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This article is taken from PN Review 209, Volume 39 Number 3, January - February 2013.

Dream Song and Transformation: Berryman and Sexton

John Berryman (1914-72) and Anne Sexton (1928-74)
John Greening
Berryman and Sexton seem to belong together. Both were suicides; both suffered from alcoholism and nervous disorders; both put their troubled lives at the centre of their work. Helen Vendler is not the only critic to have noted the shared ‘intellectual mercilessness’ which, she adds, ‘saves many poems’, although she notes that Sexton ‘more often than Berryman, lost herself in tragic attitudinizing and melodrama’. Berryman, as we shall see, lost himself in other equally frustrating ways for the reader. The differences are also considerable: Berryman is a dazzlingly literary poet (Donald Davie calls him ‘every inch a university man’), whereas Sexton, who did not go to university, is often considered rather ill-read, even ill-educated. She wrote from the heart, from the heat of experience. It was writing that kept her sane, begun initially as a species of therapy. Her sources were her own life and – in her most popular book – the ‘transformations’ of fairy-tale. The poetic influences she did absorb she had great difficulty in outgrowing: her Collected is littered with pastiches of Lowell and Plath. Berryman offers plenty of flattering imitations, too, but he is more conscious of what he is doing and is always moving on. His sources ranged from Anne Bradstreet to Yeats to Elizabethan lutenists to W.H. Auden to contemporary pop songs. He had an insatiable appetite for high and low culture; his poems glitter with learned references, generally worn lightly, but often obscurely. If Sexton’s work sometimes strikes us as gauche or shallow, Berryman’s ...

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