Letters, Etc. of John Berryman


John Berryman at the Brockport Writers Forum, 1970

by Marian Janssen

John Berryman: The Selected Letters
Edited by Philip Coleman and Calista McRae
Belknap Press, 2020, 736pp

Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff famously said: “Every disadvantage has its advantage.”  This is also the case with the over 600 letters by American poet John Berryman (1914–72), selected by editors Philip Coleman and Calista McRae. They decided to keep annotation to a minimum, allowing them to include as many of his letters to 200-something correspondents as possible. The annotations included are mainly restricted to brief descriptions of people and – sometimes Sherlockian – references to the many articles, poems and books that Berryman mentions in his learned, literary correspondence.

There is, of course, a brief chronology of Berryman’s life. Born John Allyn Smith, Jr. in 1914, he adopted his stepfather’s last name after his father’s suicide (or was he murdered by his mother, Berryman often wondered?), spent unhappy years at South Kent prep school and went on to Columbia. A brilliant scholar, he left for Cambridge (England) on a fellowship. In Europe, he met W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas, and even, once, his formidable model, William Butler Yeats. Returning to America, he sported a bow tie (because Yeats had been wearing one), began speaking in a hard to understand British accent and adopted an idiosyncratic form of British spelling. He taught with devotion all over America, from Princeton to Harvard and Berkeley, to, finally, Minneapolis, where he ended his life.

We have two Berryman biographies, John Haffenden’s The Life of John Berryman (1982) and Paul Mariani’s Dream Song (1990). There is a poignant, generous memoir by his first wife Eileen Simpson, Poets in Their Youth (1983). Berryman’s posthumously published novel Recovery (1973) dealt with his losing battle with alcoholism and depression. Last, but not least considering his love-hate relationship with his overbearing mother, we have We Dream Of Honour, a selection of his letters to her (1988, edited by Richard J. Kelly). With so much biographical information available – even if decades old – the editors’ decision to keep annotation to a minimum and let Berryman speak for himself is easily understood. And, yet, reading the Selected Letters, I wished that they had erred a little more on the side of generosity. But I was wrong.

As a literary biographer, interested not only in the work, but also the life of the poets I am writing about, I regard letters as the skeleton of a person’s life, with the flesh to be added on by interviews, articles, books and background information. Therefore, I initially thought this skeleton was incomplete: I needed to know more! Indeed, the letters sent me back to the Berryman books in my library time and again. Irritating, but also instructive. Why should the editors add information that can easily be found elsewhere? More importantly, their meticulous editing, as well as the poems quoted in the letters, made me reappraise Berryman’s work.

I had found Berryman’s poetry to be often impenetrable and always overwhelming.  There was just too much Henry, Berryman’s anguished persona in The Dream Songs (1964) and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968).  (I am in good company, because Elizabeth Bishop thought his work difficult, too.)  But now, re-reading in tranquility Berryman’s high-powered poem about Puritan poet Ann Bradstreet giving birth, I realised it is one of the best poems ever written about that ordeal. By a man, no less.

So squeezed, wince you I scream? I love you & hate
off with you. Ages! Useless. Below my waist
he has me in Hell’s vise.
Stalling. He let go. Come back: brace
me somewhere. No. No. Yes! everything down
hardens I press with horrible joy down
my back cracks like a wrist
shame I am voiding oh behind it is too late

hide me forever I work thrust I must free
now I all muscles & bones concentrate
what is living from dying?

Initially, the letters did not endear Berryman to me. Letters are always self-involved, but Berryman’s are often insufferably self-obsessed, even if they are meant to be letters of condolence. His letter to the widow of his colleague and competitor, the brilliant critic and undervalued poet Randall Jarrell, speaks mainly of his own suffering: “I miss the thought of him very badly. After Roethke’s death and MacNeice’s I swore never to care any more, but I cried over Randall’s. I hope you are being able to console yourself.” Berryman “tried to write away” his feelings in a song, prompting me to look up his elegies for Jarrell and then he hit me head on: “Let Randall rest, whom your self-torturing / cannot restore one instant’s good to, rest: / he’s left us now. / The panic died and in the panic’s dying / so did my old friend.”

As the editors point out in their introduction, Berryman’s attitude towards women (“bitches all”) and, particularly, his wives is abysmal. It is not so much the compulsive screwing around (even though he described copulation as “an over-rated pastime”) as the intolerable burdens he placed on them, especially after they had broken up.  After he had left Eileen Simpson, he wrote to her: “In short I can’t live, and my insurance, the only sure way of paying my debts, expires on Thursday. So unless something happens I have to kill myself day after tomorrow evening or earlier. . . . What I am going to do is drop off the George Washington bridge. I believe one dies on the way down but I don’t wish anyway to hit anyone or be splattered on the pavement, and in case my body is not found nobody has the bore & cost of burial.” He told his second wife, Ann Levine, after he had, once more, been late with his checks: “frankly I was suicidal ten days ago, and I urge you not to push me. Suicide with so much work unfinished and with some parts of the work going so well is truly an uncomfortable conception.” Obviously, his wives knew that he was suicidal, which makes his emotional blackmail only more gruesome.

