Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Berryman, John (1914–1972)
Author:
Smeller, Carl
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman's influence on John Berryman, one of America's most significant post-World War II poets, was most keenly felt in Berryman's prize-winning The Dream Songs (1969).

James E. Miller, Jr., contends that The Dream Songs inherits Whitman's legacy as regards the "personal epic"—the attempt as Berryman put it, echoing Whitman, "to record a personality . . . and through him, the country" (qtd. in Miller 238). Like Whitman, Berryman sought to be a "spiritual historian" for his time, and his long poem is a "wisdom work" on the conduct of life (Miller 237, 240). Though more formally regular than Whitman's verse, The Dream Songs mimics the loosely organized, open-ended structure of "Song of Myself" (1855). Berryman creates an alter ego called "Henry" or "Mr. Bones," who converses throughout The Dream Songs with an unnamed interlocutor. These conversations mirror the interplay in Leaves of Grass among the poet's speaking "I," his self, his soul, and the character "Walt Whitman."

Like many other significant poets of the 1950s and 1960s, Berryman used the example of Whitman to help him break free of the then dominant influence of T.S. Eliot, upon whose dense, highly allusive, tightly controlled verse Berryman had modeled his early poetry. This change of poetic allegiance is signaled in Berryman's posthumously published essay on Whitman (1976).

Bibliography

Berryman, John. The Dream Songs. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.

———. "'Song of Myself': Intention and Substance." The Freedom of the Poet. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976. 227–241.

Miller, James E., Jr. The American Quest for a Supreme Fiction: Whitman's Legacy in the Personal Epic. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979.


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