Remembering John Berryman (1914-1972)

January 7th marks the 50th anniversary of the death of poet John Berryman(1914-1972), who taught at the University of Minnesota beginning in 1955 until his tragic suicide off of the Washington Street Bridge. The Poetry Foundation of course has an excellent summation of his journey and influences well worth a read. The American Academy of Poets also has an overview of his life.

I don’t think many in my circle had initially run into John Berryman’s work in the classrooms or bookstores, etc. but I can see now that he was influential on one of my favorite albums of the early 90s by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream.

Here he is reading from one of his most well-known works in 1968: 


While this year’s anniversary has gone largely without remark in Minnesota media, he is still being talked about, as in this 2021 article by The Point, “The Wound Talks To You,” at https://thepointmag.com/criticism/the-wound-talks-to-you. For the season finales of Succession, lines from his poems have served as the titles as, Thrillist points out. Oklahoma did an interesting spotlight on him last year.

A quote of his that resonates with me in particular is ““You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you’re merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that’s always easiest.”

I wouldn’t say that I can understand many of his poems easily, but I can appreciate what he was attempting to reach for, even if we might find some of his techniques disagreeable today. But this year, you might want to take a look at some of his poems yourself, and see what resonates for you.

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