which he did several times, only to fall back into debt again.  This forced creativity that was his only source of income, just added to his stress. 

The tragedy of Berryman’s third marriage is he knew it wasn’t going to work even before he got married. Berryman couldn’t manage life without being in a relationship with a woman.  He simply could not function, even to the point of not being able to feed himself properly.  He was an adolescent man with a raging intellect, if not a raging hard-on by this point in his decline.  It may be why his often ragged poetry subconsciously has a child like effect on the reader.  There is in his poetry a wild eyed quality, a hopefulness of youth that is or isn’t right there, just out of reach below the surface, that is eventually overwhelmed by his negativity.  But its that hint of retribution, that keeps the reader going.  Berryman was frozen in time as an adolescent the moment his father died.  And like an adolescent, he vacillated between disparate, almost hormonal, vastly different emotional states, seemingly uncontrollably.

In June of 1961, Berryman went to Indiana University, in Bloomington, to teach an eight week course.  He had 15 students and by his own account, said they “were the best students he had ever taught,” collectively.  However, because Berryman could name drop the whose-who list of poets and writers of his generation as personal friends or acquaintances, many of his students at Indiana University didn’t believe him.  They thought he was embellishing his lectures and word got back to him about his perceived fabrications through the department chair, who found it amusing, knowing that Berryman was telling the truth. This lack of acceptance by his students, made Berryman unsteady and frustrated. Berryman always did his best when he was in the presence of adoration, particularly when it came to teaching.  The age gap between him and his students was growing and with it became a larger and larger chink in his armor, to shield himself from this nagging sense that he was a failure. He left that summer feeling less than fulfilled and in turmoil, in part over Hemingway’s death, which had resurrected emotions from his own father’s death that he was always trying to keep at bay.  Berryman wrote Dream Song 235 in response. 

Tears Henry shed for poor old Hemingway
Hemingway in despair, Hemingway at the end,
the end of Hemingway,
tears in a diningroom in Indiana
and that was years ago, before his marriage say,
God to him no worse luck send.

Save us from shotguns & fathers’ suicides.
It all depends on who you’re the father of
if you want to kill yourself-
a bad example, murder of oneself,
the final death, in a paroxysm, of love
for which good mercy hides?
. . . .
Mercy!  my father; do not pull the trigger
or all my life I’ll suffer from your anger
killing what you began.

Oddly, his two (likely platonic) relationships since he had returned from California did bear fruit. His letter writing campaigns to each continued while in Indiana, maintaining their connections.  While still courting a woman referred to as J, he met a friend of hers named Kathy Donahue when he returned at the end of the summer of 1961. Berryman took to calling her Kate, who like J, was a good Catholic, and 22 years old.  Kate’s mother had died when she was young.  Her father had a drinking problem and she was a caretaker by default.  Berryman was still professing his love for J, in letters to Kate, which only added to the conflicted romantic ideals of this ill matched couple.  Her father was horrified when he found out his lovely Catholic daughter was dating a man more than twice her age, and was twice divorced.  His disapproval might just have sealed the deal for Kate, as Berryman was a way out of her father’s house and yet she could transfer her best nurturing abilities onto him. Berryman even consulted a priest on how to proceed in his relationship with Kate and then took offense at his advice, which was to stop.  Of course what this all meant was their relationship took on even more trappings of secrecy, forcing the two of them to seek shelter only in each other. Kate and Berryman’s love was being battered by the misunderstandings from the rest of the world, and so almost inevitably, to prove everyone else wrong, by the end of the summer of 1961, the two were married.  Berryman made a mess of the proceedings, barely sober enough to sign his own name or suffering from withdrawal tremors or both, he had to practice several times before he could sign his own name legibly on the marriage certificate in front of the justice of the peace.  Kate, the good Catholic, under the tutelage and care of nuns for 16 years, did not have a Catholic wedding.  

Kate got pregnant almost immediately and by summer of 1962 their first daughter arrived while he was a visiting professor at Brown University.   Kate, enormously pregnant, drove the entire way to Rhode Island after the spring semester was over in Minnesota, as Berryman was physically and mentally incapable of driving long distances.  Kate would lovingly care for Berryman for the next 10 years.  But she couldn’t save him from himself.   

I have wondered if Berryman’s infatuation with much younger women, was in part a cry for help.   Was he courting not only their love, but at the same time trying to court a love of himself, which had never really taken root as an adult?  Was Berryman trying to find that reset button to transport himself back to his 20’s and try and start over?   The pictures of Berryman with both his second and third wife are striking because they are both so young and vibrant and Berryman has not aged well, looking much older than his years.  It looks like they are in the presence of their grandfathers, so wide is the age gap in appearance.  By the 1960’s when Kate meets him, he has stopped shaving or even grooming in some instances and he has this permanent, wild disheveled look, with blackened teeth from incessant smoking.   

There is only one explanation for why all these young women were attracted to him, because he was a walking, talking, drooping, coughing, addicted, drama machine; in the end it must have been electric to be in his company, to be his confidante, his muse, his friend, even his lover, if you had no other sexual relationship to compare it too.  And devout Catholic girls at the ages he was courting them by and large in the 1950’s and 1960’s were virgins.  He obviously overcame all the reasons of why not to fall in love with him based on his charisma at the right time and at the right place. He was childlike in many ways, and possibly that seemed attractive to young women experiencing love for the first time who see in his dependence some type of affirmation of themselves as a romantic partner.  He was never a great husband in any of his marriages, but his long standing friendships are a testament that he could be a great friend.  And lets hope it is in friendship that his marriages were founded and survived as best they could. 

The reference below to Chatterton can be taken as a metaphor or a joke.   Its obviously a shout out to D. H. Lawrence’s novel about the adulterous affair of a young married noblewoman, after her older husband comes home from the war, paralyzed from the waist down.   Who is Henry or Berryman in relation to this poem?   I’d place my bet on both, the paralyzed, impotent husband and the charming, sexually adept, groping young gardener.   

