Unspeakably Miserable For the Most Part

Reading John Berryman’s letters.
John Berryman sitting in his semi-empty apartment.

There are many reasons why reviewing the work of John Berryman is in the present moment a daunting task. Let me briefly address the most glaring of these difficulties. Besides being persistently sexist with regard to women; besides being addicted to alcohol and perhaps other medications and a frequent customer of mid-century, inpatient psychiatric treatment; besides befriending at least one well-known fascist sympathizer, etc., Berryman also elected, in his strongest work, The Dream Songs (1969), to devote some portion of his protagonist’s narratorial voice to a broad exaggeration of Black vernacular dialect that has rightly become a flashpoint in any discussion of the author’s oeuvre.

The excellent contemporary poet and editor Kevin Young, writing about Berryman while tasked with compiling the Selected Poems (2004) for the Library of America, suggested that Berryman’s use of dialect “deserves examination at length.” This is doubtless the case, and Young made this observation some years ago, before the contemporary uprising about institutional racism and inequality and before the wave of overdue criticism of editorial inequality, which has touched down, with serious implications, at Poetry magazine—a periodical Berryman assesses witheringly in the volume at hand: “Magazines are a continual plague. They are all so damned irresponsible, even the best. I take a very poor view of Poetry, which keeps on printing more trash than any other three.”

What do we make of the Mr. Bones voice, the minstrel voice, as employed in Berryman’s most successful work, much of it written during the high period of the civil rights movement? What do we make of Henry’s agonized dream life in our own times of crisis? And what of the author? And why is the Poetry Foundation assigning a review of Berryman’s letters, today, when they could instead review a new volume by an African American poet?

There is, it is fair to say, a stomach churning that goes with this assignment. Should I not properly imagine that I, a middle-aged white writer of privilege, am, however inadvertently, being conscripted into this review such that I might avoid rocking the boat on a now-contested figure of 20th-century confessional literature when some helping of opprobrium appears more than justifiable? Let me be plain. In the present context, it is impossible to read Berryman’s magnum opus without the keenest discontent about the use of dialect. Berryman’s conduct as a man, as a father, as a husband, as a professor, as indicated in his work and in his biography, is very often difficult to bear witness to, even at a 50-year remove. The tide has shifted so dramatically in 2020 that it is hard to know why it is a public service to review the volume at hand.

And yet: in the midst of the tumult of the present, is it not also worth asking if an enduring motive with literature is not to document some elemental human truth, as though what’s true for one consciousness might be applicable to all? For this reviewer, no stranger to mental illness and alcoholism by birth and by personal experience, the one remaining and incontrovertible value of the so-called confessional impulse in the mid-20th century is the light this work brings to the agonizing subject of mental illness. In The Dream Songs, the inner life, the symbolic field, the heart and soul of the mentally ill person, the son of a suicide who would go on to be a suicide himself is there for all to see. I, for one, want to know well of that castoff populace, the mentally ill. I want to know what they know about civilization itself. Read on, then, if you are willing to concede a similar wish; if not, go on to consider our current national convulsion instead, as you should and must.


Today’s matter then is The Selected Letters of John Berryman (Harvard University Press, 2020), edited by Philip Coleman and Calista McRae. As the title suggests, some portion of Berryman’s letters has already been published (in, for example, We Dream of Honour, Berryman’s letters to his mother, and portionally in other works, such as Berryman’s Shakespeare), so this collection is neither definitive nor totally new and mostly builds out ideas that have already been in currency among those who read deeply in Berryman’s output. The selection, however, is comprehensive, in the sense that there are letters from every phase of the author’s life, including, for example, his boarding school years in Connecticut: “Last night, all the new fellows had a big picnic by the lake—I ate six sausages in rolls,” as well as his last years in Minnesota and all between. Likewise, the editors do not refrain from including some of the least flattering letters among the chatty, witty, learned ones or the ones that reveal the author in a most complex light, such as this letter to Chris Haynes, the addressee of Berryman’s sonnet sequence, written in a thrall to her while he was still married to his wife Eileen:

I feel a little as if this were the last letter I would write to you, Chris—let me tell you I am sorry for all this in a way but I do not regret it, I am glad I love you, I cannot envisage a life without loving you. You asked me a silly question once, & again: why I love you. I think I put it in a poem—yes, I did, though I forget which one—but let me tell you a little better. The real reasons are like the life of the sycamore: inexplicable, immediate, some harmony and flow in one direction.

