Saturday, October 25, 2008


Poet John Berryman was born on this day, October 25, in 1914. Berryman looms large in contemporary poetry, owing largely to the dark, drunk, confessional tone that characterized many of his mature poems. As a matter of taste, I've always preferred the musical yet morbid Dream Songs, written over a span of 5 years earlier in Berryman's career, detailing the inner and outer workings of Berryman's nebbishy Everyman, "Henry."

Berryman killed himself by jumping into the Mississippi River on January 7, 1972. The Paris Review conducted an interview with Berryman only a few months before his death in 1971.

Where do you go from here?

My idea is this: The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business. Beethoven’s deafness, Goya’s deafness, Milton’s blindness, that kind of thing. And I think that what happens in my poetic work in the future will probably largely depend not on my sitting calmly on my ass as I think, “Hmm, hmm, a long poem again? Hmm,” but on being knocked in the face, and thrown flat, and given cancer, and all kinds of other things short of senile dementia. At that point, I’m out, but short of that, I don’t know. I hope to be nearly crucified.

You’re not knocking on wood.

I’m scared, but I’m willing. I’m sure this is a preposterous attitude, but I’m not ashamed of it.

The full, ballsy, entertaining interview with the doomed Berryman is here.

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