In commemoration of the centenary of John Berryman’s birth (October 25, 1914), FSG’s Work in Progress is celebrating this icon of twentieth-century American literature by having authors write about what they admire about him and his work.
I was nineteen when I met John. If that sounds overly personal, that’s because it is.
He’d been dead thirty years by then and though he remains dead to this day I still feel, somewhat inexplicably, that I knew him, that I still know him. Something of Berryman has escaped his work and continues to haunt me.
Like many young writers, I liked the idea of poetry much more than poetry itself. There was a huge appeal to the act of turning a small amount of words into something sacred. Writing pages seemed like a chore, but a few lines seemed accessible, even easy. Yet I didn’t honestly enjoy reading the majority of the poems I was forced to study (literature bores me, Berryman wrote in Dream Song #14, especially great literature.) They were all so forgettable, impenetrable or—at their worst—horribly, horribly boring.
Then I met Berryman in a massive anthology of Modern Poetry and felt compelled, not obligated, to read him extensively. It was Dream Song #1 that first lured me in. It opens with Henry, the anti-hero of the songs, hiding, “wicked and away,” unappeasable, sulking from some unnamed hurt. The last line of the first stanza, “But he should have come out and talked,” added a soft longing to all the sorrow. The voice was completely unpretentious, though still wise and studied; I immediately went to Maple Street Books to buy The Dream Songs, a volume I still keep on a reachable shelf.
I didn’t read Berryman’s work as much as I felt it was read to me and it was through him I realized what I want from a poem—it should turn the author into a ghost and leave the reader haunted. I could feel Berryman still breathing in Henry. I could practically hear his voice—long before the cult classic youtube clips surfaced—in each of the songs, even the ones that are sort of boring.
And maybe this is sacrilege to say, but some of them are boring. (385 of anything is bound to stall.) But most are not. Most of the Dream Songs are deeply sad or terrifying, usually both. But even in their terror, I’ve always felt eased, somehow even grounded, by Henry’s lonely hopelessness.
For years, I thought it was just me, that I had some rare, unexplainable Berryman obsession—he’s really the only classic poet that has ever stuck with me. But just by mentioning him I routinely uncover other Berryman fanatics. Those who have read his work are unlikely to remain ambivalent. Most are moved and many, like me, are completely possessed.
Catherine Lacey’s first novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, takes it’s title from Berryman’s Dream Song #29.
Photography by Bob Peterson. (©Bob Peterson)