One cannot but wish for more such letters, for more of the most intimate, most tragic, most reckless Berryman, and yet one cannot quarrel with the overall picture of the man here, as it is inclusive of all his moods, no matter what. Berryman, frequently ill (as the letters note), and often socially impaired, was a prolific chronicler of himself who used the epistle form in a diaristic way: “that I am unspeakably miserable for the most part, and that if I sat down to write automatically (as letter-writing mostly goes with me), I should appear insane, wildly tedious, infantile….” There is little in Berryman’s lettristic oeuvre—and this is no surprise to those who have admired the ambition of the poems—that does not depict the heart in all its convolutions, unsettled, unsatisfied, distracted, petty, combative, conflicted, and, often, sad.?

Because every period of Berryman’s life has its evidentiary cache, this selection does include a wealth of the malevolences of the young, emerging poet—hates Faulkner, hates Hart Crane, considers women writers inferior (“Why do you need a poetass?” to the publisher James Laughlin in 1940), has only fitful impressions of a world war unfolding around him or of, for example, nuclear annihilation but knows a truly ungodly amount about variant lines in King Lear, where less might, for some, be more.

But his professional lobbying in the 1930s and 1940s—the emergent period—also brings with it letters to many important writers and editors of the day, including Laughlin, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Delmore Schwartz, Mark Van Doren, Allen Tate, and T.S. Eliot. There are several letters to Ezra Pound after the war. Indeed, there are more letters here about Berryman’s concern for Pound’s condition at St Elizabeth’s Hospital, where the latter was institutionalized for more than a decade, than there are expressions of concern about the war itself. Perhaps Berryman’s abundant concern comes from the author’s own experiences being hospitalized with mental illness. To James Laughlin, during Pound’s institutionalization, Berryman writes, “maybe he & I can change places.” Whatever the cause, his allegiance to Pound is keen. There is, for example, an arresting letter in which Berryman schools a philistine, one Luther Evans, on the value of Pound’s The Pisan Cantos, after a flap (of the sort that rings ever so contemporarily) over whether this work deserved the Bollingen Prize of 1949, which letter, no matter your feelings about Pound’s repulsive wartime sentiments, is a thing of startling sincerity:

Fourth, and personally, I would like to display for you briefly some ground for the award, since you write that The Pisan Cantos seems to you hardly poetry at all.
??????????????????????? a man on whom the sun has gone down . . .
??????????????????????? a man on whom the sun has gone down
??????????????????????? nor shall diamond die in the avalanche
??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? be it torn from its setting
??????????????????????? first must destroy himself ere others destroy him. . . .
??????????????????????? a man on whom the sun has gone down. . . .
??????????????????????? that had been a hard man in some ways
This solemn, resourceful, by no means hopeless lament, if you read it slowly as it tangles with other themes or even here isolated, I think can hardly help filling your ear.

Berryman’s position as part-time poetry editor at the Nation from 1939 to 1940 likewise makes possible the inclusion of a great variety of variations on the phrase “it was not to my liking” in epistolary form, some funny and some markedly condescending. There is a gigantic cache of letters to the publisher and editor Robert Giroux, fascinating indicators of how much Berryman changed in the proof stage (a great deal), likewise how many projects failed to bear fruit during his lifetime—such as his book on Shakespeare, of which only fragments survived despite an effort of two years.

Most of what I have catalogued so far is the Inside Baseball register of Berryman’s selected letters. This insider stuff will be familiar to anyone who has been a writer in his or her or their 20s and 30s. But the poetry business is not finally what makes The Selected Letters of John Berryman of interest. It is, actually, the heartbreak of Berryman’s illness. It is fair to say that in this case, more than 600 pages of letters amount to a page-turner, not because of the exhaustive smarts of the young Berryman (“My head is in a Shakespearean whirl”) but because of the end of the story.

