By Cynthia Scott
He was born John Allyn Smith, Jr., but the world knew him as John Berryman—and he came into his own as one of the great poets of the 20th century while teaching at the University of Minnesota. It was at the U, where he taught from 1955 until his death in 1972, where he penned 77 Dream Songs, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
In observance of Berryman’s 100th birthday on October 25, the University of Minnesota hosted a three-day conference in celebration of his life and work. About 200 people attended, including local and national poets, former students, Berryman scholars, and family members, including his wife, Kate Donahue, his children, and a grandchild.
Berryman’s father committed suicide when the poet was 10, an event that haunted him throughout his life. He struggled with alcoholism and depression, eventually taking his own life by jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge. Scholars have primarily interpreted Berryman’s work as an attempt to come to terms with his demons.
But conference organizer Peter Campion, associate professor of English, language and literature, says the conference marked a crucial turning point in understanding the full range of the poet’s work. “In the past, critics have focused on “confessional” or salacious aspects of his work—more on the life than the work. I think we were able to explore how Berryman’s roots and branches extend far beyond that,’” he says. “We were able to explore what a fascinating political poet he is, what deep connections he has to past literature, and new literature, too. Most important, I think we were able to combine scholarly pursuit and down-to-earth appreciation—this is a fusion that Berryman himself achieved, after all.”
Richard Kelly (M.L.S. ’68), a former archivist for the U’s Berryman collection and former student of the poet’s, told the Minnesota Daily that what he most remembers is Berryman’s enthusiasm for teaching and writing. “I think his suicide is one of the least important things about him,” he said.