Originally born John Allyn Smith, John Berryman was born in McAlester, Oklahoma on a family farm in 1912 to a banker and a former schoolteacher. Early in his life, Berryman moved to many different places, until the he finally arrived in Tampa Florida in 1926 where his father failed in a buisness risk, and that same year, commited suicide outside of his sons window (Berryman’s mother then remarried, giving him the last name Berryman). This would haunt Berryman for the rest of his life, and dramaticly changed his poetry. Berryman was extraordinarily intelligent, and was the first person to graduate from his high school a year early. However, Berryman was constantly teased and lacked social skills, which even lead to his attempted suicide. He attended Colombia College where he studied english, and started publishing poems in their magazine. He then went to Cambridge on a scholarship (where he met many of his later influences, including T.S. Elliot, Dylan Thomas and W.B. Yeats), and went on to teach at a number of different universities, including Harvard, Princeton, Wayne State, and University of Minnesota, where he taught until his death in 1972. Berryman had many marriage struggles and was married three times throughout his life. He committed suicide in 1972 leaving his wife, young daughters, and a son. Alcohol played a significant role in Berryman’s life and poetry. Berryman frequently referenced alcohol in his poetry, and throughout his life, he was hospitalized many times for nervous exhaustion (which alcohol played a major role) and struggled through rehab and psychoanalysis many times.
Berryman is referred to as one of the founders and best poet for a ”confessional” style of poetry, or writing about one’s own life. This style of writing usually recalls the darker, more gruesome times of life, especially in Berryman’s case. This is clearly exemplified in one of his most famous works The Dream Songs. Starting in college, Berryman wrote poetry as well as prose, reviews, and articles all the way until his death. He became a prominent poet of the late 20th century, and the style in which he told his own life was very non-traditional at the time. They were very obscure, and elaborate, speaking of the events that effected him the most, including the deaths of friends. James dickey noted that “his inversions, his personal and often irritatingly cute colloquialisms and deliberate misspellings, his odd references, his basing of lines and whole poems on private allusions, create what must surely be the densest verbal thickness since Epson’s.” Even Berryman said that “these songs were not meant to be understood, you understand. They are only meant to terrify and comfort,” which illustrates the basis of the style of Berryman’s poetry.
Although obscure, Berryman won many awards for his different types of work. He won the Oldham Shakespeare Prize when he tried playwriting soon after Colombia. His early works in The Dispossessed won him the Poetry Society of America’s Shelly Memorial Award. He also won the American Academy Award for Poetry in 1950, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1950), The Levinson Prize (1950), and Guggenheim Fellowship (1952) all around the time when he published “homage to Mistress Bradstreet” which took him roughly five years to write. Although “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” was nominated for the Pultzer Prize, it was Dream Songs that won it in 1964. This famous work also won the National Book Award and the Bollingen Arts award, and was hailed by the New York Times for its odd syntax.
Throughout his life, Berryman always pursued a life in Literature. He taught Latin and English at a prep school before teaching creative writing at Princeton. He was the poetry editor of The Nation, the magazine where he published some of his poems while he was at Colombia. He frequently researched Shakespeare, published articles on F. Scott Fitzgerald, wrote letters defending Ezra Pound, and frequently wrote about Walt Whitman and many other poets, illustrating his wide range of influences, and overall pursuit of literature.