John Berryman (October 25, 1914 – January 7, 1972) was a major figure in American poetry in the second half of the 20th century and also a key figure in the school of poetry that became known as Confessional Poetry.
Berryman suffered a great loss at 12 when his father shot himself outside the boy’s window. This event haunted him throughout his life. He would later write about his struggle to come to terms with it in his book The Dream Songs (1964) which was awarded the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
The Dream Song form consisted of short, eighteen-line lyric poems in three stanzas, and centers on a anguished character named “Henry” who has suffered an irreversible loss, very much like Berryman, and talks about himself in the first, third, even in the second person.
The clip shows John Berryman in Dublin, 1967, reading Dream Song 29 [There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart]. But, as the attentive viewer may notice, Berryman was quite drunk when he was filmed and interviewed here for a BBC arts programme.
Read Dream Song 29 at Poetry Foundation.
Berryman taught or lectured at a number of universities, and was, from 1955 on, professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Nevertheless, Berryman continued to abuse alcohol and to struggle with depression, as he had throughout much of his adult life.
The poet’s lifelong struggles with alcoholism and depression ended in 1972, when he jumped off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis onto the west bank of the Mississippi River on the morning of January 7, 1972. He was 57.