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.
After I taught at the University of Minnesota, I moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where I became again an Instructor [at Macalester College]. At a certain distressing period of my own life [October 1964], I fell ill. Suddenly, during a visiting in an afternoon, John Berryman appeared. I had some good friends then. . . But you can understand how startled and awakened I felt to see John Berryman, to me a shockingly great artist, appear at my bedside, asking me if he could help me. As long as I live on this earth, I will never forget his request. I answered. Will you please take care of my students while I’m ill?
I have since learned that John at that specific time was having a hell of a time himself. That is all right. From time to time I have read accounts of him in which people say he was a selfish man who cared only about his poetry. They are liars. He was a great man who cared about others, and he wanted people like me, and you, to go on living.
I know that he is a very great master, and if anything in our age lives it will be his work. My favorite poem by him is the “Song of the Tortured Girl.” Like you, I have tried to make some sense out of life by writing verses, and I counted a grace to have known a great poet. I don’t understand him. He was kind to me in ways I cannot account for. But I don’t care.
James Wright won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. His books include Saint Judas, Shall We Gather at the River, and The Branch Will Not Break. FSG published Above the River: The Complete Poems in 1992.
© Estate of James Wright, from the working chronology of a biography by Jonathan Blunk.