John Berryman

A poetic genius haunted by childhood trauma and plagued by alcoholism, John Berryman (1914-1972) was a well-known American poet in the second half of the 20th century. Berryman is a key figure in the confessional school of poetry. He used his trauma and struggle with depression as material for his poetry, exploring his mental deterioration through his literary alter ego, Henry. Berryman is best known for his collection of poetry The Dream Songs (1969).

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    Content warning: Suicide

    John Berryman, caution mark/trigger warning, StudySmarter

    John Berryman Biography

    John Berryman was born John Allyn Smith, Jr. in McAlester, Oklahoma in 1914. When Berryman was 12 years old, his father committed suicide. The trauma haunted Berryman throughout his entire life, and his struggle to cope with his father's death became one of the main subjects of his poetry. His mother remarried within months and the two moved to New York with her new husband. Berryman took his stepfather's name.

    Berryman was educated at a private school in Connecticut and later attended Columbia University. His professor, Mark Van Doren, encouraged Berryman to write poetry. Berryman graduated in 1936 and attended Cambridge University for two years before returning to the United States.

    Berryman published some of his early poetry in a volume entitled Five Young American Poets in 1940. His first book, Poems (1942), was published two years later, and his first mature collection of poetry, The Dispossessed, was published in 1948. This collection was met with mostly negative reviews from other poets.

    It wasn't until 1956 when Berryman published Homage to Mistress Bradstreet that he enjoyed notable success. His true poetic breakthrough came with his 1964 collection 77 Dream Songs. This collection won the 1965 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. It was followed by His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968), which won the National Book Award for Poetry and the Bollingen Prize. These poems feature the anguished character Henry, who functions as Berryman's alter-ego. Berryman uses Henry to work through his own complicated emotions. For this reason, Berryman is closely associated with the Confessional movement in poetry.

    John Berryman, Man holding a mask, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Henry, the protagonist in Berryman's Dream Songs, serves as Berryman's literary alter ego.

    Confessional poetry is influenced by the poet's own trauma and experiences. Confessional poets use writing as an outlet to work through their feelings, which are often dramatized in poetry for the effect. The work often closely mirrors the poet's life and personal experiences. Although readers get a glimpse into the author's psyche, it is important to note that the speaker and the poet are not one in the same.

    When speaking about the connection between himself and his character Henry, Berryman said, "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."1

    Other confessional poets include Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Confessional poetry is often intense and marked by deep exploration of mental health issues.

    While he was enjoying success in the literary world, Berryman's personal life was characterized by turbulence and emotional turmoil. He married his first wife in 1942 and began an affair with a married woman five years later. He wrote over one hundred sonnets for his mistress, but didn't publish them until 1967 in Berryman's Sonnets. He remarried two more times. He was repeatedly hospitalized for alcohol abuse and struggled with depression throughout his entire life.

    John Berryman, Man leaning over table with alcohol bottle, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Berryman's struggle with alcoholism contributed to his depression and the turmoil in his personal life.

    Berryman taught at Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Iowa, and the University of Cincinnati. He took a position at the University of Minnesota in 1955 and remained there until his death in 1972. His last collection, Delusions Etc. (1972), was published posthumously.

    John Berryman Cause of Death

    After struggling with depression and alcoholism throughout much of his adult life, Berryman committed suicide on January 7, 1972. He jumped off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis into the Mississippi River. It was the second time Berryman had planned to end his life that week. He left a suicide note for his wife Kate on January 5.

    At the time of his death, one of the poems included in Delusions Etc. was entitled "Walking Into the River." It was removed from the collection. Recovery, an autobiographical novel about Berryman's struggle with alcoholism, was published in 1973. In the novel, Berryman states "the disease called alcoholism [was] recognized by the American Medical Association only in 1964."2

    Many famous authors like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Raymond Carver have struggled with alcoholism. What effect do you think that had on their careers and their lives? Why do you think alcoholism might be so rampant among writers?

    John Berryman's Writing Style

    Berryman's writing style was known for being lyrical, autobiographical, and incredibly intense. Berryman often explored much of his own personal experiences and childhood trauma in his poetry. In his poems in The Dream Songs, Berryman uses Henry to navigate his own intense emotions of depression, anger, pain, and numbness. Although Henry is an exaggerated figure, much of Henry's character is taken from Berryman's life.

    The Dream Songs, Berryman's most famous collection of poetry, is jittery, edgy, and sad. They are an examination of Berryman's mental deterioration and also his feelings of love and intimacy. The poems are marked by a manic energy that is barely kept controlled by the formal structure. Regardless of the speaker's mental state, each of the poems consist of three sestets with slight variation. Berryman's unusual content coupled with his formal structure adds to the feeling that the speaker is slowly losing control.

