THE LIFE OF JOHN BERRYMAN by John Haffenden

THE LIFE OF JOHN BERRYMAN

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Since Haffenden has already addressed Berryman's poetry--in John Berryman: A Critical Commentary, 1980--there is no interplay between life history and literary criticism here. And that's something of a pity, because the story of the personal Berryman, one of the major contemporary American wrecks, is an almost complete foul one--one which hardly seems (especially in the absence of the better poetry) to justify such microscopic reconstruction. Still, on its own terms, Haffenden's study is a model of straightforward, superbly well-organized biography, each aspect receiving treatment that's neither too skimpy, too meek, nor too crushing. Here, then, is the complete case history: Berryman's father's suicide; his smothering mother; his snobbism; his adulteries; his attempts at scholarship; his feelings of perpetual failure; his anti-social behavior and vast neuroticism. Students testify to inspired teaching; colleagues invariably remember odium. There is detailed discussion of Berryman's mistreatment of his first wife, Eileen Simpson, whose recent memoir--Poets in Their Youth--seems by comparison remarkably forebearing (and extremely cogent). In sum, then, as Haffenden says, Berryman's suffering was greatly impure'. ""His creative output may be accounted for (to some extent) as the product of dwelling on himself: a self, he felt, intruded on by the outside world. His cast of mind construed affliction as a creative stimulant."" And while this biography is an efficient and intelligent presentation of the cruelty produced by Berryman's misery, it is severely limited by the relative absence of that misery's other product: the poems.

Pub Date: Oct. 7th, 1982
Publisher: Routledge & Kegan Paul