Dream Song 263

by John Berrman

You couldn’t bear to grow old, but we grow old. 
Our differences accumulate.  Our skin
tightens or droops; it alters.
Take courage, things are not what they have been
and they never will again.  Hot hearts grow cold,
the rush to the surface falters,

secretive grows the disappearing soul
learned & uncertain, young again
but not in the same way:
Heraclitus had a wise word here to say,
which I forget.  We wake & blunder on,
wiser, on the whole,

but not more accurate.  Leave that to the young,
grope forward, toward where no one else has been
which is our privilege.
Besides, you gave up early in our age
which is your privilege, from Chatterton
to the bitter & present scene.

Let’s Lie.

One must be ruthless with one’s own writing or someone else will be.

John Berryman

Dream Song 190

by John Berryman

The doomed young envy the old, the doomed old the dead young.
It is hard & hard to get these matters straight.
Keats glares at Yeats
who full of honours died & being old sung
his strongest.  Henry appreciated that hate,
but what now of Yeats’

lucky of-Fanny-free feeling for Keats
who doomed by Mistress Gonne proved barren years
and saw his friends all leave,
stale his rewards turn, & cut off then at his peak,
promising in his seventies! all fears
save that one failed to deceive.

I scrounge ensamples violent by choice.
In most what matters,  Henry wondered.  Let’s lie. 
All we fall down & die
after a course worse of a stoppage of voice
so terrible I have no more to say
but best is the short day.

I have met a few men whose womanizing was in part a cover for their hidden bisexuality.  I always find it curious that men who have had a long-standing successful marriage, fathered multiple children and who eventually divorce are generally classified as now coming out as “gay,” if later in life they have a relationship with a man.  In my mind their life experience is the definition of being a bisexual.  Of course, we all choose the label that is most comfortable to wear when it comes to our sexuality.  But, I think this black and white characterization around sexuality is easier for society to process.  There is an uneasiness with the concept of bisexuality, often because of a judging morality that goes beyond many people’s views on homosexuality, that underscores how being bisexual carries its own unique set of challenges as well as illuminations.  Bisexuality doesn’t fit societies norms of marriage, commitment, faithfulness and authenticity.   There is a mistaken assumption by particularly heterosexuals, that identifying as bisexual means you must be promiscuous and unfaithful.   Bisexuals can be every bit as monogamous or more so than most heterosexuals or homosexuals, it’s a matter of putting relationship above desires.  The challenges of monogamy are universal.  It’s unfortunate that to this day, both the heterosexual and homosexual community tend to view bisexuals with some degree of wariness for their perceived “lack of authenticity.”  Whereas for those who are truly bisexual, it maybe their most personal true authentic self.  And since Berryman was raised Catholic and had a reoccurring attraction to devout Catholic women, there was a third rail of his homosexual attractions that even if it was just a fantasy for Berryman, would have created strong potential emotional conflicts internally.

It’s impossible to get inside the head of Berryman and know for sure, but in John Haffenden’s biography there are several references to Berryman’s sexuality written by Berryman himself.   Berryman wrote constantly.  He left a huge number of musings, self-diagnoses that were part of his intense self-examination that were also possibly part inspiration for future Dream Songs.  

Berryman was a painfully shy, disquieted man, who covered it up with a loud, boisterous, boozy demeanor at times.  He could tell great stories about many famous men and women of letters and of his travels all over the world, and yet not really share anything about himself.  He disliked parties but could entertain for hours in a bar and loved to talk poetry and art under the influence with other writers and academics.  He was also a drug addict.  His addictions were all prescription drugs, which was not uncommon in the 1950’s and 1960’s when various versions of tranquilizers and speed were routinely prescribed by doctors to the white middle class suffering from the kind of manic and depressive episodes that were part of Berryman’s life.

Why do I mention sex and drugs and booze?   For some people it is only in the loss of control that they are able to act on the entire range of their innermost selves.  In October of 1954, when he moved to Minneapolis alone, he had neither a job or a full time sexual partner.   He set out to seduce a series of much younger women through letters and poems, a technique that had often worked in the past.  But it troubled him.  He left behind in his notes the following that is recounted in Haffenden’s biography;

“What’s wrong that I am so at all these very young women?. . . Am I doting?. . . I am thoroughly ashamed of the nerve-wracking & evil complex I have got myself into . . . Spare them!  WORK.”

Berryman hoped that by documenting his thoughts and dreams he would find some level of control over his compulsions.  He himself saw a connection between his periods of excessive drinking and sex.    He wrote in 1954:

“my woman-killing nightmares were homosexually oriented….liquor must be important, because . . . I find it so closely related to my adult wd-be homosexual experiences (all of them); and because, to my amazement, I experience today & yesterday almost no craving for alcohol – much as I’d been drinking – and this fact suggests that it must be psychological, i. e. neurotic.  I have never really believed that till tonight; I’ve always thought my will just weak.”

“So on these two scores alone – not to add that it looks as if my promiscuity might disappear, as well, with the (possibly even imminent) clearing up of the homosexual business – I wonder if today is not one of the most important of my life. “

Neither of course was true.  His need for personal validation through intimacy with both men and women continued, though the vast majority of his sexual experiences were with women and his intimacy with men was by and large intellectual.  He continued to drink to disassociate from tension and as a writing aid.  The problem with mixing drugs, alcohol and stress is it wears you down and ceases to work as a stimulant for creative pursuits.  It’s impacts on the brain and body eventually catch up with everyone.   

By 1969, Berryman’s health hit rock bottom.  He had a series of alcohol induced trauma’s, physically, professionally and personally.   He was admitted into Hazelden, a famous alcohol and drug treatment center in St. Paul.  There is an infamous no-nonsense approach to Hazeldon.  Berryman did everything that the counselors at Hazeldon required.  Hazeldon uses the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 step program, with Step One to admit that “we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”   As part of Step One, every patient is required to write a recitation of their life that doesn’t shield themselves from their transgressions and actions under the influence and provides transparency to the counselors and others in their group on the depth of their honesty in their ability to accept their own humanity and change.  It is a big step in the process around acceptance, forgiveness and to be open to not judging others in their struggle. 

