John Berryman was an energetic correspondent. Assembled here for the first time, his letters tell of generosity, ambition, and struggle. He has encouraging words for fellow poets and younger writers and is deeply engaged in literary culture. But also visible are the struggles of a working artist grappling with alcoholism and depression.
You have to reach back to Donne to find so commanding an exercise in the clever-sensual ... gossip hunters will slouch off in frustration, and good luck to them; on the other hand, 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, in these garrulous and pedantic pages. There is hardly a paragraph in which Berryman—poet, pedagogue, boozehound, and symphonic self-destroyer—may not be heard straining toward the condition of music. 'I have to make my pleasure out of sound,' he says. The book is full of noises, heartsick with hilarity, and they await their transmutation into verse.
Now, in addition to his poetic oeuvre, here are all the letters by Berryman you’ll ever want to read—nearly 700 pages of them ... Editors Philip Coleman and Calista McRae conclude their introduction to these letters with a brief justification for keeping annotations 'short and factual'; their aim has been to house as many letters as possible within a single volume ... Perhaps the most useful thing any collection of letters provides is a fresh look at the work of their author ... These letters bear him out.
The Selected Letters of John Berryman, chronicles that cycle of breakdown and recovery, expectation and disappointment, through more than 600 pages of correspondence ... This is a long book that I wish had been longer; on turning the last page, I was eager buy a second collection. The voice of these letters is recognizably the voice of much of Berryman’s poetry ... I would have liked, too, a bit more assistance from the editors. (To be fair, there are over 1,300 notes, but they leave many references somewhat obscure.) Readers of Selected Letters will find it useful to have a biography of Berryman nearby, to fill in the missing framework. But all of these are minor quibbles, and none of them diminishes the tremendous pleasure and fascination of this long-overdue collection. After too long an absence, it is wonderful to see Berryman once again resurrected.