Increasingly, the voice of these letters rises up and out of the march of professional advancement to render cleanly the staggering cost of alcoholism (“I hope you have forgiven that phone call”) and mental illness, especially in later letters to Berryman’s closest friends, such as Saul Bellow, Delmore Schwartz, Adrienne Rich, and, most tellingly, Eileen Simpson, who survived her long marriage to Berryman and his apparently frequent episodes of adultery to remain a close friend after their divorce in 1956. Indeed, the long letters of candor and regret here are essential examples of how confessional writing was scaled up at its inception and since. Among these, most poignantly, are the author’s late letters to his son, Paul, which are an especially moving feature of the volume, as here from 1970:

I came back into [the] hospital that Sunday and during four weeks’ treatment have made real progress. I began to realize only last Fall what a very poor father I’ve been to you, Paul—at least since you were little. . . . On my birthday especially I had you much on my mind here—it was the end of my 2nd week—and wrote you out a message, to keep & think over. . . . Do you ever pray? If so, pray for me now & then. I’ll pray for you tonight.

At some point in the mid-1960s, moreover, perhaps because of the cumulative effect of alcohol and, later, Thorazine, Berryman’s epistolary voice starts to sound like Henry’s voice in The Dream Songs, which is to say dense, opaque, despondent, and complex. The letters to his last wife, Kate Donahue; a letter to his second wife, Ann Levine, about why he doesn’t see his son often enough; the incredibly beautiful letters to Paul, especially those from rehab and the psychiatric hospital, are deeply sad fever dreams of a life in which remorse has come to figure heavily. The long, swooping paragraphs, full of dependent clauses, the manifold fragments, the occasionally obscure references are less demonstrations of poetical smarts and more like the inside of the dream, the surrealist maelstrom, of the Berryman oeuvre. The end is near when the poet seems to become a part of this dark dreamscape, as in late 1971:

Extreme depression, 57 last Monday, a new will Thurs, 18 lb underweight, money-ghastliness . . . you name it. Proofs came yest’y of the Sel’d Poems 1938-1968 I finally did for Faber, and I can hardly bear to look at them. Novel halted at p 173.

Let me say briefly that I have often loved the sepia and slow-motion clarity of Recovery (1973), Berryman’s unfinished posthumous novel alluded to above, about sobriety and his conversion experience at Hazelden. He got a few months of relief there before the demons set back in, the demon of his father’s 1926 suicide, the demons of his own recklessness, the demons of the past. And in that clarity, he not only wrote his novel but also, as shown in this volume, some exceedingly moving letters.

Do these letters redeem Berryman’s frequently monstrous behavior? His boorishness? His clamoring for success? Do they account for the minstrelsy in The Dream Songs? Is it possible to redeem such things? I don’t think this sampling of Berryman, nor any other, could accomplish all that, and perhaps we are wrong to ask for quite so much. Perhaps we are not even asking the right questions. What The Selected Letters of John Berryman does document is a march toward understanding and sympathetic observation in one human being, no matter how uncomfortable and how costly to the teller and those around him over the course of a rather short life. (Berryman committed suicide by jumping from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, in 1972, at age 57.) In the 21st century, where the discussions are very different, the truth as seen here may appear a blunt instrument, often repellent, wrapped around the helix of mental illness like the sheath around the nerve, but that does not mean it is not true in some way nor that its revealing is not important. Would that Berryman had cast aside the vanities sooner, would that he had taken to treatment sooner, that we might have heard him older and wiser. The present times would have demanded it. But it seems that as with many voices of the confessional era of American poetry, it was his to burn this briefly, in real anguish. The Selected Letters well preserves that drama for those still wishing to know.?

Originally Published: October 19th, 2020

Rick Moody is the author six novels, three collections of stories, a volume of essays on music, and two memoirs, including, most recently, The Long Accomplishment (Henry Holt and Company, 2019). He teaches at Brown University.