John Berryman

Centenary Essays

by Philip Coleman (Volume editor) Peter Campion (Volume editor)
Monographs XVI, 314 Pages
Series: Modern Poetry, Volume 11


Drawing on the proceedings of two conferences organized to celebrate the centenary of John Berryman’s birth in 2014, John Berryman: Centenary Essays provides new perspectives on a major US American poet’s work by critics from Ireland, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. In addition to new readings of important aspects of Berryman’s development – including his creative and scholarly encounters with Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and W. B. Yeats – the book gives fresh accounts of his engagements with contemporaries such as Delmore Schwartz and Randall Jarrell. It also includes essays that explore Berryman’s poetic responses to Mozart and his influence on the contemporary Irish poet Paul Muldoon. Making extensive use of unpublished archival sources, personal reflections by friends and former students of the poet are accompanied by meditations on Berryman’s importance for writers today by award-winning poets Paula Meehan and Henri Cole. Encompassing a wide range of scholarly perspectives and introducing several emerging voices in the field of Berryman studies, this volume affirms a major poet’s significance and points to new directions for critical study and creative engagement with his work.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Foreword: ‘Berrymancy’ (Paula Meehan)
  • Introduction (Philip Coleman and Peter Campion)
  • 1. Berryman as Teacher and Friend: Personal Reminiscences (Judith Koll Healey, Richard J. Kelly and Bob Lundegaard)
  • 2. Henry and His Problems (Michael Berryhill)
  • 3. John Berryman’s ‘Poundian Inheritance’ and the Epic of ‘Synchrisis’ (Claudio Sansone)
  • 4. Berryman’s Mischief (Edward Clarke)
  • 5. ‘A fresh, active relation’: Milton’s Lycidas and the Poetry of John Berryman (Karl O’Hanlon)
  • 6. Multiple Impersonalities: T. S. Eliot and John Berryman (Deanna Wendel)
  • 7. Of Letters and Lyric Style: John Berryman’s Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (Heather Treseler)
  • 8. ‘Satanic pride’: Berryman, Schwartz, and the Genesis of Love & Fame (J. T. Welsch)
  • 9. ‘the angel and the beast in man’: John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz, and Shakespeare (Alex Runchman)
  • 10. Berryman-Jarrell: Nervous Affinities (Michael Hinds)
  • 11. ‘The sonnet might “lead to dishonesty”’: John Berryman and Paul Muldoon as Sonneteers (Katherine Ebury)
  • 12. Not Allowed to be Bored: John Berryman’s Lexicon of Boredom (Stephen Matterson)
  • 13. The Pornography of Grief: John Berryman and the Language of Suffering (Adam Beardsworth)
  • 14. ‘He begot us an enigma’: Berryman’s Beethoven (Eve Cobain)
  • 15. John Berryman’s Acoustics (Peter Campion)
  • 16. Henry in High School: John Berryman in the Classroom is an ‘Angry Zen Touch’ (Michael P. Carriger and William C. Patterson)
  • Afterword: My John Berryman; or, Imagination, Love, Intellect, and Pain (Henri Cole)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

← viii | ix →


This book has its basis in two events, one in Dublin and another in Minneapolis, organized in 2014 to celebrate the centenary of the birth of John Berryman. The editors wish to thank everyone who read poems, gave papers, chaired sessions, and participated in discussions at these conferences, and especially the following people and organisations for their exceptional back-up and support:

Dublin: Joseph M. Bradley; Fiona Byrne; Susan Cahill; Ron Callan; Jonathan Creasy; Matthew Day; Martin Doyle; Kit Fryatt; Gillian Groszewski; Alan Hayes; Eleanor Jones-McAuley; Zosia Kuczyńska; Emma Loughney; Philip McGowan; Peter Maber; Niamh NicGhabhann; Joanne O’Leary; Kathrine Phillipa; Diane Sadler; the students and staff of the English Department of the Mater Dei Institute (Dublin City University); the students and staff of the School of English, Trinity College Dublin; the Fulbright Commission of Ireland; the Irish Association for American Studies; KC Peaches (Nassau Street); Poetry Ireland; The Irish Times; Reads Print and Design; RTÉ Radio One (The History Show); Newstalk FM.