Knowing that Berryman jumped to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge that icy January 7, 1972, I read these letters with a lump in my throat. Even Catholic “Saint Kate,” as the Tates called his young third wife – according to Berryman “the sweetest-natured and most womanly and most loyal” – could not cope with his neuroses. From hospital, he wrote to her: “You just made me intensely nervous by ringing up. DO NOT CALL ME, damn it. I am sick, I am to be left alone. All the nurses have strict orders. So should you have. Five minutes’ anger, do you understand, can set me back days and DOES.” When I interviewed Kate Donahue some twenty years after her husband’s death – it was one of the nicest interviews I ever conducted – she did not bad-mouth him, but confessed that her “one big rebellion was to marry John Berryman, and I never did anything since, you know, I was scared to death out of it.”

The letters I found most difficult to stomach were the ones to his son with Ann Levine, Paul. “It is not poss. for me to see you, much; if ever again,” he wrote when Paul was not even four. “Strong fathers crush sons. You are spared this, I think. (I am not able to form any conception of how my work will be regarded.)”  He forgot the date of Paul’s birthday, stood him up and often broke his promises. These letters were probably meant as much for his ex-wife as for his son, but in view of the fact that the festering wound in Berryman’s life was his father’s death, one wishes that he had been more careful not to inflict a similar trauma on his offspring. But, of course, he could not help it. In one of the very first letters printed here, written when he was in boarding school at age fourteen, he wondered: “I don’t understand why God permitted me to be born. I’m undesirable and a nuisance everywhere I go.” His letters are drenched in depression, drugs, bleakness, bouts with alcohol and ever more frequent hospitalisations: “Our baby was born the day after I got out of hospital the first time & the day before I went in the 2nd time.”

Is there no relief, then? How could the editors stand this unremitting, devastating litany of doom and despair? Comfort comes from the letters to his loving and long-suffering friends, from his mentors, Mark Van Doren and even arrogant Allen Tate, from his classmate, and later famed publisher, Robert Giroux, the poet translator Robert Fitzgerald, Saul Bellow and William Meredith, all of whom went to bat for him. Which says something about the man.

Surprisingly, in later years, he lauds a woman poet, Adrienne Rich, whose review of Dream Songs he found particularly penetrating; apparently, she was not a “poetass” as he called women poets in an early letter. On the other hand, he belittled the Pacific Northwestern poet Carolyn Kizer—” idiots in Seattle & London—I feel boxed—have taken lately to pretending that I am THE GREATEST LIVING AMERICAN POET”—while she had been one of the first admirers of his Dream Songs, publishing them in her magazine Poetry Northwest and giving him their poetry prize— “we ourselves (mainly me) are sole judges.” As first director of the Literary Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, Kizer also was instrumental in giving him an individual grant of $10,000. His reaction? He had never heard of the NEA. With the exception of Adrienne Rich, he was clearly intimidated by strong women, as Kate Donahue told me.

I breathed a sigh of relief and even laughed out loud when I read his absolutely acerbically witty letter about the affair of a malfunctioning refrigerator. Similarly, there’s the one to the academic who wanted to sponge off his research: “You refer me to Mr Levinson for your bona fides, or—as you put it— ‘character appraisal of my honesty’. He is in England, as perhaps you knew. Another colleague, Mr Brom Weber, I thought would do instead, and he tells me that he is taking you to court.” These letters, with rage simmering below the surface, made Berryman more of a human being to me, less of a one-sided self-destructive wreck. As did this one sentence description of his beloved friend from youth: “I have Machiavelli’s grandson, Delmore [Schwartz], for model,—a man so devious that now and then in the mere ecstasy of the labyrinth he operates against himself.” When I managed to get past the too depressing drama of his life as expressed in these letters, I saw the brilliant scholar, poet and critic, showing, as his daughter says in her foreword, his “direct testimony. . . the writer speaking about his life and work.”

“I don’t envy you any part of it,” Berryman wrote to D.D. Paige, editor of Ezra Pound’s letters. The “problem is to select, and then to make clear for readers what has been selected, since Pound generally writes an intellectual as well as verbal shorthand. I don’t see how you can avoid annotation, and unhappily the more the better.” I admit, in this superb selection, less is more.


Note: The Samaritans Helpline and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are safe, private and available 24 hours a day.


About the Author:

Marian Janssen received her PhD cum laude from Radboud University, the Netherlands. Her first book was The Kenyon Review (1939-1970): A Critical History. She received a post-doctoral fellowship for a biography of the poet Isabella Gardner. When Marian became head of Radboud University’s International Office, her research was relegated to a backburner. After giving a talk at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Marian was asked when she was going to finish her planned biography. When Marian said that writing a biography and her current position did not mix, she was offered, on the spot, a grant for a year’s sabbatical. This led to her Not at All What One Is Used To: The Life and Times of Isabella Gardner (2010).

Marian was asked to write the—unauthorized–biography of feminist poet, essayist, and Pulitzer Prize winner Carolyn Kizer (1923-2014). Kizer founded Poetry Northwest, became the first Literature Director at the National Endowment for the Arts, and a member of the American Academy of poets–from which she soon resigned in protest because it remained a white old boys club. Her life resembled a soap opera: she had an affair with Abe Fortas, Supreme Court Justice and fixer for President Johnson, as well as with Hubert Humphrey. And when she went to Pakistan in 1964, she returned not only with translations from Urdu, but also with a lover. Most of her affairs were with writers, though, from Hayden Carruth to Robert Conquest and from David Wagoner to John Wain. Obviously, Marian could not pass up the opportunity to write about this fascinating woman, so she resigned as head of her office and is now a full-time biographer.