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John Berryman Biography

(1914–72), Five Young American Poets, Poems, The Dispossessed, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, The Waste Land

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American poet, born John Smith in McAlester, Oklahoma; his father committed suicide in 1926 and he subsequently adopted his stepfather's name. He was educated at Columbia University, New York, and at Clare College, Cambridge. From 1939 onwards he was a lecturer and latterly a professor at various American universities, notably the University of Minnesota. His poems began appearing in periodicals in 1935 and attracted favourable critical responses when a selection was featured in Five Young American Poets (1940). Poems (1942) and The Dispossessed (1948) established him as one of the leading American poets of the generation that included Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, and Randall Jarrell. Berryman described his earlier verse as Anglo-American ‘period style’, considering it to rely broadly upon the examples of Yeats and Auden; his great accomplishment and individuality of voice were, however, clear in poems like ‘The Moon and the Night and the Men’ and ‘Canto Amore’. Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956) gained him wider recognition, drawing comparisons with The Waste Land from Frank Kermode and Edmund Wilson for the force and originality of the complex interactions between its personal, historical, and cultural dimensions. Berryman's Sonnets (1967) confirmed his ability to combine a highly developed command of traditional forms with the emotional and intellectual urgency conveyed by the range and individuality of his tones. The breadth of reference, technical adaptability, and psychological intensities of his poetry culminated in 77 Dream Songs (1964) and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest: 308 Dream Songs (1968), which appeared in a collected edition as The Dream Songs in 1969. In Love and Fame (1971) the religious elements intermittently present in earlier work achieve consolidated expression in the conversationally discursive ‘Eleven Addresses to the Lord’. A Collected Poems, edited by Charles Thornbury, was produced in 1990. For many years Berryman's compulsive and erratic behaviour resulted in recurrent admissions to psychiatric hospitals; he killed himself by jumping from a bridge in Minneapolis in 1972. The energetic development of his poetry provides a notable instance of success in following Empson's injunction to ‘learn a style from despair’. Among his other works are the biography Stephen Crane (1951), a collection of essays entitled The Freedom of the Poet (1976), and the autobiographical novel Recovery (1973). The Life of John Berryman by John Haffenden was published in 1982. See also Confessional Poetry.

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