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.
This is an unpublished letter, dated February 19, 1974, from James Wright to John Haffenden on his friendship with John Berryman.
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.