Brilliant and accessible, poet John Berryman wins new fans

Poet John Berryman
Poet John Berryman is the subject of an international conference this weekend on the centenary of his birth.
Courtesy Peter Campion

With his long beard and black rimmed glasses John Berryman was a well-known figure on the University of Minnesota campus in the 1960s.

A brilliant yet troubled associate professor of poetry, Berryman could mix references from the Bible and Shakespeare with jazz and blues, into his work, blending it with language that could be scholarly one moment, then earthy and streetwise the next, said Peter Campion, who teaches creative writing at the U of M.

"If you came up as I did as a kid listening to mixtapes, and concerts, it's a very natural jump to John Berryman," Campion said.

This weekend people from around the world will gather at the University of Minnesota to celebrate Berryman's life and work. Forty-two years after his death, his work is gaining a broader appreciation from a whole new generation of fans.

The poet, who would have been 100 on Saturday, is considered by many to have been one of the great American poets of the 20th century. But he led a troubled life. As a boy, he saw his father commit suicide in front of him.

Berryman, who wrestled with a drinking problem in later years, took his life by jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis in 1972. But he left behind a huge body of work including hundreds of "Dream Songs."

Peter Campion
Peter Campion, who teaches creative writing at the University of Minnesota, is co-organizer of this weekend's Berryman conference.
Euan Kerr / MPR News

"What's so surprising to me, and heartening, is how healthy I actually think his work is," said Campion, co-organizer of "John Berryman at 100," the conference this weekend. He said Berryman created tremendous beauty out of the dark places in his life.

"I think it was tremendously heroic that he was able to hold this pain even while trying, of course, trying to cure it," Campion said. "But he was able to channel it into aesthetic artifact and to art."

Berryman brought a myriad of ideas and arguments into his lectures and poems as he once did in a 1967 while reading "Dream Song 14" during a BBC interview.

During the BBC interview, Berryman glares at the camera and twitches, but is impossible to stop watching.

His lectures were much the same, said poet Jim Moore, who took classes from him in the mid-1960s.

"Berryman was certainly the best teacher I ever had," Moore said. "He was also the most eccentric, and in a certain way unreliable."

Moore recalls coming to class one day and finding Berryman asleep at the front of the room. None of the 30 or so students had the guts to rouse him, he said, so they all quietly trouped out.

However, Moore said he had never met anyone as passionate as Berryman about poetry.

At his best, Moore said, Berryman was amazing, quoting by heart, and drawing associations and conclusions in a breathtaking way.

Berryman books
A slew of special editions of Berryman's work are being produced to mark his centenary. Here, a few of the books ring the conference poster.
Euan Kerr / MPR News

"He was demanding in the sense that when he was there and you were there and he was awake, then you would be awake because it moved very quickly those classes," Moore recalled. "And the associations were pretty amazing so they demanded a lot of attention."

For many years Berryman's way of reflecting his own life in his work led to his categorization as a confessional poet. But that's changing, said Philip Coleman, an English lecturer at Trinity College Dublin.

"I think that for many years Berryman's reputation and Berryman's profile were locked into a particular way of reading him," Coleman said.

Coleman said he's been amazed to learn how many contemporary poets now see Berryman as an influence, for his use of language or his constant self-reinvention.

Several of Berryman's books and collections are being re-issued to mark the centennial of his birth. Campion, who expects hundreds of people at the weekend conference, hopes readers will seize the opportunity to honor a great American poet.

"This is art made out of American speech, in all of its variety," he said. "No matter where you are from. No matter what your background is, if you read and speak American speech, this great art is your birthright."

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