Aspen Times Weekly Book Review: John Berryman’s ‘The Heart is Strange: New Selected Poems’
‘The Heart is Strange: New Selected Poems’
179 pages, $26
Farrar, Sraus and Giroux
The poet John Berryman would be turning 100 Saturday, were he alive, and his publisher is celebrating the centenary with three re-issued collections and one new one, “The Heart is Strange” (Oct. 21).
Berryman is arguably the most irreverent and inventive — though not the most read today — of the confessional American poets that emerged in the late 1950s and early ’60s. In recent years, Berryman and his immortal “dream songs” have been kept alive in the popular culture by indie bands — the Hold Steady, Okkervil River, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and Nick Cave among them — that name-check the poet’s life and verse. My generation has been introduced to him and his confessional style as a sort of artistic grandfather of emo music.
“These bands take Berryman as an emblem of the hard-living, misunderstood poet: it is a Romantic vision of the man and hinges upon his alcoholism, suffering and early death,” Daniel Swift writes in his introduction.
Swift aims to bring Berryman to new readers through the work itself, not the legend that surrounds his tumultuous life and death by suicide. Yet he takes a strange approach to doing so: He leaves out every poem from Berryman’s three best 1960s collections — “Berryman’s Sonnets,” the Pulitzer-winning “77 Dream Songs” and the complete “The Dream Songs” — all of which are being reissued this month. Instead, it mines for gems in the work before and after.
The effect is that you see Berryman’s voice and tics develop — his playful use of grammar and nonsense words, his contrasts of comedy and despair, his intimate style. The problem is that this collection then skips over the poet at his pinnacle. We get the artist as a young man, some strokes of genius (“Mr. Pou & the Alphabet,” “The Poet’s Final Instructions”) and then the decline. “The Heart is Strange” will be most enjoyed by Berryman completists willing to dig deeper than the dream songs. It’s remarkable how derivative his early work from the late 1940s and early 1950s is — often imitating Dylan Thomas, Yeats, and Hopkins — given how singular his voice was a decade later. To get the most out of “The Heart is Strange,” put it down at its midway point — after “Formal Elegy” — then read some dream songs before you pick it back up again.
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