In commemoration of the centenary of John Berryman’s birth (October 25, 1914), FSG’s Work in Progress is celebrating this icon of twentieth-century American literature by having authors write about what they admire about him and his work.
The incandescent temperament of Berryman’s poetry strikes the page bright and cold like the bioluminescence that seeks its way out from the lower abdomen of a firefly. He pored over his poems obsessively with the zeal of the scholar and yet they seem the residue of animal instinct, the flotsam of barely controlled explosions of his tumultuous inner self. In his use of form he had few equals among his generation. Any attempt to separate his poetry into major and minor poems leads to one exception to the rule after the other. In this sense, his body of work is more of seasons than of hierarchies; he reads as incomplete, as though he had another cycle to complete. The grandeur of his achievement is difficult to pin down; its greatness lies in its great restlessness, his greatness is a moving target, and nevertheless or because of this he was without question a great poet.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author, most recently, of The Ground. A new collection of poetry, Heaven, is forthcoming from FSG in 2015.
Photography by Bob Peterson. (©Bob Peterson)