A Real Poet who became famous for a book-length poem he wrote!

It’s the birthday of poet and professor John Berryman, (books by this author) born in McAlester, Oklahoma (1914). He wrote a hundred sonnets based on an affair he had with one of his graduate students, and then he became famous for a book-length poem he wrote to a Puritan woman who’d been dead nearly three centuries.That work, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, took him five years to compose. He was very meticulous about how he worked on it. He would draft a stanza of the poem in the morning and then stick it under a sheet of translucent paper so that he could see the stanza but not touch it. Then he would sit and stare at it for hours, making notes. When he felt sure he was ready to make the changes, he took out the stanza manuscript, wrote in the corrections, stuck it back under the translucent paper, and stared at it some more. Then, when he was satisfied with the changes, he would type it up. He did one stanza each day like this. After a stanza was done for the day, it was never revised again. His second marriage fell apart during the time he spent composing Homage to Miss Bradstreet, which begins:

“The Governor your husband lived so long
moved you not, restless, waiting for him? Still,
you were a patient woman. –
I seem to see you pause here still.”

He struggled with alcoholism and depression, and part of his therapy was to keep a journal of his dreams. Many of his dreams made their way into his poetry cycle “Dream Songs.” A batch of these poems, published as 77 Dream Songs (1964), won the 1965 Pulitzer Prize. He wrote nearly 400 “Dream Songs,” all narrated by a middle-aged man named Henry. He wrote, “These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand. / They are only meant to terrify & comfort.”

The first of The Dream Songs begins:
“Huffy Henry hid the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point, – a trying to put things over.
It was the thought that they thought
they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
But he should have come out and talked.”

Berryman was a Shakespearean scholar and a professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His books include Love & Fame (1970) and Recovery (1973).

He wrote in “Dream Song 14”:
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.


Reposted from Writer’s Almanac.

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