Minneapolis: Barb Bezat; Michael Dennis Browne; Tom Clayton; John Coleman; Raiana Grieme; Edward Griffin; Patricia Hampl; Kathryn Hujda; Lois Kelly; Richard J. Kelly; Alan K. Lathrop; Cecily Marcus; Tim Nolan; Ellen Messer-Davidow; Katherine McGill; Wendy Pradt Lougee; Elizabeth O’Brien; Kathryn Rensch; Daniel Swift; Jennifer Torkelson; Shannon Wolkerstorfer; the students and staff of the Department of English at the University of Minnesota; the students and staff of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Minnesota; the University of Minnesota Libraries; the staff of Andersen Library, University of Minnesota; Minnesota Public Radio; Minnesota Daily.

For over four decades, scholars working on John Berryman’s work have had the support and encouragement of the poet’s widow, Kate Donahue Berryman, without whom none of this work would have been possible. The editors thank her and the members of the Berryman family who attended ← ix | x → the conference at the University of Minnesota in October 2014: Martha Mayou, David Mayou and their son John; Sarah Berryman and her family; and Paul Berryman.

Permission to quote from John Berryman’s published and unpublished works in this volume has been received from Kate Donahue Berryman, executrix of the John Berryman Estate. Permission to reproduce a photographic image of Siah Armajani’s Tomb for John Berryman on the cover has been received from the artist, with the assistance of Alejandro Jassan of Alexander Gray Associates LLC, New York City.

Finally, thanks are due to the editors of Peter Lang’s Modern Poetry series for supporting this project, and Jasmin Allousch, Emma Clarke, Liam Morris and Emily Vincent for various kinds of assistance. Last but not least, many thanks to Christabel Scaife, who kept everything on course from initial proposal to publication.

Philip Coleman, Trinity College Dublin
Peter Campion, University of Minnesota

← x | xi →


Foreword: ‘Berrymancy’

Editors’ Note: The following text was delivered at the opening of the John Berryman Centenary Symposium at the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies, the Mater Dei Institute, Dublin City University, Dublin, 10 October 2014.

When Philip Coleman approached me with news of this conference and an invitation to contribute here now at the opening of this conference, and also generously invited me to contribute to his anthology of responses in poetry to Berryman, Berryman’s Fate, a beautiful wee book, I had a long poem of my own, a poem of many parts in process, still in process if stalled in progress, so I felt the fickle finger of fate pointed back to Berryman. Do not look the gift horse in the mouth whatever they say in Ilium. I do not have the critical distance of a trained academic. My formation has been as a craftswoman and dreamer. Poems move through my body and I experience them on the pulses. Usually I’d sooner dance a poem than discuss it.

When I first played with Berryman I was in my teens. We used the The Dream Songs as a book for scrying – as we did the I Ching, Finnegans Wake, The Bible, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno. And Dinneen’s Irish–English Dictionary was a bit like the Kerry Mafia – it made you an offer you couldn’t understand. Books of heft and substance and mysterious utterance, books that mirrored the myriad-faceted nature of our lives internal and external, our diamond faceted young minds.

A random indication from the forces of the cosmos as to what was to be done. What will I do today? What will I home in on? Does he love me? Do I care? How will I resolve the row, another one, with my mother? Should I go to London and take the consequence? Will I pass Latin? Should I go to Cornwall and take the consequences? Will I drop out altogether and go to Afghanistan to see the mirror-embroidered robes of the natives flashing along the trails? ← xi | xii →

Part of the zeitgeist of the heavenly and grave dance of the constellations that gave Paris in 1968, the foreshadowing of the Aquarian age in the astrology of 1969, the astrology the astrologers tell us we are living through now. As kids on street corners in Finglas with our heads flying off our shoulders, Berryman made as much sense as anything else in our universe where we mostly, to quote Alan Watts, a self-styled harbinger of that zeitgeist, ‘were climbing up the signposts instead of following the road’.

