John Berryman was born John Smith in MacAlester, Oklahoma, in 1914. He received an undergraduate degree from Columbia College in 1936 and attended Cambridge University on a fellowship. He taught at Wayne State University in Detroit and went on to occupy posts at Harvard and Princeton. From 1955 until his death in 1972, he was a professor at the University of Minnesota.
His early work was published in a volume entitled Five Young American Poets in 1940 and reflects the influences of the British poets W. B. Yeats, W. H. Auden, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the Americans Hart Crane and Ezra Pound. Tremendously erudite and a brilliant teacher, Berryman in his early workâ€”Poems (1942) and The Dispossessed (1948)â€”displayed great technical control in poems that remained firmly rooted in the conventions of the time.
It was not until the publication of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet in 1956, when he was already in his forties, that he won widespread recognition and acclaim as a boldly original and innovative poet. Nevertheless, no one was prepared for the innovation that would follow, a collection that would seal Berryman's reputation as an essential American original: 77 Dream Songs, which was published in 1964 and awarded a Pulitzer Prize, unveiled the unforgettable and irreppressible alter egos "Henry" and "Mr. Bones" in a sequence of sonnet-like poems whose wrenched syntax, scrambled diction, extraordinary leaps of language and tone, and wild mixture of high lyricism and low comedy plumbed the extreme reaches of a human soul and psyche. In succeeding years Berryman added to the sequence, until there were nearly four hundred collected as The Dream Songs.
But the psyche that had been plumbed could not bear the strain; Berryman, who never recovered from the childhood shock of his father's suicide, was prone to emotional instability and heavy drinking throughout his life. Tragically, in 1972, he died by throwing himself off a bridge in Minneapolis.
John Berryman was elected a Fellow of The Academy of American Poets in 1966 and served as a Chancellor from 1968 until his death.