The Selected Letters of John Berryman (Hardback)
  • The Selected Letters of John Berryman (Hardback)

The Selected Letters of John Berryman (Hardback)

(author), (editor), (editor), (foreword)
Hardback 736 Pages
Published: 13/10/2020
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A wide-ranging, first-of-its-kind selection of Berryman’s correspondence with friends, loved ones, writers, and editors, showcasing the turbulent, fascinating life and mind of one of America’s major poets.

The Selected Letters of John Berryman assembles for the first time the poet’s voluminous correspondence. Beginning with a letter to his parents in 1925 and concluding with a letter sent a few weeks before his death in 1972, Berryman tells his story in his own words.

Included are more than 600 letters to almost 200 people—editors, family members, students, colleagues, and friends. The exchanges reveal the scope of Berryman’s ambitions, as well as the challenges of practicing his art within the confines of the publishing industry and contemporary critical expectations. Correspondence with Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, Adrienne Rich, Saul Bellow, and other writers demonstrates Berryman’s sustained involvement in the development of literary culture in the postwar United States. We also see Berryman responding in detail to the work of writers such as Carolyn Kizer and William Meredith and encouraging the next generation—Edward Hoagland, Valerie Trueblood, and others. The letters show Berryman to be an energetic and generous interlocutor, but they also make plain his struggles with personal and familial trauma, at every stage of his career.

An introduction by editors Philip Coleman and Calista McRae explains the careful selection of letters and contextualizes the materials within Berryman’s career. Reinforcing the critical and creative interconnectedness of Berryman’s work and personal life, The Selected Letters confirms his place as one of the most original voices of his generation and opens new horizons for appreciating and interpreting his poems.

Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 9780674976252
Number of pages: 736
Dimensions: 235 x 156 mm


Though the outer world of politics and civil strife may occasionally intrude, it proves no match for the smoke-filled rooms inside the poet’s head…Anyone who delights in listening to Berryman, and who can’t help wondering how the singer becomes the songs, will find much to treasure here. - Anthony Lane, New Yorker

Happiness was as transformative for Berryman as suffering, and his accounts of ecstasy and contentment are as wonderful as his depictions of anxiety and despair are piercing…The voice of these letters is recognizably the voice of much of Berryman’s poetry. Language was, for him, not functional or utilitarian but a performance medium…[There’s] tremendous pleasure and fascination [in] this long-overdue collection. After too long an absence, it is wonderful to see Berryman once again resurrected. - Troy Jollimore, Washington Post

Now, in addition to his poetic oeuvre, here are all the letters by Berryman you’ll ever want to read…His letters show much wide-ranging thoughtfulness, as in [his] wholly appropriate definition (written to New Yorker editor Katharine White) of originality in poetry…There are comparably fine statements made to Edmund Wilson about Jane Austen’s art, or about Mozart’s Figaro, or to Robert Frost about Ezra Pound…Perhaps the most useful thing any collection of letters provides is a fresh look at the work of their author. - William H. Pritchard, Wall Street Journal

[A] most welcome book…The hundreds of pages of letters gathered here offer the most enjoyable and direct portrait of this wild poet we are ever likely to get. The composite figure who emerges from them is—although difficult, strange and occasionally hurtful—chiefly a lovable one…Makes for a new and much needed reckoning with Berryman’s astonishing, insurmountable mind. - Tom Cook, Times Literary Supplement

Panic, procrastination, recrimination, anticlimax and farce: standard fare in a Berryman letter, and all to be found in abundance [in this volume], unobtrusively and expertly edited by Philip Coleman and Calista McRae…Though he appears the most biographically available of poets, the self that emerges from his letters is chaotic, elusive, and overflowing—a perpetual work in progress…Selected Letters is a book of volcanic energies. - David Wheatley, Literary Review

Allows us to see Berryman trying on different personae, speaking in different styles and, in doing so, holding his many selves in vibrant, tensile relation…Through the accumulation of so much correspondence, we come to see Berryman’s style of writing, which tells us a lot about his style of being. - Anthony Domestico, Commonweal