Berryman wrote a book called Recovery, an accounting of his experience in treating addiction, and in it he recounts his testimonial in Step One.   It is a long, painful confession that reaches back to more than 30 years of despair and guilt.   He seems to recount every single thing that he had done to destroy himself, including his long list of sexual misadventures with mostly women, but with a reference to seducing students drunk and to homosexual advances, though he then minimizes it by saying of the homosexuality that it occurred only “4 or 5 times.” It was such an unvarnished explanation of his past that his counselor at Hazeldon thought it was one of the very best Step One confessions he had ever read.   But, as the sobriety didn’t take for long, he also felt in hindsight after Berryman’s death, it was also one of the most misleading.  

Berryman did what he needed to do to get out of Hazeldon and never went back.  He instead checked himself into an AA group at St. Mary’s Hospital, which was closer to where he lived and worked on campus.  He also had more control of how he checked in with the process at St. Mary’s. He did admit to himself and his group that alcoholism is a 100% fatal disease.  He understood he could not escape it’s effects.  But then so again is living.  Life is a fatal condition.    

Berryman was married three times, had at least three children.   He had countless affairs and one-night stands with women.  All of that was to some degree out in the open and not without its own aspects of shame, guilt and self-destructive tendencies.  Having also a sexual attraction for men and acting on it, both in his youth (which is hinted at several times in the biographies and was not uncommon in all male boarding schools), and as an adult, is a good deal more difficult.  In 1969, homosexuality was still considered a mental illness and a criminal offense, let alone the damage it could do to your career, marriages and family relationships, particularly the relationship with his wives and mother.  Berryman was both privately honest at times about his bisexuality and publicly very much in the closet because he didn’t have any other choice.  How much his sexuality was at the core of his torments is only for him to know.  But in reading through his poetry and his biographies, it is clear that during all the different treatments he went through during his lifetime, sex was not alongside the other addictions he was attempting to address.  In retrospect it feels like a miss.  Sex was not a focus in his treatments, despite sex having similar brain effects as the chemicals he ingested right up until his death.  Each of them combined and interacted to impact his serotonin and dopamine levels and with it his feelings of self-worth, happiness and control, as well as shame, guilt and despair.  If he confided to his therapists and psychiatrists about his bisexuality is only for them to know.  If talk therapy brought him peace, it would appear it was always short lived at best. Berryman survived, thrived and self-destructed all in the same breath.  He also worked hard to leave a body of writing that can be condemned or admired for the level of truths contained within their lines, both around the beauty and ugliness of the human condition.  If Berryman prevaricated in the truth of his innermost secrets in his personal relationships is impossible to know and unimportant to everyone but those with which he had those relationships, but he did not do so in his art.  Berryman spilled his blood on nearly every page.  Whether you like it or dislike it, is up to you.  His writing and legacy are certainly not for the faint of heart.


The Ball Poem

By John Berryman
What is the boy now, who has lost his ball.
What, what is he to do? I saw it go
Merrily bouncing, down the street, and then
Merrily over—there it is in the water!
No use to say ‘O there are other balls’:
An ultimate shaking grief fixes the boy
As he stands rigid, trembling, staring down
All his young days into the harbour where
His ball went. I would not intrude on him,
A dime, another ball, is worthless. Now
He senses first responsibility
In a world of possessions. People will take balls,
Balls will be lost always, little boy,
And no one buys a ball back. Money is external.
He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes,
The epistemology of loss, how to stand up
Knowing what every man must one day know
And most know many days, how to stand up
And gradually light returns to the street,
A whistle blows, the ball is out of sight.
Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Floor of the harbour . . I am everywhere,
I suffer and move, my mind and my heart move
With all that move me, under the water
Or whistling, I am not a little boy.

Am I a Good Man?

John Berryman

He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes,
The epistemology of loss….

John Berryman

Dream Song 239

by John Berryman

Am I a bad man?  Am I a good man?
–Hard to say, Brother Bones.  Maybe you be both,
like most of we.
–The evidence is difficult to structure towards deliberate evil.
But what of the rest?  Does it was for wrath
in its infinitive complexity?

She left without a word, for Ecudor.
I would have liked to discuss more with her this thing
through the terrible nights.
She was than Henry wiser, being younger or
a woman.  She brought me Sanka and violent drugs
which were yet wholly inadequate. 

My doctor doubles them daily.  Am I a bad one–
I’m thinking of them fires & their perplexness–
or may a niche be found
in nothingness for completely exhausted Henry?
But it comes useless to canvass this alone,
out of her eyes and sound.

The connection that brought Berryman to the University of Minnesota was his long time friend Allen Tate, who had taken the position that Robert Penn Warren had held in the English department.  But the English department was not interested in Berryman, his reputation for bad behavior and emotional instability had followed him from the University of Iowa from the previous spring.  It was Ralph Ross in the Humanities department who took a liking to Berryman and saw in him a charismatic lecturer with the prestige of academic awards for his writing.  Ross had the freedom and support of the University to appoint top talent, mostly recruited from the east coast.  It was Ross, combined with friendships through Berryman and Tate that brought Saul Bellow, Issac Rosenfeld and George Amberg to the University of Minnesota to teach in the Humanities department. 

Berryman cobbled together grants, awards and lectures to get through the winter of 1955 and finally landed a full time fairly well-paying Associate Professor teaching position in the Humanities department in the spring.  As usual, Berryman couldn’t let a good thing stand, and carped continuously on the injustices of not being considered for a position in English Department.   However, the period from fall of 1954 to 1956 were some of Berryman’s most stable and productive of the decade.   He sobered up (or as much as he ever did), took to teaching again with a workman like enthusiasm, and began writing the Dream Songs.  

Berryman saw the Dream Songs as a direct off shoot of his ongoing therapy and his detailed documentation of his own dreams. Berryman believed he had to suffer for his art.  He also believed art could create life, new life, for the artist and those that read the artist’s work.   Berryman embraced the idea that he could create a new personna, “Henry”, from which he could imbue and disembark from his own emotions.  It was a vessel to shape, reshape and renew. 