    John Berryman Poems

    Berryman is most famous for the poems published in his 1969 collection The Dream Songs, including "Dream Song 14." Two other poems of Berryman's are "The Cage" and Homage to Mistress Bradstreet.

    "Dream Song 14: Life, friends, is boring"

    One of the dream song poems, "Dream Song 14" examines the speaker Henry's dissatisfaction with life. Although he knows he shouldn't be, the speaker is bored and disinterested in all aspects of life. He finds no joy in literature, people, art, or even himself. The speaker feels oppressed by having to live life when nothing has any meaning. At the end of the poem, Henry reveals that he is bored and numb because he has lost his companion.

    "The Cage"

    "The Cage" was first published in Harriet Monroe's Poetry magazine in 1950. In this poem, Berryman examines the imprisonment of American poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972). Pound, who was almost 60, had been arrested for treason after World War II after working with the fascist government in Italy. He was kept in a cage with nothing save for a Bible. After two weeks, Pound had a nervous breakdown and was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital for 12 years. "The Cage" examines Pound's mental collapse at the hands of the American government, turning a once-great poet into little more than a hollow shell of the man he was.

    John Berryman, Cage with lock, StudySmarterFig. 3 - "The Cage" reflects on Ezra Pound's imprisonment by the U.S. government and the effect that being locked in a cage had on the poet's mental state.

    Homage to Mistress Bradstreet

    Homage to Mistress Bradstreet is a book-length poem that was published in 1956. This long poem was written between 1948-1953 and is a tribute to poet Anne Bradstreet, who was an early colonial writer. Berryman reveals much about himself as he considers Bradstreet's personal and artistic lives. Diving into American history and subtly critiquing modern American society, Berryman reflects on art, religion, and adultery in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet.

    John Berryman Quotes

    Below are some of Berryman's most famous quotes, which address his relationship to poetry as well as his mental deterioration.

    You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you're merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that's always easiest.”3

    Berryman said this quote while teaching a writing class at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. This quote stresses his belief that the job of the poet is never finished. In order to be a great poet and write effectively, one should always be trying to write poems that they believe to be unattainable. The only way to experience success is to constantly push your bounds creatively.

    We must travel in the direction of our fear." (42)

    The quote comes from Berryman's lesser-known poem "A Point of Age" (1942). Like the quote above, it speaks to redefining one's reality and understanding one's limits. The majority of the poem is far from happy or hopeful, instead speaking to emotional loss and the "other" (those who are different and distanced from the speaker). This quote is the final line in the poem and offers the only glimmer of hope: in confronting one's fears, one can find freedom.

    Although this quote reads almost like a motivational poster, the rest of the poem is bleak. The speaker uses phrases like "desolate childhood smokes" (2), "adolescent brothels are shut down" (3), and "blown brain sits a fascist to the heart" (38). How does the context behind the rest of the poem change your interpretation of this quote?

    Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,we ourselves flash and yearn” (1-3)

    These are the opening lines of "Dream Song 14." This quote speaks to Berryman's own depression and disillusionment with life. The dream songs are known to be reflections of Berryman's struggle with his mental health. This quote shows how he became known to the world around him. Berryman eventually committed suicide after struggling with depression and alcoholism for most of his life.

    John Berryman - Key takeaways

    • John Berryman was born in 1914 in Oklahoma.
    • His father committed suicide when he was a child, which haunted Berryman throughout his life and became a recurring subject in his poetry.
    • His writing style is known for being being lyrical, autobiographical, and incredibly intense.
    • Berryman is most famous for the poems published in his 1969 collection The Dream Songs.
    • After struggling with depression for years, Berryman took his own life by jumping off a bridge in 1972.

    John Berryman, Crisis banner, StudySmarter


    1. "An Interview with John Berryman" conducted by John Plotz of the Harvard Advocate on Oct. 27, 1968. In Berryman's Understanding: Reflections on the Poetry of John Berryman. Ed. Harry Thomas. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1988.
    2. Berryman, John. Recovery. Faber and Faber, 1973.
    3. Dana, Robert, editor. A Community of Writers Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. University of Iowa Press, 1999.
    Frequently Asked Questions about John Berryman

    What did John Berryman write about?

    Berryman mostly wrote about his own life experiences and struggles with mental health.

    How did John Berryman die?

    John Berryman committed suicide by jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis. 

    Who is John Berryman?

    John Berryman was an American poet who was best known for his association with Confessional Poetry.

    How did John Berryman become famous?

    Berryman became a famous poet with the advent of his 77 Dream Songs collection (1964), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Although he had published other collections, it was this one that solidified his status as a great 20th century poet.

    What did John Berryman focus on in his writing?

    Much of Berryman's poetry focused on his own experiences and turbulent emotions.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What traumatic event did Berryman experience as a child? 

    What school of poetry is Berryman associated with? 

    Who was Berryman's alter-ego? 


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