This Day In Literary History
On January 7th, 1972, the famous American poet John Berryman committed suicide at the age of 57. In 1926, when Berryman was twelve years old, his father, John Allyn Smith, Sr., a banker, committed suicide by shooting himself.
His mother later remarried and he took his stepfather's surname, Berryman. His father's suicide haunted him all his life, affecting his writing and plunging him into a similar battle with depression that he too would lose.
John Berryman's most famous work, a poetry collection called 77 Dream Songs, was published in 1964. The book, which featured a collection of 18-line, three-stanza poems, won him a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
His father's suicide is addressed in several of the poems, mostly indirectly, except for one direct reference where the poet wishes that he could kill his father's corpse. He would publish more great poetry collections.
Berryman was a faculty member of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he taught the poetry workshop. His workshop was noted for both its students, which included many soon-to-be-famous poets, and for the intensity of the classes.
One night, during a particularly heated exchange, one of Berryman's students, poet Philip Levine, punched him in the face, breaking his glasses. Ironically, this incident would result in the formation of a lifelong friendship between the two men.
Throughout his life, John Berryman struggled with both alcoholism and severe depression. When his alcoholism began to affect his work, he sought treatment. After spending several months in a rehab facility, he won his battle with alcoholism.
In June of 1971, he returned to teaching, this time at the University of Minnesota. He also began working on a novel. Berryman remained sober for almost a year. Then, frustrated with his work-in-progress, he decided that his novel, which he had titled Recovery, was worthless.
On January 7th, 1972, two days after he started drinking again, John Berryman committed suicide by jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis. He was 57 years old. Despite his untimely and tragic death, during his life, he proved himself to be one of the most gifted poets of his generation.
Quote Of The Day
“You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you're merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that's always easiest.” - John Berryman
Today's video features a rare recording of John Berryman giving a poetry reading at the Guggenheim Museum in 1963. Enjoy!