The Dream Songs were (was!) all ludic divination and fun. So I scry – on Wednesday night opening at random holding in mind the question. Using The Dream Songs as if I were a Querant now in the dark art of ‘Berrymancy’, the question being: What say you, John Berryman, about the conference and festivities for your 100th birthday? This is what I get from the great Randomer Himself – Dream Song 275, entitled ‘July 11’:

And yet I find myself able, at this deep point,
to carry out my duties: I lecture, I write.
I am even lecturing well,
I threw two chairs the janitors had piled
on the podium to the floor of the lecture hall:
the students were amazed

it was good for them, action in the midst of thought,
an angry Zen touch, something not written down
except in the diaries
of the unknown devoted ones of the 115:
‘Master Henry is approaching his limit.’
A little more whiskey please.

A little more whiskey please. Something’s gotta give
either in edgy Henry or the environment:
the conflict cannot last,
I soothe myself with, though for 50 years
the war’s made headlines. Waiting for fall
and the cold fogs thereof

in delicious Ireland.1 ← xii | xiii →

Ah! Hairs stand up on neck. Which Song speaks most clearly to me now. It has read me.

We think we read the poem. The poem reads us. Finnegans Wake, dream song of this city: it reads the mind of whoever holds it in their hands. It reads the borders and the traditions of the beholder. The limits of their patience and their perseverance too. The limits of their trust.

In my early twenties I encountered The Dream Songs again in the northwest of the United States. A course called The American Eiron from Mark Twain to Woody Allen. Taught by Jim Busskohl, who in an earlier incarnation had been a stand-up comedian down in San Francisco before he defected to academia. He riveted us with his renditions of passages from the set and other texts. In a classroom that could only be described as soul-less, not too far from Hanford, the nuclear town, up the road from Fairchild Airforce Base where the B52 bombers lined up on alert ensured it was a ground zero in the event of a nuclear attack by what the newspapers screamed were the Russkies, Jim Busskohl, almost in passing, embodied, doing the voices, Berryman’s characters, compelling and repelling at once. Theatrical. A good show.

Synchronicitously I found The Dream Songs for a dollar in the Goodwill Store. I began to intuit The Dream Songs’ own performance of themselves. I understood the ‘I’ of the poem as a transpersonal ‘I’, another element in the construction of the poem to be manipulated and narrated at will or by inclination, and with that came the realization that the phrase ‘confessional poet’ is an oxymoron. All poems were becoming dream songs then, songs of the inner dreamer, or so it seemed at that moment, 1981, Ronald Reagan’s America.

Was I able for it? Hardly. Often hungover myself and feeling shame or dehydration’s destruction of my electrolytes, one way or another in pain, Henry was out of favour. Henry was a bold boy. Henry was getting up the noses.

Is someone else’s monkey mind any more interesting than one’s own? Do The Dream Songs help cope with monkey mind, the ceaseless chatter I, for one, and no doubt like many others, seek to quieten? Is the shaping, the force of will on the chaos of the wounded self a salvific act for the reader even though it didn’t save Berryman’s own poor demented hide? ← xiii | xiv →

The rage for order, the intense patterning, the keeping faith with the pact of his fate, the hard grafter, the master craftsman hammering the lines of his dreamtime, the songs.

The third engagement with Berryman came after an approach last year from Philip Coleman, who has to take responsibility for this wave of obsessional behaviour, a veritable cult.

I lugged The Dream Songs down to the island of Ikaria in the eastern Aegean where in the village of Therma (clue – hot springs) I opened the book again and let it read me. An asclepeion, a place of healing since ancient times, because of the radionic springs, Therma seemed like the right place for it. In ancient times the person seeking to be cured would first sleep in the precincts of the sanctuary of Asclepius until that person had a dream that could be used by the priests to effect a diagnosis and a course of treatment. I was taken with the idea of healing the wounded soul of The Dream Songs dream by dream, song by song.