There is little in Berryman’s lettristic oeuvre—and this is no surprise to those who have admired the ambition of the poems—that does not depict the heart in all its convolutions, unsettled, unsatisfied, distracted, petty, combative, conflicted, and, often, sad…It is fair to say that in this case, more than 600 pages of letters amount to a page-turner…It seems that as with many voices of the confessional era of American poetry, it was his to burn this briefly, in real anguish. The Selected Letters well preserves that drama for those still wishing to know. - Rick Moody, Poetry Foundation

An addictive volume, as full of drama as a literary soap opera, Berryman alternately grasping and sabotaging opportunities. The Berryman revealed in these letters is passionate, tortured, irascible, out of control, deeply moved and moving…It’s thrilling to read these letters as Berryman’s tragic genius unfolds. - Meryl Natchez, Hudson Review

Pre-fax, pre-email, pre-text, here are hundreds of pages of loving and painful letters, of hopeful and disappointed letters, of joyful and death-haunted letters, of cautious and gossipy letters, of merry and hurt letters, of phallic and fatigued letters, of self-deprecating and vain letters, of admiring and critical letters. John Berryman, this great American poet of imagination, love, intellect, and pain, comes into optimistic, crystalline focus. - Henri Cole

Learned, literary correspondence…[The] meticulous editing, as well as the poems quoted in the letters, made me reappraise Berryman’s work…These letters, with rage simmering below the surface, made Berryman more of a human being to me, less of a one-sided self-destructive wreck…[A] superb selection. - Marian Janssen, Berfrois

This capacious, warts-and-all selection of Berryman’s letters is a landmark…There are riches here…The letters can be entertaining, covering a range of tones reflecting his multi-voice verse…When Berryman talks about writing, he soars, and he talks about writing much of the time. - Martina Evans, Irish Times

Berryman the wag is very much in evidence in his letters, as is Berryman the professor, Berryman the son, the husband, the wooer, all with their complement of registers…But it is Berryman the poet who keeps on reminding us how astonishingly life-giving his vocation can be. - Ange Mlinko, Book Post

What makes The Selected Letters enjoyable is its utter capaciousness…The editors…have performed valuable, painstaking work. - Chelsie Malyszek, Threepenny Review

We should be grateful for this fresh insight into Berryman and his starry, competitive circle. - The Spectator

Fills the major gap on the shelf of his books…This meticulous and generous selection of the poet’s typed and scrawled outgoing mail is infinitely suggestive. The editorial accuracy, especially where Berryman was writing by hand, seems all the poet could have wished for. - William Logan, New Criterion

This sumptuous selection of John Berryman’s letters affords a welcome conspectus of the great poet’s life and work, from the protracted apprenticeship to the hard-won triumphs of the mature years, and covering even the brilliant but still underrated narrative of Love & Fame. By turns precocious, histrionic, hilarious, self-tormenting, rivalrous, shrewdly critical, abrasive, and abusive—and always ambitious for his poetry—Berryman in these extraordinary letters is shown to be the consummate craftsman and critic, as well as the hero-worshipper, the generous mentor, the fervent lover, and the tender father. - John Haffenden, author of The Life of John Berryman and coeditor of The Letters of T. S. Eliot

‘We asked to be obsessed with writing,’ wrote Robert Lowell in his elegy ‘For John Berryman,’ ‘and we were.’ The dizzying extremes to which that obsession pushed Berryman are on harrowing display in these letters, which oscillate between troughs of alcoholic abjection and peaks of manic creative confidence. Berryman was both a superbly conscientious craftsman and authentically crazed original; the publication of his letters to his gifted circle of friends—a circle that included Saul Bellow, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, and Lowell himself—will reconfigure forever our understanding of mid-century American poetry. - Mark Ford, author of This Dialogue of One: Essays on Poets from John Donne to Joan Murray

A revealing window into the poet’s mind and work through his own words…It is well worth the serious attention of any literary scholar. - Publishers Weekly

The publication of his selected letters suggests that a new look at the poet’s faith is not merely warranted but essential to understanding his art…Berryman’s letters reveal not only his continual shifting between belief and doubt but also that Catholicism remained his point of reference in life. - Nick Ripatrazone, National Review

Offers an inside view of the poet’s chaotic life and storied literary career—his growth from precocious boarding school student and Columbia undergrad to prolific, opinionated man of letters to flamboyant, boundary-breaking father of Confessional poetry…A hymn to both the excitement and the challenges of a life lived in poetry. - Andrew Epstein, On the Seawall

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