Given the proliferation of biographies, memoirs, and posthumous editions of the middle generation poets--Schwartz, Jarrell,...


DREAM SONG: The Life of John Berryman

Given the proliferation of biographies, memoirs, and posthumous editions of the middle generation poets--Schwartz, Jarrell, Lowell, and Berryman--it's not surprising that little in this, the second major Berryman biography since his death in 1972, seems new (see E.M. Halliday's John Berryman and the Thirties, 1987). What is fresh is Mariani's ability to weave all the previous material into a neat and eminently readable narrative--the best single volume on Berryman's life and work we're likely to see for some time. Mariani's most dramatic revelation--that Berryman's father might not have committed suicide, but was murdered by his wife--ironically underscores the poet's lifelong obsession with his father's demise, an act of self-destruction (or so he thought) he was to imitate with his own leap from a bridge in Minneapolis, where he was a distinguished professor at the University. But such academic honor came after lots of personal and professional torment. Though Berryman managed a level of literary scholarship far beyond the average poet's ability, he never acquired a Ph.D., thereby forcing himself to scrounge for teaching work at a number of schools, none of which paid him very well. His most important writing, beginning with his ""Homage to Mistress Bradstreet"" and continuing through The Dream Songs, was done relatively late in his career, and brought him acclaim only in his last decade, when the awards (Pulitzer, NBA, etc.) came fast and plentiful. Until then, Berryman eked out a living and labored over his verse while continuing his indulgence in booze and adultery. Obsessed with fame and death, he learned the histrionic manipulation of others at his mother's knee. It follows that he'd be a rotten husband and father, with three wives and three children left behind to give testimony. Mariani spares none of the dark and unappealing sides of the chronically depressed poet, but he also keeps our reason for caring in sight--the achievement of Berryman's poetry. A poet himself, Mariani attends to his subject's search for a distinct poetic voice, which Berryman found in the disrupted syntax and jivey idiom of The Dream Songs, the subject of which was of course mainly himself, thinly disguised by the persona of old ""huffy Henry."" At times choppy, with a day-by-day rehearsal of events, Mariani's otherwise dramatic narrative strikes a perfect balance between life and work.

Pub Date: Feb. 27, 1989


Page Count: -

Publisher: Morrow

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1989