John Berryman was perhaps the most idiosyncratic American poet of the twentieth century. Best known for the painfully sad and raucously funny cycle of Dream Songs, he wrote passionately: of love and despair, of grief and laughter, of longing for a better world and coming to terms with this one. The paperback edition of The Heart Is Strange has been updated to include a selection from the Dream Songs alongside poems from across his career.
The Heart Is Strange shows Berryman in all his variety: from his earliest poems, which show him learning the craft, to his breakthrough masterpiece, "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet"; then to his mature verses, which find the poet looking back upon his lovers and youthful passions; and finally to his late poems, in which he battles with sobriety and an increasingly religious sensibility.
The defiant joy and wild genius of Berryman's work has been obscured by his struggles with mental illness and alcohol, his tempestuous relationships with women, and his suicide. This volume celebrates the whole Berryman: tortured poet and teasing father, fiery lover and melancholy scholar. It is a perfect introduction to one of the finest bodies of work yet produced by an American poet.
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About the Author
John Berryman (1914–1972) was an American poet and scholar. He won the Pulitzer Prize for 77 Dream Songs in 1965 and the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize for His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, a continuation of the Dream Songs, in 1969. Daniel Swift is the author of Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot's War and Shakespeare's Common Prayers. He teaches at the New College of the Humanities in London.
Read an Excerpt
Heart Is Strange
New Selected Poems
By John Berryman, Daniel Swift
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 John Berryman
All rights reserved.
The three men coming down the winter hill
In brown, with tall poles and a pack of hounds
At heel, through the arrangement of the trees,
Past the five figures at the burning straw,
Returning cold and silent to their town,
Returning to the drifted snow, the rink
Lively with children, to the older men,
The long companions they can never reach,
The blue light, men with ladders, by the church
The sledge and shadow in the twilit street,
Are not aware that in the sandy time
To come, the evil waste of history
Outstretched, they will be seen upon the brow
Of that same hill: when all their company
Will have been irrecoverably lost,
These men, this particular three in brown
Witnessed by birds will keep the scene and say
By their configuration with the trees,
The small bridge, the red houses and the fire,
What place, what time, what morning occasion
Sent them into the wood, a pack of hounds
At heel and the tall poles upon their shoulders,
Thence to return as now we see them and
Ankle-deep in snow down the winter hill
Descend, while three birds watch and the fourth flies.
Summoned from offices and homes, we came.
By candle-light we heard him sing;
We saw him with a delicate length of string
Hide coins and bring a paper through a flame;
I was amazed by what that man could do.
And later on, in broad daylight,
He made someone sit suddenly upright
Who had lain long dead and whose face was blue.
But most he would astonish us with talk.
The warm sad cadence of his voice,
His compassion, and our terror of his choice,
Brought each of us both glad and mad to walk
Beside him in the hills after sundown.
He spoke of birds, of children, long
And rubbing tribulation without song
For the indigent and crippled of this town.
Ventriloquist and strolling mage, from us,
Respectable citizens, he took
The hearts and swashed them in an upland brook,
Calling them his, all men’s, anonymous.
. . He gained a certain notoriety;
The magical outcome of such love
The State saw it could not at all approve
And sought to learn where when that man would be.
The people he had entertained stood by,
I was among them, but one whom
He harboured kissed him for the coppers’ doom,
Repenting later most bitterly.
They ran him down and drove him up the hill.
He who had lifted but hearts stood
With thieves, performing still what tricks he could
For men to come, rapt in compassion still.
Great nonsense has been spoken of that time.
But I can tell you I saw then
A terrible darkness on the face of men,
His last astonishment; and now that I’m
Old I behold it as a young man yet.
None of us now knows what it means,
But to this day our loves and disciplines
Worry themselves there. We do not forget.
A Point of Age, Part I
At twenty-five a man is on his way.
The desolate childhood smokes on the dead hill,
My adolescent brothels are shut down
For industry has moved out of that town;
Only the time-dishonoured beggars and
The flat policemen, victims, I see still.
Twenty-five is a time to move away.
The travelling hands upon the tower call,
The clock-face telescopes a long desire:
Out of the city as the autos stream
I watch, I whisper, Is it time . . time?
Fog is enveloping the bridges, lodgers
Shoulder and fist each other in the mire
Where later, leaves, untidy lives will fall.
Companions, travellers, by luck, by fault
Whose none can ever decide, friends I had
Have frozen back or slipt ahead or let
Landscape juggle their destinations, slut
Solace and drink drown the degraded eye.
The fog is settling and the night falls, sad,
Across the forward shadows where friends halt.
Images are the mind’s life, and they change.
How to arrange it—what can one afford
When ghosts and goods tether the twitching will
Where it has stood content and would stand still
If time’s map bore the brat of time intact?
Odysseys I examine, bed on a board,
Heartbreak familiar as the heart is strange.
In the city of the stranger I discovered
Strike and corruption: cars reared on the bench
To horn their justice at the citizen’s head
And hallow the citizen deaf, half-dead.
The quiet man from his own window saw
Insane wind take the ash, his favourite branch
Wrench, crack; the hawk came down, the raven hovered.
Slow spent stars wheel and dwindle where I fell.
Physicians are a constellation where
The blown brain sits a fascist to the heart.
Late, it is late, and it is time to start.
Sanction the civic woe, deal with your dear,
Convince the stranger: none of us is well.
We must travel in the direction of our fear.
Copyright © 2014 by Kathleen Berryman Donahue
Introduction and selection copyright © 2014 by Daniel Swift
Excerpted from Heart Is Strange by John Berryman, Daniel Swift. Copyright © 2015 John Berryman. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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