- “Depend on Interior Journeys Taken Anywhere”Space, Place, and John Berryman’s Minneapolis
In “Dream Song 373,” the poet John Berryman wondered (through The Dream Songs’ protagonist Henry) what future scholars might make of his writing: “[W]ill they set up a tumult in his praise / will assistant professors become associates / by working on his works?”1 But a few graduate theses need not be the poets’ only fate, and elsewhere Berryman hoped his poems [End Page 230] might find their way into the hands of a popular audience: “So free them to the winds that play, / let boys & girls with these old songs have holiday, / if they feel like it.”2 The dual sentiments of these poems could serve as epigraphs to the centennial celebration of any artist’s life and work, which often culminates in themed conferences and republications of old works. In 2014, Berryman’s centennial saw both.
To commemorate Berryman’s centennial in October 2014, Farrar, Straus and Giroux reissued (with new introductions) his major poetry collections and a new selection of his work, The Heart is Strange, edited by the author Daniel Swift. Additionally, it republished Poets in Their Youth, the superb and under-appreciated memoir of Berryman’s first wife, Eileen Simpson, and her life in the orbit of Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, and others. Taken together, these five works trace the variations of a life, from the poet’s early mimicry of Dylan Thomas and T. S. Eliot to his later development of The Dream Songs. Finally, Philip Coleman and Peter Campion’s John Berryman: Centenary Essays collects the proceedings of two centennial conferences, one hosted by the University of Minnesota and the other by Trinity College Dublin. As the editors note, these essays offer a snapshot of Berryman studies and a glimpse of The Dream Songs’ depth and lasting influence. While this collection is valuable in illustrating how rich the field is, reading it alongside Berryman’s work reveals how much there is still left to be explored.
As a writer from rural Minnesota, I have always been fascinated by how writers engage with questions of space and place. Midwestern writers are, I think, particularly sensitive to this subject. Yet, for Berryman, despite his spending the last eighteen years of his life in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the region is neither central nor even tangential to his work—often it is mere backdrop. Because of this, even the Dictionary of Midwestern Literature has little to say about John Berryman’s place in midwestern writing.3 Instead of calling Berryman a midwestern writer then, it is more accurate to say he was just a writer in the Midwest—a region he unintendedly made his home and with which he never truly connected. This fact—combined with his proud rootlessness—might discourage studying Berryman’s relationship to space and place; but rather than take the poet at his word, scholars and readers should look deeper. Doing so, one finds that in fact the exploration of space and place are critical to understanding his magnum opus, The Dream Songs.
Taking advantage of the centennial interest in Berryman’s work, this article [End Page 231] seeks to fill a gap in the literature by discussing Berryman’s biographical and literary connection to Minneapolis and the Midwest whilst offering some thoughts on their limited presence in his poetry. From here it next turns to the impact of Berryman’s father’s suicide on his own rootlessness and sense of place. In dismissing...