Poet John Berryman taught at the University of Minnesota from 1955 until his death in 1972. A centenary conference celebrating his work is being held there this weekend. Undated Star Tribune file photo by Pete Hohn.
To his fans, the work of John Berryman has never faded. Many an indie rocker has been inspired by the idiosyncratic poet famous for his "Dream Songs" and other works like his groundbreaking "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet."
“Each poem trembles with a terrible, furious beauty that lies somewhere beneath the surface of his often perplexing words,” opined Nick Cave. The Hold Steady and Okkervil River have written songs about him.
But now Berryman, a Pulitzer winner and former University of Minnesota professor who notoriously leapt off the Washington Ave. Bridge in 1972, seems poised for revival, with several new books coming out this month and a centenary conference -- Berryman was born 100 years ago Saturday -- at the U this weekend.
After Berryman’s suicide, says conference participant Peter Campion, a poet and U of M professor, “there was an attack on him, because of his alcoholism, that went along with this sort of puritanical ‘80s vibe. But people are coming out of the woodwork for this conference, we’re expecting standing room only.”
Berryman remained highly influential in the world of American poetry despite his reputation "going underground" after his death, Campion said: "He had such tremendous range. He was a tried and true Shakespeare scholar who also wrote like a quicksilver improvisational blues musician. No one could imitate him, to try would be silly, but he set a model that was so freeing, giving other poets permission to use other voices,including different ethnic voices, in their work.”
Four new books from Farrar, Straus and Giroux include re-issues of Berryman's Dream Songs (foreword by Michael Hofmann) and his Sonnets (foreword by April Bernard). "The Heart Is Strange," is a New Selected Poems including three previously uncollected poems. The memoir "Poets In Their Youth" by his wife, writer and psychologist Eileen Simpson, has also been re-issued.
As Hofmann notes in his foreword, young readers in particular are drawn to Berryman's fearless, freewheeling style:"no one writes like that, no one dares, no one would have the wild imagination or the obsession. Who knew English could encompass that flux; that whinny; those initially baffling, then canny and eventually unforgettable rearrangements of words; that irresistible flow of thoughts and nonthoughts of that degree of informed privateness?
He also quotes poet Adrienne Rich, who singled out Berryman and one other famous Minnesota artist for praise when she said, "The English (American) language. Who knows entirely what it is? Maybe two men in this decade, Bob Dylan, John Berryman."
Running Friday afternoon through midday Sunday at the Elmer L. Andersen Library on campus, the conference features readings by local poets including Jim Moore and Michael Dennis Browne, panel discussions on his influences, memories of his students (several of whom became prominent poets in their own right) and a screening of a short documentary by local filmmaker and Berryman contemporary Al Milgrom. It's free but advance registration is requested: http://www.continuum.umn.edu/reg/berryman The conference schedule is here.
Dream Song 14
by John Berryman
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no
Inner Resources." I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as Achilles,
who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.