Early in his career at Minnesota, Berryman met Elizabeth Ann Levine.   She was a Harvard educated bright, beautiful graduate student in the English department. Although Berryman had no qualms about sleeping with other women while still married to Eileen, he was a nervous wreck over the steps required to achieve a proper Catholic divorce.   He was informed by his lawyer that he had to file a document with three witnesses testifying to the effect that Eileen had abandoned him.  Even Berryman felt the guilt of that untruth.  The stress of it, and the unwanted attention it brought from his mother, and the challenges of trying to become a tenured professor at the University, brought about yet another near nervous breakdown.  However, in among the emotional chaos, Berryman found the courage to propose to Ann and get a divorce from Eileen.  Once the divorce was final, he wasted no time getting married to Ann in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in the fall of 1956.  

Berryman’s son Paul was born in 1957.   At first Berryman was smitten by the new baby, and his beautiful young wife, but it doesn’t take long for tensions to rise.  He accepted a lecturing series that summer that took him to India, Japan and Italy for over two months and more importantly, gets him out of Minneapolis.  When he returns, he throws himself at writing and teaching.  It doesn’t take Ann long to resent his selfish attitude and lack of commitment to being a father and a husband.  Although he and Ann had cemented their friendship with Saul Bellows and his wife, during this period, it doesn’t wallpaper over the growing divisions in the Berryman household.  The wives spend the summer of 1958 taking the kids to play while their husbands are busy writing indoors.  Berryman overworks himself to the point of exhaustion again and by 1959, Ann realizes that the marriage is not going to work.  She does not wait around, and the divorce is final before the end of the year. 

Dream Song 242

by John Berryman

About that ‘me.’ After a lecture once
came up a lady asking to see me. ‘Of course.
When would you like to?’
Well now, she said.  ‘Yes, but I have a lunch-
eon–‘ Then I saw her and shifted with remorse
and said ‘Well; come on over.’

So we crossed to my office together and I sat her down
and asked, as she sat silent, ‘What is it, miss?’
‘Would you close the door?’
Now Henry was perplexed.  We don’t close doors
with students; it’s just a principle  But this
lady looked beyond frown.

So I rose from the desk & closed it and turning back
found her in tears-apologizing-‘No,
go right ahead,’ I assur-
ed her, ‘here’s a handkerchief. Cry.’ She did, I did. When she got
control, I said “What’s the matter-if you want to talk?’
‘Nothing.  Nothing’s the matter.’ So.
I am her.

Let Me Lament Alone

Eileen (Berryman) Simpson (1918 – 2002)

It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.

Earnest Hemingway

A Dialogue Between Old England and New (An Excerpt)

by Anne Bradstreet (1612 – 1672)
Old England.
Art ignorant indeed of these my woes,
Or must my forced tongue these griefs disclose,
And must my self dissect my tatter’d state,
Which Amazed Christendom stands wondering at?
And thou a child, a Limb, and dost not feel
My weak’ned fainting body now to reel?
This physic-purging-potion I have taken
Will bring Consumption or an Ague quaking,
Unless some Cordial thou fetch from high,
Which present help may ease my malady.
If I decease, dost think thou shalt survive?
Or by my wasting state dost think to thrive?
Then weigh our case, if ‘t be not justly sad.
Let me lament alone, while thou art glad.

The publication of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet in 1953 in the Partisan Review is a demarcation in Berryman’s life and career.  Berryman had been appointed a prestigious position for the spring of 1952 at the University of Cincinnati.   Eileen, herself an accomplished writer and successful therapist, joined him and began working at the University hospital, while waiting to open her own practice.  Eileen published a remarkable memoir in 1982, The Lives of Young Poets, a generous account of their lives together and their friendships with the myriad of poets of their generation. 

Eileen suffered from back issues throughout their marriage, with a combination of degeneration of disks and benign tumors that required several surgeries.  She suffered from chronic pain and for periods during the final seven years of their marriage was proscribed opioids for pain management, at times nearly bed-ridden because of the condition.  Eileen’s prolonged illness created a justification in Berryman’s mind for his repeated affairs, trysts, one night stands and womanizing.  Berryman’s adultery was not a mystery to either Eileen or his friends.  More often than not, he was eventually found out by someone in his inner circle.  Several times he had close calls where he feared he had of fathered a child with one of his lovers, and may have in fact done so, but none of his lovers ever held him accountable.   In reading the multiple biographies its clear that Berryman had a high sex drive that did not align with Eileen’s.  It’s also hinted at that she in part blamed herself for his extra-marital activities. Berryman was the kind of man who both loathed and worshiped women, a chaos fueled in part by his complicated relationship with his mother.  His loathing extended to a part of himself for the force that sex held over his thoughts and actions.  His eventual regrets never seemed to stop him from taking advantage of the sexual relationships that his looks and intelligence afforded him. 

Eileen made several attempts to help her husband reform his ways.  She demanded he get help for his drinking and to start psychotherapy to see if he could put to rest some of his demons from his past.  He took to the psychotherapy, but not abstinence.  This period of critical success with his writing did help out their finances, but it was also marked by a cycle of shortage of funds.  By the time they moved to Cincinnati in spring of 1952, Berryman owed thousands of dollars to friends, landlords, his psychiatrist and banks.  Berryman and his wife never could afford to buy a house during their 10 year marriage, despite both having successful careers.  There were always medical bills and other expenses that got in their way of achieving a level of financial comfort that both desired.  Berryman suffered for his art, intellectually, financially and at times socially.  Berryman’s boat floated but rarely glided down stream with ease.

The two would spend one final summer together in 1953 in Europe.   Berryman toured and lectured following the critical success of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. Berryman’s timing of publication was fortunate.  There was still an acceptance of long form poetry among critics and publishers.  The 57 stanza 544 line poem likely would not have received as much literary acclaim if published just a few years later.  Eileen had grown tired of living with his literary “mistress” that the writing of his long poem required as well as his repeated affairs in real life.  They would separate when they returned that fall and divorce two years later in 1956. 

Berryman had already begun his magnum opus, the long process of writing the first volume of Dream Songs.  During this time he would teach one semester at the University of Iowa in 1954, only to be dismissed for intoxication, profanity and an arrest for disturbing the peace.  It didn’t phase him.  He would be recruited by the University of Minnesota to become a lecturer in the Humanities Department in 1955, where he would remain until his death in 1972. 

