On the centenary of John Berryman’s birth, Daniel Swift reflects on his poetic legacy:
Berryman has not been canonized, quite; he has not continued to receive the respect, even awe, accorded to his great contemporaries Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. This may be because he appears a little less serious than them. He is certainly funnier than they are, constantly mirthful about the process of critical celebration and literary canonization. “[L]iterature bores me, especially great literature,” complains “Dream Song 14.” “Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes / as bad as achilles,” it continues, and the joke is only half that Henry [the “sad man” character in his collection The Dream Songs] is no Achilles. It is also in the mismatch of classical literature and teenage ennui, balanced by the voice.
Swift goes on to argue that Berryman’s eventual suicide shouldn’t overshadow his work:
There is a strong temptation to read Berryman’s life as tragic, to see in it a parable of art and suffering. His biographers and critics find it hard to resist this precisely because Berryman himself leads them to it. In 1955, he wrote a fragmentary memoir of his school days, and he called it “It Hurts to Learn Anything”; throughout his life he repeatedly expressed his belief in a kind of equation of suffering and creativity. In 1965, when asked by a newspaper interviewer about the elements of good poetry, he replied, “Imagination, love, intellect—and pain.
Yes, you’ve got to know pain.”
(Video: Berryman reads Dream Song 29)