BOOKS | An evening in celebration of John Berryman, a great poet and a great teacher

John Berryman

On Thursday evening, a group of fellow poets, former students and admirers gathered at the Loring Pasta Bar's red room in Dinkytown to remember John Berryman. Berryman had been a professor at the U of M from 1955 until his death in 1972. Among his students were Garrison Keillor and memoirist Patricia Hampl. His poems were well-received in their time: his collection 77 Dream Songs won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964.

The evening was emceed by Michael Dennis Browne, a fellow poet who also teaches at the University. Browne had met Berryman a few times, even recording a reading of Berryman's at Goddard College in 1971, a recording that he played at the end of the evening. Patricia Kirkpatrick, who teaches poetry at Hamline, read W. S. Merwin's poem "Berryman," which tells of an encounter between the two and the advice Berryman gave.

The event had photocopies of some of Berryman's papers (sketches, typed drafts) on display—the real ones are kept in the U's Anderson library. Richard Kelly, who catalogued Berryman's collection of books, spoke next. He said that Berryman owned a wide range of books, but the markings he made in them were the most interesting parts. He owned an autographed volume of poetry by Yeats, his hero. He also wrote observations, fragments and highlighted passages in others.

Throughout the evening, Ben Kreilkamp and Michael Mann gave readings from Dream Songs and Addresses to the Lord, respectively.

Some people couldn't make it to the event and sent pieces to be read aloud. One of them was Patricia Hampl, who told a story of her first encounter with Berryman. While writing a piece for Ivory Tower, the school's literary magazine, her piece was edited by Garrison Keillor, who told her "anyone's sentences could be improved, except John Berryman's." Hampl then took his class and was asked to write a three-page autobiography which Berryman later read aloud in class. Mann said he was in the same class and his was read aloud after Hampl's.

Philip Coleman, a professor at Trinity College, Dublin who has studied Berryman extensively (and whose review of Berryman's opus is due out later this year), was another who couldn't make it.

Kate Donahue, Berryman's widow, was one of the last speakers at the event who pointed out an essay about Berryman by Clive James in the September 2010 issue of Poetry. Berryman committed suicide on January 7, 1972 by jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge.

The evening was bookended by the music "Genesis Cycle" from Henry's Fate by Janika Vandervelde, who also attended. "Henry" is the central character in Berryman's Dream Songs.

The event was organized by The Book House.

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Robert OConnor's picture
Robert OConnor

Robert O'Connor (oconn270 [at] gmail [dot] com) is a co-editor to 3:AM Magazine. He's also a freelance journalist, who has reported for KFAI.


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The Berryman night

Actually, Michael Mann said his paper was NOT read by Berryman in that class but singled out as unreadable. Mr. Berryman then offered to take Mr. Mann out after class to buy him a new typewriter ribbon. A funny story and illustrating the warmth that was clear between Berryman and his students. A distant warmth I suppose but still warm after all these years. I, Ben Kreilkamp, and Michael Mann will read more Berryman poems March 31 at 7:30pm at the Book House. All are invited and it's free.