Although reading Homage to Mistress Bradstreet is a bit of a slog today, its clear that Berryman had already honed his writing and poetic style that is carried forward into the creation of Dream Songs.   His intellectual capacity to connect history and literature in his writing was well established.  So too was his lifelong self destructive habits that were as immovable as his drive to be a successful poet.  I have not read Eileen’s memoir, but have ordered a copy for February as a way to mentally cleanse myself as I venture further into Berryman’s demise.   I’ll share anything I find particularly compelling later in the year.   Berryman’s final lines in stanza 37 are chilling in the honesty and complexity of his struggle to find peace in his relationships with women and the destructive tendencies of his behavior on their lives. 

Homage To Mistress Bradstreet (An Excerpt)

by John Berryman


–Hard and divided heaven! creases me.  Shame
is failing.  My breath is scented, and I throw
hostile glances toward God.
Crumpling plunge of pestle, bray:
sin cross & opposite, wherein I survive
nightmares of Eden.  Reaches foul & live
he for me, this soul
to crunch, a minute tangle  of eternal flame.


I fear Hell’s hammer-wind.  But fear does wane.
Death’s blossoms  grain my hair; I cannot live.
A black joy clashes
joy, in twilight.  The Devil said
‘I will deal toward her softly, and her enchanting cries
will fool the horns of Adam.’ Father of lies,
a male great pestle smashes
small women swarming towards the mortar’s rim in vain.

I Will Love That Touch

R. P. Blackmur (1904 – 1965)

In the gloom the gold, Gather’s the light about (against) it.

Ezra Pound, R. P. Blackmur

Dream Song 173

In Mem: R. P. Blackmur

by John Berryman

Somebody once pronounced upon one Path.
What rhythm shall we use for Richard’s death,
the dearer of the dear,
my older friend of three blackt out on me
I am heartbroken-open-heart surgery-see!
but I am not full of fear.

Richard is quiet who talked on so well:
I fill with fear: I agree: all this is hell
Where will he lie?
In a tantrum of horror & blocking where will he be?
With Helen, whom he softened-see! see!  see!
But not nearby.

Which search for Richard will not soon be done.
I blow on the live coal. I would be one,
another one.
Surely the galaxy will scratch my itch
Augustinian, like the night-wind witch
and I will love that touch.

R. P. Blackmur would begin teaching English literature in 1940 at Princeton and would remain a faculty member of the department for the next 25 years.   Blackmur was an eloquent voice for the new age in criticism.  His own small body of published work well behind him, he parlayed his keen intellect, intimidating good looks, sharp tongue into a successful teaching career and eventually literary criticism.   It was he that put in a good word for Berryman and helped him obtain a position in the fall of 1943.  The period from 1943 to 1953 saw Berryman hold various positions at Princeton and saw him rise in stature as a poet among his peers.  

During this period he befriended Robert Lowell, Ezra Pound, Caroline Gordon, Jean Stafford, Randall Jarrell, Saul Bellows, R. P. Blackmur, in addition to his long standing relationships with Schwartz, Tate and others.   He won numerous awards during this period for essays, short stories, a biography of Stephen Crane and in 1953, for his long poem Homage to Miss Bradstreet.   The list of awards is note worthy, including  a Rockefeller Foundation Research fellowship (1944), Kenyon-Doubleday first place award for writing, (1945), Gurantors Prize for Poetry (1949), Shelley Memorial Award for Poetry (1949), Levinson Prize for Poetry (1950) and a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing (1952).   

These ten years mark both the rise of Berryman as an established poet and writer as well as the fall of Berryman as a man and a husband.   It is a period marked by repeated affairs, excessive womanizing and multiple betrayals of Eileen.   It is a wonder their marriage lasted ten years.  That it did,  is a testament to Eileen’s kindness and forgiveness.   Her inability to have a child was a source of both relief and agony for both during their marriage.  Berryman’s drinking and ill health as well as Eileen’s own health issues, peppered their ten year marriage with constant drama, but also mutual dependence. 

It was during this period that he had his affair with Lise in 1947, the much younger wife of a graduate student.   It was an all consuming, destructive affair.   It was also mind games, as Berryman used Lise to not only fuel his ego sexually, but also to  construct a muse for his writing of sonnets, that would chronicle the affair.  He wrote them in secret, used them to seduce her and would only publish them as a volume called Berryman’s Sonnets twenty years later.   The 130 plus sonnets were published in 1967, after publication of 77 Dream Songs in 1964. 

I mention the affair and the book for two reasons.   One, Berryman’s Sonnets was a critical and publishing flop.  The context of their writing and the inappropriateness of the relationship gives everyone the willies and they aren’t very good. The very fact that it was published on the heals of winning the Pulitzer Prize is an hangover of the establishment of white men of letters of the time, who were allowed to get away with behavior that would be condemned today.   Second, it is evidence that Berryman, who wrote an extensive biography on Shakespeare, was wrestling with the traditional sonnet form within the context of “romantic”, if you can call it that, literature.   It is from this base of extensive sonnet writing that he would move on to the more stylized form that would become the basis of the Dream Songs.  

Berryman is richly praised for his “original” creation of the Dream Song sonnet form. So it was a bit of a surprise when I stumbled across Blackmur’s poem below, published in 1933, years before Berryman wrote any of his Dream Songs.  The eighteen line poem, consisting of three six line stanzas is identical in its construction and use of rhyme for which Berryman would become renowned.   I have always felt that everything is derivative, nothing is completely original.   Every writer, either consciously or unconsciously, is influenced by writing that came before their own.  But it is striking to see an example of a close colleague, with whom he taught alongside for years,  use the form that would become associated with Berryman 30 years later. 


Steriles Ritournelles

by R. P. Blackmur

I saw a face rise up
made honest by the dark
shadow of its hat.
What animal out of the ark
but would continue chaste
had its opposite a face like that?

How have I seen this promise waste—
treasure of company,
complement in thought,
the cord of Unity
binding the public deed—
spent, bewildered, broken, gone to seed.

