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John Berryman: Biography, Poems & Suicide

Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

One of the most controversial personalities in literature, John Berryman left behind a legacy in his works. This lesson will go through his lifetime struggles and successes, as well as his poetic achievements.

Photograph of John Berryman

Early Years

Actually born John Smith, John Berryman grew up as ordinary as his given name. That is, until the age of 12, when his father committed suicide, shooting himself right outside of John's bedroom window. Such a horrific event permanently darkened John's psyche and would eventually show up in much of his poetry. His mother quickly remarried to their landlord, with whom she'd apparently been having an affair, and moved the family north to New York. John later took the name Berryman, after his stepfather.

In 1939, Berryman graduated from Columbia, solidifying a serious passion for poetry, and then moved to school in Cambridge, England, on a Kellett Fellowship. While in Cambridge, he met such famous poets as W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Dylan Thomas. He eventually returned to the states and began to teach, hired by such prestigious schools like Harvard and Princeton. He also grew deeply involved in researching and writing literature.

Trials and Tribulations

In spite of his robust education and growing literary achievements, Berryman never quite stabilized emotionally. He grew infamous for his confrontational opinions, womanizing, and immature pranks. One such prank, drunkenly defecating on his landlord's porch after a heated argument, led to his arrest and the loss of his teaching job. Luckily, this opened his way for another teaching opportunity at the University of Minnesota, where he remained until his death.

These were not Berryman's only issues however. Alcoholism, a medical condition called nervous exhaustion, and suicidal tendencies led to the demise of three marriages. In 1942, Berryman married his first wife, Eileen Mulligan, and by 1946, Berryman's sexual mania was on overdrive. He had so many affairs that he began secretly recording them.

The couple divorced in 1956, and a mere week later, Berryman got remarried to Ann Levine, who was almost 20 years his senior. Together they had a son, but after four years, his mental health had destroyed yet another marriage. In 1958, Berryman was hospitalized for his exhaustion and in 1959, the couple divorced. Soon after, he was again rushed to the hospital, thus beginning a yearly ritual of sorts, for he frequented the hospital at least once a year after that. His alcoholism and bouts of exhaustion were deteriorating his health rapidly.

Suicide

Berryman married his third wife, 22-year-old Kate Donague, in 1961. They had two daughters whom he would not live to see grow up. His alcoholism and depression took turns in devouring him. Between 1969 and 1970, he checked himself into rehab four times.

For eleven months, he managed to stay sober. Berryman even wrote a novel Recovery, which describes his personal struggle with rehabilitation and sobriety. However, his attempts to restore himself were to no avail. On January 7, 1972, two days after he started drinking again, Berryman jumped from the Washington Avenue Bridge. He was 57 years old.

Berryman's Poetry

Berryman was a part of a new movement in poetry called Confessional poetry, or personal poetry. Though he hated labeling himself, his work was in fact very personal and, whether or not he wanted to, he was crucial to the success of this new vision in poetry, joined by other such writers as Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. Before the 1950s, writing about individual experience such as mental illness, suicide, and sexuality was considered extremely taboo and even anti-literary. Breaking boundaries, Berryman was no stranger to self-exploration in his poetry. A great example would be his 1967 collection, eventually titled Berryman's Sonnets, in which he reveals intimate details about his many marital affairs, published only after his divorce.

Though he'd been published several times before, the first of his work to receive national attention was Homage to Miss Bradstreet (1956). The collection weaves together the historical life of Anne Bradstreet with his personal imaginations of her. And with the publication of 77 Dream Songs (1964) and winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1965, his place in literary history solidified. Continuing many of the themes from 77 Dream Songs, the next collection His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968) won the National Book Award for Poetry, and the two would eventually be combined into one: The Dream Songs.

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