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Considered one of the twentieth century's greatest American poets, John Berryman was born John Allyn Smith, Jr., son of John Allyn and Martha Shaver Smith on October 25, 1914, in McAlester, Oklahoma. In 1921 the family moved to Anadarko, where Smith, Sr., served as a bank officer and later as a state game and fish warden. Young John Smith attended public school there and private school in Chickasha. In 1925 the family moved to Florida. After his father's suicide in 1926 following a failed business deal, his mother soon married again and moved the family to New York City. John Smith, Jr.'s name was legally changed in 1936 to reflect his mother's marriage to John Angus Berryman. After attending school in Connecticut, Smith/Berryman enrolled in Columbia University in 1932, where he studied with critic and poet Mark Van Doren. Much of Berryman's work seems to reflect his struggle to resolve issues related to his father's death, to complete his own intense self-examination, and to work out his personal relationships.

Berryman began his literary career in college when he published a poem in The Nation. After graduating with an English degree from Columbia in 1936, he spent two years at Clare College of Cambridge University in England, where he met and communed with prominent poets, including William Butler Yeats and Dylan Thomas. Influenced strongly by his friend the poet Robert Lowell, he published his first book of verse, The Dispossessed, in 1948. A sonnet series written in the 1940s was published in 1967 as Berryman's Sonnets. He taught in numerous universities, briefly at Harvard, and for ten years at Princeton in the 1940s. After the 1956 publication of his widely acclaimed poem "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet," he found teaching positions at the universities of Iowa and Minnesota, where he remained for the rest of his career.

Among his published works are 77 Dream Songs (1964), winner of the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968) won the 1969 National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize (Yale University) for poetry. Berryman was elected an Academy of American Poets fellow in 1966 and was a chancellor from 1968. He also wrote an important critical biography of novelist Stephen Crane (1950) and a large body of literary criticism on the works of Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Theodore Dreiser, and Saul Bellow. John Berryman took his own life on January 7, 1972, in Minneapolis.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: "John Berryman," Vertical File, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Paul Mariani, Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman (New York: Paragon House, 1989). Ron Padgett, ed., World Poets, Vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2000). Charles Thornbury, ed., John Berryman Collected Poems 1937-1971 (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989).

Dianna Everett

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