How have I seen a smile unsought
startle the mystery,
make plain how all this action ends.
From this his gestured generosity
I think him such an actor as, maybe,
might lay down a hated wife for friends.

God Has Many Other Surprises

Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.

To Bhain Campbell (1911 – 1940)

by John Berryman

I told a lie once in a verse.  I said
I said, I said, I said, “The heart will mend
Body will break and mend, the foam replace
For even the unconsolable, his taken friend.”
This is a lie.  I had not been there then.

Dream Song 156

by John Berryman

I give in.  I must not leave           the scene of this same death
as most of me strains to.
There all the problems to be sorted out,
the fate of the soul, what it was all about
during it’s being, and whether he was drunk
at 4 a.m. on the wrong floor too

fighting for air, tearing his sorry clothes
with his visions dying O and O I mourn
again this complex death
Almost my oldest friend should never have been born
to this terrible end, out which what grows
but an unshaven, dissheveled corpse?

The spirit & the joy, in memory
live of him on,  the young will read his young verse
for as long as such things go:
why then do I despair, miserable Henry
who knew him all so long, for better & worse
and nearly would follow him below.


Berryman debarked from Cambridge in fall of 1938 in debt, largely in part to having acquired a considerable library of rare books during his stay.  These had become collateral for credit for living expenses and travel, but as his finances dwindled he was ultimately forced to leave them behind.  It would be years before he was able to pay off the debt and retrieve them.  He headed by ship for New York City and moved in with his mother and step father.   Although the apartment was generous, with ample space for him to work, he felt restless and pinned in by the emotional tension of being under his mother’s roof once again.   Ultimately, his living there, did not sit well with either of them and was one more cause of his constant mental fatigue. 

He immediately reconnected with Delmore Schwartz, Alan Tate, Mark Van Doren and other friends while in New York.  He was frustrated by his both limited successes at publishing and limited employment options.  He was able to line up a modest teaching position with the help of Mark Van Doren at Colombia for that fall, but it was not a sufficient stipend to pay off his debts and prepare to assist his fiance to join him from England.  This lack of ability to become self sufficient to his wants and needs was taxing.  He began a phase that would continue throughout his life, where a combination of poor eating habits, insomnia, excessive work habits and heavy drinking would result in cycles of ever worsening states of mind and physical exhaustion to the point of nervous breakdown.   His demeanor would vacillate from self incrimination to indignation at everyone and everything around him.  He was anti-social and at the same time desperately lonely.  He was a living contradiction. He was focused on writing, trying to craft material worthy of publishing and yet indifferent to the real opportunities that existed.  He was oblivious to the fact that his writing was not going to generate sufficient income to live or marry.  He believed in his talent but also was mired in mediocrity.  In general he was a mess.   Beatrice (his fiance) came for a five month long visit and lived with him and his mother in New York.  Though they expressed their love for each other, she could see that he was in no way capable of being a life long partner.  She returned to England and though the charade of their future marriage endured for a while, Berryman’s physical and mental health went only downward as did their relationship. 

During the summer, his friend Bhain Campbell wrote to him that he had obtained a far better paying position at Wayne State University in Detroit for that fall.   He encouraged Berryman to reconsider his teaching position at Colombia and to come join him in Michigan.   Berryman got the job, in part because of a glowing recommendation from Mark Van Doren, and promptly departed for Detroit.   His rejection of Columbia’s offer however, did not sit well with the administration.  As would be often in his life, Berryman burned his bridges behind him.

Things started out wonderfully at Wayne State.  Bhain and Berryman’s friendship flourished for a bit.  They balanced and supported each other in work habits, demeanor and interests.   Bhain, his wife Florence and Berryman would all move in together into a 1 bedroom apartment to save money.   Berryman contrived to hide his attraction to Florence behind feigned contempt or indifference.  But this threesome living arrangement did not age well as the fall semester continued. 

Berryman was a good if not great teacher, but he had a tendency to overwork himself throughout his lifetime.  He would follow maniac periods of working excessively with periods where he was nearly catatonic and unable to do anything.  Things progressed to the point where both his physical and mental state so alarmed the Campbell’s that Bhain forced Berryman to see a doctor for a consultation.   He would be diagnosed with epilepsy, a way to explain his fainting spells and sometimes catatonic state.   In reading his biography there are a myriad of references to him falling down a flight of stairs or other physical accidents, some of which would result in minor fractures.  But whether he truly had epilepsy or whether this was a polite way of covering up excessive drinking is impossible to determine. 

By the end of the first semester, Berryman’s relationship with Bhain and Florence had worsened to the point that they had no choice but to move out.  Berryman was forced to take a forced leave of absence from his teaching position as physically he couldn’t continue.   He was “proscribed” by his doctor reading before bed, a meal plan for better nutrition and mental therapy.  Within a month he had improved to the point he could resume teaching.   He mended his friendship with Bhain, in part because Bhain’s cancer was moving quickly.  Despite multiple surgeries, Bhain’s health deteriorated rapidly.  Bhain and Florence moved to a cottage for the summer and following the end of the spring semester,  Berryman provided a week of care-giving to his friend so that Florence could take a much needed break for herself.  He would leave shortly after for New York to figure out the next step in his life.  Berryman would see Bhain one more time in November, when he returned to visit his friend briefly, but by December, Bhain would fall into a coma and die.

The importance of this year and his friendship with Bhain would have far reaching consequences in the success that Berryman would have later in his career.   Bhain was a committed communist who encouraged Berryman to identify the purpose behind his writing.  He pushed Berryman to wrestle with not just structure but meaning.   Up until this point,  Berryman’s writing was overly metrical and rhymed in ways that veneered the fact there was not much depth to  his poetry, beyond a pleasant postcard imagery.  Although Berryman had learned the academic rigor and dedication to be a writer, he was not yet a “poet” and that vast difference pained him.  But it was this very awareness of that gap that Bhain helped instill, combined with the confidence he bestowed on his friend’s abilities, that kept Berryman moving forward into the next chapter of his life.


