In the seventy-seventh of The Dream Songs, John Berryman writes, “these fierce & airy occupations, and love, / raved away so many of Henry’s years.” The pervasive tone of Berryman’s life and writing, spanning the tired, mad, and lonely years from 1914 to 1972, is that of religious despair; somber and violent, the emphasis is on the grotesque dark night of the soul rather than the immaculate light of salvation. In works now taking their place in American literature, including The Dream Songs (which won a Pulitzer); Homage to Mistress Bradstreet; Love & Fame; His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (National Book Award); The Freedom of the Poet; and Recovery, Berryman—arguably one of the most gifted and trenchant poets of the postmodern generation—evokes a world of psychological schism. His “occupations” record the autobiographical quest of a deeply spiritual man for religious security against the background of chaos, disorder, and destruction, of a life raved away in alcoholism, hallucination, and revelation. Berryman does not, however, merely exploit his personal anguish; instead, with colloquial intimacy, he deals with the predicament of persons in a world who have suffered not only the loss of God but the loss of themselves. Berryman’s courage compelled him to record with clarity and frankness his own spiritual malignancy, until at last—tired and exhausted, living with the apprehension that God’s patience too had been exhausted and the promise of salvation withdrawn—he let go, jumping the one hundred feet from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis.

As Paul Mariani makes clear, John Berryman was a man of scruples and snares, disciplining his life only to indulge and binge. His conscience was delicate but lax; and the combination of the two more easily disturbed and ruined him. Berryman thus makes for engaging comparison with his contemporary Thomas Merton: both were students of Mark Van Doren at Columbia University; both were occupied with literature and religion; both were sensitive to the cacophonous noises of an absurd society, which drove them into alienation and unorthodox ways of living; both had strong contemplative minds, lived long hours in solitude, and came in time to be touched by a truth outside the ordinary limits of human vision. In their own distinctive ways, both have left us a theology of creativity, an immense power too great to be fully comprehended at this brief temporal remove.

Mariani himself is a man of judgment and scruple, accepting the goods of Berryman’s life but making sense of it as another poet would. Mariani’s own poems read at times like the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, the soul falling away from its scruples into snares, the conscience excoriating itself through penance, the persona transformed at the poem’s end until the next appearance of sin from which a new spiritual advancement proceeds. Few poets today are engaged in such profound endeavors, staying “true to the facts—the literary remains—which he or she keeps finding, trying to make sense of it all in something like a final ordering.” Dream Song gathers an unsettling rush and pace in its final third, suggesting Mariani finished the book under the constraints of editorial time. Had he given the book a forced symmetry, however, the whole of the text would be untrue to the whole of Berryman’s life—a life spent in search of a center. Berryman’s poetry is the only residue in which such a center is to be discerned; and that canonical terrain has yet fully to be charted.

Berryman the poet was, as seems common today, a serial autobiographer. The personae in his major works—Anne Bradstreet, Henry, Alan Severance—are, as Mr. Mariani makes clear, composites of Berryman’s own experience; their subjective responses are his responses. Dream Song traces the process of self-definition, blending the personalities and the ponderings, until the acquired voice or voices in the writing merge into something like a composite total mind learning to live with its history. The question that seems to override that history is whether America needs persons of Berryman’s talent—or, for that matter, whether America needs to be reminded of their ordeals. Our mythology is filled with winners and with dreams of winning. Far too seldom do we hear the incantations of defeat. America, which feeds the spirit, also starves it, driving it to eccentric and egocentric extremes. The tragic undersongs of our poets’ lives, from Anne Bradstreet to the present time, remind us that the dream is torn; the modern and postmodern generation of poets, the middle generation, are as much aware of the difficulties in creating poetic identities as the first generation was: “We are on each other’s hands / who care. Both of our worlds unhanded us. Lie stark” (Homage to Mistress Bradstreet).

The mad, nervous songs that issue from this misplaced middle are sung by outsiders: persons at the borders of common experience, alienated figures whose voices nevertheless carry truth in their assertions. Mariani throws light on the swerving, staggering, slantwise life of John Berryman by implying that Berryman’s ego-flaunting bullying is also his vulnerability; to see the drunk staggering, reeling, vomiting in the back of a taxi is to see many of our own actions and impulses; yet we also see a Berryman offering direct addresses to the Lord. Berryman is neither Mariani’s hero nor his doppelgänger; neither is he a specimen to be carved up for psychoanalysis. He is, to Mariani, a fallen figure possessed by narcissism, jealousy, hate, lamentations, love, and faith.

Becoming an American poet of some eminence, and then retaining that eminence, is difficult enough; finding admirers who have disinterested relation to the work itself, as opposed to trivial disciples, is essential to poetic survival. Mariani is a fervent admirer of Berryman, but also a realistic one; he combines the aggressions in Berryman’s life with the aggressions in the poems. A case needs to be made for representing such a life in detail. Does John Berryman actually merit so exhaustive a biography as this one?

In his preface, Mariani refers to a “bracing community” of writers who understood Berryman’s “difficult greatness.” It is interesting in this respect to compare a portion of John Haffenden’s John Berryman with a portion of Mariani’s Dream Song, both of them having to do with Dylan Thomas’s death. Haffenden writes: “He called at the hospital on Monday lunchtime, when Thomas happened to be unattended for a moment, and found him dead. Careering off to tell the nurse, Berryman met John Malcolm Brinnin (who had been in attendance all the weekend and had just slipped out for a moment) and demanded accusingly, ‘Where were you?'” Haffenden slights Berryman’s grief, writing that it is “certainly true that Berryman exaggerated his intimacy with Thomas, with whom he was in fact comparatively little acquainted, but it was less from self-seeking shallowness than from a strong sense of identification.” Mariani portrays Berryman as more honor-bound and with an intense sense of grief: “At 12:40 the following afternoon—November 9—Berryman arrived at St. Vincent’s to find Dylan unattended. As he looked at Thomas, he realized with a shock that something was wrong. He shouted for a nurse, who appeared immediately, and then realized that Thomas was dead. As Berryman walked out into the hall, he ran into John Malcolm Brinnin, the man responsible for organizing Dylan’s American tours, just returning from lunch. Hysterical, Berryman screamed at him for abandoning poor Thomas, and then staggered out of the hospital.”

The point is simple: HafiFenden’s dead subject has been killed off, or at the very least deprived of emotional and creative energy, even before the leap from the Washington Avenue Bridge. We are clearly more informed about Berryman’s understanding in the Mariani version.

In Dream Song, Mariani describes how a poet in our time achieves a dimension sufficient to make poetry that will matter. This is done, he shows us, not by the poet’s discarding or escaping from his own personality to assume the personality of a poet, but by accepting it. Berryman did not live a consoling life, but, being Berryman, he had no other alternative than to “go haltingly.” Thus, the biographer who walks alongside should not be a transformer, fancifully making Berryman the man into a timeless, metaphysical grand master seated austerely at his desk. Mariani affirms Berryman to have been one more perishable human being who encountered his perishability in poems. That seems in itself to be significant.


[Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman, by Paul Mariani (New York: William Morrow) 519 pp., $29.95]