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This article is taken from PN Review 5, Volume 5 Number 1, October - December 1978.

John Berryman: The Poet as Critic Andrew Waterman

'HURRAH FOR me: my prose collection is going to be a beauty,' John Berryman exclaimed in a 1970 letter to his publisher and old friend Robert Giroux, who quotes it in his preface to The Freedom of the Poet; a preface originally intended to be Berryman's, until after waving to a bystander he jumped to his death from a high Minnesota bridge two winters later. His poetry survives, 'a way of happening, a mouth'; and we can now add this gathering from Berryman's prose of three decades, which yes, is a beauty.

Berryman's life became turmoiled, agitated, and because his criticism is rooted in his central values and carings, intimations of this shadow some of these essays; but not self-indulgently, as distraction or egocentricity: charged as it sometimes is with preoccupations near to him, Berryman's mind focuses unwaveringly enough on what he wants to get said about literature that matters to him. The copiousness and intensity of being he brings to that, only enrich his perception into his subjects, the nervous coruscation of his style.

It's clear that that style was mature from the start. During the period from which the earlier of these essays date, Berryman was remote from later fame, struggling, little regarded, uncertain of his prospects. John Haffenden's articles 'Berryman in the Forties', published in The New Review (numbers 30 and 31), portray an untenured teacher drudging within the American university system, suffering rejection and neglect as poet and scholar, poor, fraught ...


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