Dream Song 168

The Old Poor

by John Berryman

and God has many other surprises, like
when the man you fear most in the world marries your mother
and chilling other.
men from far tribes armed in the dark, the dike-
hole, the sudden gash of an old friend’s betrayal,
words out that leave one pale,

milk & honey in the old house, mouth gone bad, 
the caress that felt for all the world like a blow,
screams of fear eyeless, wide-eyed loss, 
hellish vaudeville turns, promises had
& promises forgotten here below,
the final wound of the Cross.

I have a story to tell you which is the worst
story to tell that ever once I heard.
What thickens my tongue?
and has me by the throat?  I gasp accursed
even for the though of uttering that word.
I pass to the next Song:


Stood the Ancestors, Relaxed & Hard

John Berryman with his classmates in the fall of his senior year at South Kent School in 1931. Berryman is seated in first row far left.

Offering Dragons quarter is no good. They regrow all their parts and come on again. They have to be killed.

John Berryman

Dream Song 78

by John Berryman

Darkened his eye, his wild smile disappeared,
inapprehensible his studies grew,
nourished he less & less
his subject body with good food & rest,
something bizarre about Henry, slowly sheared
off, unlike you and & you,

smaller & smaller, till in question stood
his eyeteeth and one block of memories
These were enough for him
implying commands from upstairs & from down,
Walt’s ‘orbic flex,’ triads of Hegel would
incorporate, if you please,

into the know-how of the American bard
embarrassed Henry heard himself-a-being,
and the younger Stephen Crane
of a powerful memory, of pain,
these stood the ancestors, relaxed & hard,
whilst Henry’s parts were fleeing.


Within weeks of Berryman’s biological father’s death his mother and John Angus Berryman would be married.  The family of four moved to Jackson Heights, New York.  John Jr. would take Angus’ last name Berryman for the rest of his life as the first line of defense of creating separation from himself and his father.  John Angus had managed to time his exit from the Florida real estate business at the high and although he gave a significant portion to his first wife in exchange for a divorce in order to marry Martha, there was a solid stake to get the family started in their new life.  

In the summer of 1929, John Berryman applied to the South Kent School, an Episcopalian foundation whose reputation was a focus on academics and moral rigor.  It was a boarding school that kept costs low by allowing students to earn part of their tuition through work, like washing dishes, snow shoveling and other chores on the school grounds.   Despite the spartan quarters and reduced costs, the tuition proved almost too much to bear as time went along and John Angus worked less and less. 

Berryman was small for his age, eccentric, quiet and a world class clutz, the perfect target in an all boys school for bullying.  Despite no interest nor talent in sports, Berryman felt obligated by both his mother and the school culture to engage in sports.  He did so with the kind of forced and faked sincerity that I remember in my school days of boys with similar attributes that can only be explained by a kind of ruthless zeal that is intended to do only one thing, gain a modicum of respect among his peers for his tolerance of pain, pain dished out both during practice and during games.  He played right guard on the football team in the fall of 1929, lacking the athleticism for the skilled positions requiring speed or coordination.  He suffered enough injuries and humiliation to gain some respect and a respite when the injuries generated sufficient blood as to send him to the bench.  He preferred tennis in the spring and worked hard at it, as a means to satisfy the politics of the sport culture at the school and expectations of his mother.  But in the end, neither protected him from the being at the bottom of the pecking order among his classmates.   His small stature and odd looks meant he endured the worst that young men can dish out.   

By his third year, the constant bullying weighed on him to the point that he became estranged from his classmates, depressed and truly suicidal.  There was a dramatic attempts at suicide, where in front of classmates, following a fight near the rail road tracks, he threw himself in front of an on-coming train, forcing the very tormentors who had been beating him moments earlier to drag him to safety.   This reckless disregard for his life scared his classmates enough to realize Berryman was serious about his own self destruction.  They understood the consequences if Berryman killed himself as a result of their bullying was beyond their intentions and it gave him a little breathing room but also a reputation for being seriously unhinged.  

Berryman thrived academically to a point at South Kent.   He excelled in some areas and rebelled in others.   He never completely fit in, but he was pushed by his own intelligence and his mother’s expectations to set himself apart in preparation for the next step in his academics.   

He spent 5 years at South Kent and was confident his application to Columbia College in spring of 1932 would be accepted.  By this time the economic fallout of the depression had eaten away at the families financial resources.   His step-father had been laid off at his stock exchange position and his mother was now supporting the family on 1/4 of what his father had been making just two years prior.  Berryman earned a scholarship to Columbia to cover most of his tuition and lived at home his freshman year to save money.  Berryman did not thrive his first year at Columbia and through laziness or his reoccurring challenges with mental illness, he briefly lost his scholarship and dropped out.  However he identified a talent in his freshman year that would that would provide an entry into a new world of women and self respect.  It turns out, despite his otherwise lack of physicality, he was an excellent dancer.   From that point on he embraced the social opportunities that college life provided, attending several dances a week and with them the opportunity to carouse and flirt with girls and drink with his friends afterwards.   

Berryman was forced to reapply for his scholarship in the summer between his first and second year at Colombia.   It caused him to reassess his goals.  He approached Mark Van Doren for support and improved his study habits.  He got involved in journalism at the college, expanded his network with other literature students and writers and generally began to thrive academically.   He would build over the next three years an impressive body of work, with success at publishing poems, critical analysis and literary criticism.  His intelligence and drive stood out.   However his constant late nights, smoking and tendency for self abuse, took its tool and by mid way through his senior year it resulted in exhaustion nearly to the point of collapse.  Although he had become the star pupil in the literature department at Columbia and was under consideration for a fellowship to Cambridge, the effort took a toll on his mental and physical well being.  But. in what would become a reoccurring theme for the rest of his life, he endured,  graduating Phi Beta Kappa in the spring of 1936, primed to study abroad that fall on a prestigious scholarship at Cambridge that he had been awarded. 


Dream Song 93

by John Berryman

General Fatigue stalked in, & a Major-General,
Captain Fatigue, and at the base of all
pale Corporal Fatigue,
and curious microbes came, came viruses:
and the Court conferred on Henry, and conferred on Henry
the rare Order of the Weak.

