On October 25, 1914, just over one hundred years ago, the remarkable poet John Berryman was born in McAlester, Oklahoma. In honor of this anniversary, Farrar, Straus and Giroux offers The Heart Is Strange: New Selected Poems and is reissuing The Dream Songs, 77 Dream Songs, and Berryman’s Sonnets. Both the title and cover of this peculiar Selected Poems obscure the fact that the selection includes not a single poem from Berryman’s most famous work, The Dream Songs. (The publicity notice for the Selected promises “a generous selection from across Berryman’s varied career,” and claims to celebrate “the whole Berryman.”) A reader ordering the book online might well expect that a rational Selected would devote a substantial number of its pages to The Dream Songs, and would feel deceived when the book arrived. (The far more comprehensive Library of America John Berryman: Selected Poems finds room for sixty-one Dream Songs.) What we really need, of course, is a Complete Poems, but that is not forthcoming from any quarter.
The anniversary invites a second look at Berryman’s life, art, and reputation. His life, as related in John Haffenden’s detailed 1982 biography, makes for excruciating reading.1 The maladies from which Berryman suffered—bipolar illness and severe alcoholism—ruined his abused body and shook his excellent mind. Since the medicine of his era could do little for these illnesses, his life became marred by successive hospitalizations, attempts at rehabilitation, divorces, the loss of at least one job, and desperate remedies (including a late return to his childhood Roman Catholicism just before his suicide at fifty-seven). His physical state in middle age brings to mind Whitman’s “A Hand-Mirror”:
Hold it up sternly—see this it sends back, (who is it? is it you?)…
No more a flashing eye, no more a sonorous voice or springy step,
Now some slave’s eye, voice, hands, step,…
No brain, no heart left, no magnetism of sex;
Such from one look in this looking-glass ere you go hence,
Such a result so soon—and from such a beginning!
When Berryman was eleven, his financially unsuccessful (and unfaithful) father, John Allyn Smith, shot himself in Tampa (where the Smiths had moved when they left Oklahoma). The poet’s formidable and overbearing mother shortly afterward married a successful man, their landlord (who had apparently been her lover before her husband’s suicide). She then made it the principal business of her life to establish a fusion of identities with her elder child; as her intrusive and incessant letters reveal, she never relaxed her tentacular grip on her son. The young John Smith, adopted by his stepfather, was known thenceforward as John Berryman, inaugurating a strange duality of identity that was to influence both his poetic themes and his stylistic inventions. The Berrymans moved from Florida to Connecticut, and John was sent to the South Kent School, an Episcopal establishment where he found adolescent devotion serving as an acolyte at morning Mass.