The Selected Letters of John Berryman

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Belknap Press
Publish Date
6.3 X 9.3 X 2.4 inches | 2.7 pounds
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About the Author
John Berryman started out in Aerospace Engineering but soon found that he was more interested in math and software than in satellites and aircraft. He soon switched to software development, specializing in search and recommendation technologies, and not too long afterward co-authored Relevant Search. At GitHub John played a prominent role in moving code search to a new scalable infrastructure. Subsequently John joined the Data Science team, and then Copilot where he currently provides technical leadership and direction in Prompt Crafting work.
Calista McRae is Assistant Professor of English at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and author of Lyric as Comedy: The Poetics of Abjection in Postwar America.
Philip Coleman is Associate Professor in the School of English and Fellow of Trinity College Dublin. He is author of John Berryman's Public Vision.
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
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
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" (10/12/2020 12:00:00 AM)
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" (10/25/2020 12:00:00 AM)
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" (9/25/2020 12:00:00 AM)
[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" (11/27/2020 12:00:00 AM)
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" (12/1/2020 12:00:00 AM)
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" (10/26/2020 12:00:00 AM)
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" (10/19/2020 12:00:00 AM)
We should be grateful for this fresh insight into Berryman and his starry, competitive circle.-- "The Spectator" (11/28/2020 12:00:00 AM)
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" (10/29/2020 12:00:00 AM)
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" (6/10/2020 12:00:00 AM)
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" (1/7/2021 12:00:00 AM)
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" (2/1/2021 12:00:00 AM)
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" (2/7/2021 12:00:00 AM)
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" (3/6/2021 12:00:00 AM)
What makes The Selected Letters enjoyable is its utter capaciousness...The editors...have performed valuable, painstaking work.--Chelsie Malyszek "Threepenny Review" (4/1/2021 12:00:00 AM)
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" (5/11/2021 12:00:00 AM)
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" (4/1/2022 12:00:00 AM)