Berryman's poetry, which often revolved around the sordid details of his personal problems (in The Dream Songs but also in his other books as well) is closely associated with the Confessional poetry movement. In this sense, his poetry had much in common with the poetry of his friend, Robert Lowell. The editors of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry note that "the influence of Yeats, Auden, Hopkins, Crane, and Pound on him was strong, and Berryman's own voice—by turns nerve-racked and sportive—took some time to be heard."
Berryman's first major work, in which he began to develop his own unique style of writing, was Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, published in 1956. In the long, title poem, which first appeared in Partisan Review in 1953, Berryman addressed the 17th century American poet Anne Bradstreet, combining the history of her life with his own fantasies about her (and inserting himself into the poem). Joel Athey noted, "This difficult poem, a tribute to the Puritan poet of colonial America, took Berryman five years to complete and demanded much from the reader when it first appeared with no notes. The Times Literary Supplement hailed it as a path-breaking masterpiece; poet Robert Fitzgerald called it 'the poem of his generation.'" Edward Hirsch observed that "the 57 stanzas of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet combine the concentration of an extended lyric with the erudition and amplitude of a historical novel."
Berryman's major poetic breakthrough came after he began to publish the first volume of The Dream Songs, 77 Dream Songs, in 1964. The dream song form consisted of short, eighteen-line lyric poems in three stanzas. Each stanza also contained its own irregular rhyme scheme and irregular meter. 77 Dream Songs (and its sequel His Toy, His Dream, His Rest) centers on a character named "Henry" who bears a striking resemblance to John Berryman. However, Berryman was careful about making sure that his readers realized that "Henry" was not his equivalent, but rather a fictional version of himself (or a literary alter ego). In an interview, Berryman stated, "Henry does resemble me, and I resemble Henry; but on the other hand I am not Henry. You know, I pay income tax; Henry pays no income tax. And bats come over and they stall in my hair — and fuck them, I'm not Henry; Henry doesn't have any bats."
In The New York Times review of 77 Dream Songs, John Malcolm Brinnin praised the book without reservation, declaring that " excellence calls for celebration." And in The New York Review of Books, Robert Lowell also reviewed the book, writing, "At first the brain aches and freezes at so much darkness, disorder and oddness. After a while, the repeated situations and their racy jabber become more and more enjoyable, although even now I wouldn't trust myself to paraphrase accurately at least half the sections." In response to the perceived difficulty of the dream songs, in his 366th "Dream Song", Berryman facetiously wrote, "These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand. / They are only meant to terrify & comfort." In His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, many of the dream songs are elegies for Berryman's recently deceased poet-friends, including Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, and Theodore Roethke. Since this volume contained more than three times the number of poems that appeared in the previous volume, Berryman covered a lot more subject matter. For instance, in addition to the elegies, Berryman writes about his trip to Ireland as well as his own burgeoning literary fame.
Berryman's last two volumes of poetry, Love & Fame and Delusions, Etc. featured free-verse poems that were much more straightforward and less idiosyncratic than The Dream Songs. Prior to the publication of Love & Fame, Berryman sent his manuscript to several peers for feedback, including the poets Adrienne Rich and Richard Wilbur, both of whom were disappointed with the poems which they considered inferior to the poems in The Dream Songs. However, a number of Berryman's old friends and supporters, including the novelist Saul Bellow and the poets Robert Lowell and William Meredith, offered high praise for a number of the Love & Fame poems. Both Love & Fame and Delusions, Etc. were more openly "confessional" than Berryman's earlier verse, and since he embraced religion when he wrote these volumes, he also explored the nature of his spiritual rebirth in poems like "Eleven Addresses to the Lord" (which Lowell thought was one of Berryman's best poems and "one of the great poems of the age").
In 1977 John Haffenden published Henry's Fate & Other Poems, a selection of dream songs that Berryman wrote after His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, but never published. In reviewing the book, Time magazine noted, "Posthumous selections of unpublished poetry should be viewed suspiciously. The dead poet may have had good aesthetic reasons for keeping some of his work to himself. Fortunately, Henry's Fate does not malign the memory of John Berryman."
Berryman's Collected Poems was published in 1989. However, the editor of the book, Charles Thornbury, notably decided to leave out The Dream Songs from the collection. In his review of the Collected Poems, Edward Hirsch commented on this decision, stating, "It is obviously practical to continue to publish the 385 dream songs separately, but reading the Collected Poems without them is a little like eating a seven-course meal without a main course." Hirsch also notes that, " a thorough nine-part introduction and a chronology as well as helpful appendixes that include Berryman's published prefaces, notes and dedications; a section of editor's notes, guidelines and procedures; and an account of the poems in their final stages of composition and publication."
In 2004, the Library of America published John Berryman: Selected Poems, edited by the poet Kevin Young. In Poetry magazine, David Orr wrote:
Young includes all the Greatest Hits . . .but there are also substantial excerpts from Berryman’s Sonnets (the peculiar book that appeared after The Dream Songs, but was written long before) and Berryman’s later, overtly religious poetry. Young argues that “if his middle, elegiac period...is most in need of rediscovery, then these late poems are most in need of redemption.” It’s a good point. Although portions of Berryman’s late work are sloppy and erratic, these poems help clarify the spiritual struggle that motivates and sustains his best writing.
After surveying Berryman's career and accomplishments, the editors of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry stated, "What seems likely to survive of his poetry is its pungent and many-leveled portrait of a complex personality which, for all its eccentricity, stayed close to the center of the intellectual and emotional life of the mid-century and after."
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