I felt the humanity of Berryman as a force for compassion for all the wounded and addicted souls that I had known. Compassion for the self too as addict and reader. I thought of how all traditions, or many traditions, hold an idea of retrospective redemption, whether it is the freeing of the souls from purgatory through our intervention in the Catholic tradition I was reared in, or the liberation through hearing for the beings in the bardos, the in-between place between incarnations in the Buddhist tradition. The Tibetan Book of the Dead refers directly to ‘liberation through hearing’, as the Catholics hold with an act of contrition: both practices recommended even when the person has died.

I imagine your distinguished deliberations over these few days as powerfully redemptive energies for the soul of John Berryman. I know this book will mark a change in the way Berryman is read. It restores a dignity to the life of Berryman by refusing the indulgence of the stereotype, and it refuses to define, to confine or reduce Berryman’s life by the manner of his death.

I imagine every person in this room has been touched by suicide. I rarely meet anyone who has been spared that most traumatic bereavement by the time they reach, say, the age where they can vote. I think Berryman has much to offer us in our apprehension of the forces that would drive a being to such a desperate end. ← xiv | xv →

It feels like pure geomancy that this conference and celebration should start in Dublin where, I am reliably informed, Ronnie Drew, singer of songs broad and narrow, inspired a smooth-shaven John Berryman to start his famous beard when they met. (A little more whiskery please, a little more whiskery …) Said beard must surely have its own website by now.

You don’t have to be bearded, an alcoholic, or write obsessively in patterns to connect with Berryman. Believe me, I don’t think any of those attributes will help. ← xv | xvi →

1 John Berryman, The Dream Songs (1969; rpt. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), 294.

← xvi | 1 →



First published by Graywolf Press in John Berryman’s adopted city of Minneapolis in 2014, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric was widely praised as one of the most powerful works of poetry to appear in recent years.1 The book contains an unexpected reference to Berryman:

Someone claimed we should use our skin as wallpaper knowing we couldn’t win.2

Strictly speaking, the ‘[s]omeone’ mentioned here is not Berryman at all, but Gottfried Benn, who is referenced in Berryman’s Dream Song 53:

and Gottfried Benn
said: – We are using our own skins for wallpaper and we cannot win.3

Rankine includes The Dream Songs among the works referenced in Citizen – she does not cite Benn – but her re-writing of Berryman’s line suggests a radical form of interpretation.4 The shift from Berryman’s collective plural (‘our own skins’) to the singular (‘our skin’) in Rankine’s poem reflects a growing global demand for a new kind of racial understanding that problematizes a homogeneous idea of American selfhood: Black Lives Matter. ← 1 | 2 → There is a need to see the (black) ‘person’ beyond the (white) ‘symbol’. As Rankine puts it just before this direct reference to Berryman in Citizen,


XVI, 314
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (March)
American poetry John Berryman 20th-century poetry Middle Generation poetry
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XVI, 314 pp.

Biographical notes

Philip Coleman (Volume editor) Peter Campion (Volume editor)

Philip Coleman is an Associate Professor in the School of English at Trinity College Dublin, where he is also a Fellow. His most recent publications include John Berryman’s Public Vision: Relocating «The Scene of Disorder» and Berryman’s Fate: A Centenary Celebration in Verse (2014). He also co-edited «After thirty Falls»: New Essays on John Berryman (2007). With Calista McRae, he is currently co-editing a selection of John Berryman’s literary correspondence. Peter Campion is the author of three collections of poems, Other People, The Lions and El Dorado, as well as numerous catalogue essays and art monographs on contemporary painters. A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rome Prize (Prix de Rome) from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he directs the MFA programme in creative writing at the University of Minnesota.


Title: John Berryman
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