By Robert O’Connor.
On February 17th there was a gathering at the Loring Pasta Bar in Dinkytown to celebrate the life of John Berryman (I covered the event for the Twin Cities Daily Planet). Berryman taught humanities at the University of Minnesota for 17 years.
His most famous works are his “Dream Songs.” “77 Dream Songs” won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1964.
Among his students at the U of M were Michael Mann (who spoke at the gathering), Patricia Hampl and Garrison Keillor. Michael Dennis Browne, a distinguished teaching professor at the U and a poet himself, MC’d the event. Browne saw Berryman read three times and recorded one of them, which he played at the end of the evening.
Phil Coleman, a professor at Trinity College, Dublin sent a letter of support which Browne read. Coleman recently co-edited a collection of essays about Berryman and his survey of Berryman’s work is due out from UCD Press later this year.
Berryman frequented Dublin, especially Ryan’s pub in Camden Street where (per Coleman) his portrait hangs on the wall. He also owned an autographed book of Yeats, his hero.
Berryman’s widow, Kate Donahue, was the last speaker of the evening. She drew everyone’s attention to Clive James‘ essay on Berryman in the September 2010 issue of Poetry.
Patricia Kirkpatrick, who teaches poetry at Hamline University in St. Paul, read W. S. Merwin’s poem “Berryman,” based on a the two had. Merwin is a former poet laureate of the United States who has also edited an edition of the complete “Dream Songs.”
John Berryman, along with friends Robert Lowell and W. D. Snodgrass, is considered one of the founders of confessional poetry – poetry that deals with intimate details of the poet’s personal life. One thing that haunted Berryman throughout his life, which he dealt with in the Dream Songs, was the suicide of his father when John was twelve. Alcohol was another thing that consumed him, to the point that it was hard for him to read in public. He ended his life on January 7, 1972 by jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis.
MORE: Paris Review interview // Poetry Foundation // Modern American Poetry collection // Entry in the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture // From a 1967 BBC arts program with Al Alvarez: Dream Song 29, Dream Song 14 // Interview, 1970 part 1 of 6