My John Berryman: A Poet of Deep Unease

Cole-My-John-Berryman-Poet-Unease-690Henri Cole at The New Yorker:

Berryman is a lyric poet, which means that his poems express intense personal emotion, and probably I am drawn to this because I am a lyric poet, too. To the ancient Greeks, anything lyrikos was considered appropriate for the lyre, the elegant stringed instrument that was highly regarded by them and played as an accompaniment to unarmored or personal poetry. I admire the private intensity of Berryman’s work, which records not only the depths of his own degradation but also love and ecstasy. When asked to define the most important elements of poetry, Berryman replied, “Imagination, love, intellect—and pain. Yes, you’ve got to know pain.” Of course, it is in part the pain of human voices (comical, sad, troubled, vulnerable, vehement, libidinous) that makes the dream songs still edgy and strange fifty years after they first appeared.

Some readers have wondered if these uncomfortable poems were the result of alcoholism, or of double doses of chlorpromazine (an antipsychotic) or Dilantin (an anticonvulsant), which had both been prescribed to Berryman. But I do not really care, since beneath the gruff surface and the high jinks of these poems we hear, deeper down, a vibrant, loving man with a vast spirit. Exacerbated and enormously learned, Berryman was a master of the poem written with manic energy from the edges of human experience. Now, a half-century later, the dream songs remain a delicious, horrible, grotesque, ridiculous, fragmentary, tortured, diary-like transcription of a life in which a man worked hard, got up early each day to work at his desk and assemble language into art, strived to love his young wife and children, taught his classes, lectured, wrote letters of recommendation, mentored his students, and fulfilled the obligations that come with being a lonely man of letters living in the Midwest.

more here.