-How come dims one these wholesome elsers oh?
Old polymaths, old trackers, far from home,
say how thro’ auburn hair     titbits of youth’s grey climb.
I have heard of rose-cheekt but the rose is here!
I bell: when pops her phiz in      a good crow,
My beauty is off duty!-

Henry relives a lady, how down vain,
spruce in her succinct parts, spruce everywhere.
They fed like muscles and lunched
after, between, before.  He tracks her, hunched
(propped on red table elbows) at her telephone,
white rear bare in the air. 

You Strikes Me Ornery

Dream Song 13

by John Berryman

God bless Henry.  He lived like a rat,
with a thatch of hair on his head
in the beginning.
Henry was not a coward. Much.
He never deserted anything; instead
he stuck, when things like pity were thinning.

So may be Henry was a human being
Let’s investigate that
….. We did; okay.
He is a human American man.
That’s true.  My lass is braking.
My brass is aching.  Come % diminish me, & map my way.

God’s Henry’s enemy.  We’re in business . . . Why,
what business must be clear.
A cornering.
I couldn’t feel more like it. – Mr Bones,
as I look on the saffron sky,
you strikes me ornery.

There are other connections between Berryman and myself.  When Berryman first moved to Minnesota in 1954 he moved to 2509 Humbolt Avenue South, an area in Minneapolis called Uptown.  The house is still there and looks much the same as as it did nearly 70 years ago.  He made it a daily routine to walk around Lake of the Isles, an approximately 3 mile walk that is only 2 blocks from both his apartment and the condo I own 4 blocks away.   It is a neighborhood that has and hasn’t changed much in the intervening years.   It still meets the criteria, then and now, that you can walk to almost anything you would ever need; a grocery store, a liquor store, a hardware store, a movie theater, a library, clothing and used furniture stores, restaurants, bars and coffee shops, synagogues and churches, book stores, ice cream store, all the staples of a good life.  When I walk around Lake of the Isles I sometimes wonder what Berryman would think of how Uptown looks today?  Would he think it gentrified or run down compared to his first months in Minneapolis? 

Spending time in The Dream Songs raises all kinds of questions in my mind. 

  1. Who is Henry?
  2. Who is Mr. Bones?
  3. Who is the narrator?
  4. Are these carefully crafted poems or the product of an afternoon’s work, tossed off under the influence of alcohol?
  5. Why are they structured the way the are? What purpose does their structure serve?

This is a simple list of questions that immediately come to mind.   I wish I could travel back in time and take one of his classes or buy him a drink at Stub and Herb’s at seven corners and ask him.   Let’s start with who is Henry?

It’s too easy to say Henry is John Berryman.   Nothing Berryman did was by chance.  Berryman earned his education through a combination of good fortune, good luck and sheer force of will.  His intelligence earned him multiple scholarships along the way of a formal boarding prep school, then his time at Columbia University and Cambridge.  Each stop of his academic career immersed him among some of the finest literary minds of the first half of the 20th century, both professors and students.  Berryman wrote in the classical sonnet structure years before he began writing The Dream Songs and years before he published The Berryman Sonnets.  He viewed the sonnets he published as autobiographical, writing in the first person and using the form to create a literary and personal ending to relationships and travails early in his life.  But The Dream Songs are different than his sonnets.   I would argue that none of his three main re-occurring characters are Berryman directly.   Each has a different literary purpose to which Berryman assigns a role in the pursuit of his creative expression.

Berryman wrote about The Dream Songs; “whatever its cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age…” Henry I believe is a character that Berryman could observe, like a god from above, and write the things that Berryman the man could not bear to write about himself.  Henry is that strange being that exists in poetry, that is neither the poet, nor the man, nor the muse, but a tether to which the ideas of the poetry can be attached to give it greater weight.  Henry freed Berryman to write in the style he so desperately wanted to write.   Free of the expectations of  the formal structure of a sonnet, Berryman put his own stamp on a form that served his purposes.

The Dream Songs – The more than 400 that have been published and the more than double that number which were not, follow roughly the same structure.   I believe structure was important to Berryman, if for no other reason in that it allowed his brain a break.  In most cases the structure is made up of 18 lines,  3 separate 6 line stanzas, that often, but not always, have some rhyming contained within, but there is no strict rules by which the rhymes appear.   Unlike traditional sonnets, there is no strict meter or rhyming conclusions, no sense of finality.   The Dream Songs are open often ended, as if you are waking from a dream in which the conscious mind, wonders where the dream would have led had sleep not been interrupted.

Dream Song 13 is the first time Mr. Bones is introduced into the cast of characters. Mr. Bones is neither Henry or Berryman’s alter ego, but rather more the fool, who is afforded truths, like Homer Simpson, in ways that we all can too well relate, but would rather not acknowledge.   Mr Bones is Henry’s wing man, a spirited companion to debate the meaning of life and death.  At times Mr Bones provides some comic relief, and at others he is an observer to Henry’s most tortured innermost thoughts.   Mr. Bones is both drinking buddy and priest to Henry or Berryman.

I believe the structure gave purpose to Berryman, a process and a canvas on which to write, while not limiting him.   They are by design not an imitation of the classical poetry that Berryman had studied and written prior to publishing of The Dream Songs.   I also think that 18 lines was all that Berryman could manage most days, before turning his mind to something else.  It was a way to be productive, feel productive, when longer forms of writing, like novels, screen plays or long form poetry eluded him.   The Dream Songs structure were created out of necessity.  And it is this very limitation of Berryman the man and the poet, that gives The Dream Songs their beauty.

Dream Song – 25

by John Berryman

Henry, edged, decidedly, made up stories
lighting the past of Henry, of his glorious
present, and his hoaries, 
all the bight heals he tamped –  – Euphoria,
Mr. Bones, euphoria.  Fate clobber all.
-Hand me back my crawl, 

condign Heavens. Tighten into a ball
elongate & valved Henry.  Tuck him peace.
Remember him sightless,
or ruin at high rate his crampon focus, 
wipe out his need. Reduce him to the rest of us.
-But, Bones, you is that. 

-I cannot remember.  I am going away.
There was something in my dream about a Cat,
which fought and sang. 
Something about a lyre, an Island.  Unstrung. 
Linked to the land at low tide.  Cables fray,
Thank you for everything.