Silent Conversation with John Berryman by Melissa Gordon

Why John Berryman? The simple answer: John Berryman was one of the most honest poets I knew, and I needed to learn how to write into my vulnerabilities and show a stronger sense of emotional and physical presence in my own poems. The longer answer: In November 2014, I approached my final year of the MFA writing program at Western Connecticut State University (WCSU), and for my thesis project, I was writing a poetry collection. After two years of intense writing, I feared I wouldn’t be able to complete the poetry collection I needed and wanted to write: a collection synergizing science and social boundaries of love. I couldn’t write with my psychological doors flung wide open; they were barely cracked. I read a lot of poetry in an attempt to find ways to burrow into my mental landscape, and the desperate confessions I read in Berryman’s Sonnets reached a core within myself.


John Berryman's Gravestone. Image courtesy of Melissa Gordon.
John Berryman’s Gravestone. Image courtesy of Melissa Gordon.

Once introduced to his brilliant, passionate, and fanatically honest mind, I read: Dream Songs, Freedom of the Poet, Delusions, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, and Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography by John Berryman; Poets in Their Youth by Eileen Simpson; Berryman’s biography by John Haffenden; articles and essays about Confessional poets; and the Paris Review interview with Berryman from 1972. A couple of months after reading Sonnets, I received confirmation from WCSU that I could attend the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in order to promote Poor Yorick (I was editor at the time). Rapidly, connections forged in my mind. I was going to AWP, AWP was in Minneapolis, Berryman was from Minneapolis, the university where he taught (University of Minnesota) was there, his papers/archive were on the campus, the bridge from which he jumped to his death was in the city—and these landmarks were 2.2 miles from my hotel. I began to plan my visit to the Elmer J. Anderson Library, home of the John Berryman Papers.


Image Courtesy of the John Berryman Papers (Mss 43), Literary Manuscripts Collection, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis.
Sonnets. Image courtesy of the John Berryman Papers (MSS 43), Literary Manuscripts Collection, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis.

I contacted Kathryn Hujda, assistant curator of the John Berryman Papers, and she told me due to the Berryman family holding the copyright, I would need permission from Kate Berryman (Berryman’s wife) to view the collection. I emailed Mrs. Berryman with my project vision and requested permission to view the archives.

Image Courtesy of the John Berryman Papers (Mss 43), Literary Manuscripts Collection, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis.
Diary. Image courtesy of the John Berryman Papers (MSS 43), Literary Manuscripts Collection, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis.

I felt as though I didn’t have a lofty goal in terms of vision! My goal was to look through some boxes of Berryman’s personal writings to help me understand the man and his emotional struggles—to catch a glimpse of his ghost if it loomed over his written remains and to help me understand what Berryman went through as a writer—to view raw components of his writing process. I needed inspiration. And, quite frankly, I sought courage to guide me as I wrote into my vulnerabilities. That is why I chose Berryman. I needed strength and support, and I knew after reading his poetry there was a chance he could help me. What I wasn’t prepared for was the sense of grief I would feel after my poetry collection was complete, when I realized I couldn’t help him.

Interview with Kathryn

Kate Berryman granted me permission (thank you kindly) to view Berryman’s archives. The irony was I contacted Berryman’s wife about accessing her husband’s papers partially because I was curious about his affair detailed in Sonnets! The whole hunt to dig deeper into the mind of Berryman scared me as much as it excited and thrilled me. I had been given permission to “meet” with John Berryman and dig into his mind and sift through both his professional thoughts and personal musings. I felt a bit like an obsessed stalker!
When I got to the reading room, my assigned table and my boxes awaited my perusal, on carts by the table. I sat down and stared at the boxes in front of me, curious and afraid of what I might open up inside of myself. I took a deep breath and dug in.

Each box contained a stack of folders. I chose a box and pulled out the first folder, careful to keep the papers in each folder in order. I scribbled notes in my notebook and took tons of pictures of pages of Berryman’s papers so I would have access to his handwritten notes after I left the reading room.

I wrote down certain lines and fragments of text, careful to document where they came from, as I hoped to find material to use as epigraphs and/or threads in some of my poems and I knew I needed citation information. I wrote down fragments from unpublished diaries, journals, letters, and plays. I spent hours going through only a couple boxes. I had underestimated the amount of time it would take to look closely at the boxes of papers. Caught up in how the papers in my fingers had sat beneath the meat of Berryman’s palm as he penned the thoughts, I felt a compulsion to be near to him as I conducted my research. I fought the urge to be overwhelmed by his presence that radiated from his hand-written words. Another time-related obstacle was the difficulty of deciphering the scraps and fragments of writing; the large amount of handwritten material made it impossible to read quickly. But I was grateful for his actual handwritten materials, because part of him was absorbed in the paper. Nothing Berryman wrote was meant to be read easily, so it seemed fitting to me that even his scraps of paper held up to that expectation.

Why was it so important for me to be with the primary source? When I interviewed Kate Hujda about her role as an assistant curator working with archives, she talked about an experience she had in an archive where she came across a scrap of paper and thought, “This tiny artifact, seemingly meaningless, actually meant so much.” I think about my most memorable moment with John Berryman’s papers, when I came across a scrap of paper where he had written “Sappho” and I laid my cheek upon the word and thought I can’t believe how close I am to this poet’s heart. I read through his box of notes from Sonnets, which has influenced my writing a great deal. I came across his typed manuscripts with handwritten edits. I found his original thoughts—original words he had written for poems and the options he played with before he chose the final pieces of language to share with readers. I saw how he focused on rhythm and how he selected words that might fit as perfect or slant rhymes. In the box that contained materials related to Sonnets, his typed manuscripts had handwritten lines at the bottom. Each poem had one handwritten line, and to me they read as the “seed” of the poem, the “what does this poem try to get at.” As I absorbed all of this, I saw a shred of how Berryman accessed raw emotion and communicated it without abstraction or cliché. He captured pain, joy, shame, rejection, hope, lust, and love in a way that struck chords of empathy in me; seated in front of his papers, I found myself confused about whether the emotions I felt were mine or his or everyone’s. I had discovered something that would slowly start to fall into consciousness over the next couple of weeks: he confessed human emotion in a way that touched humanity—mine, his, and everyone else’s.

As I left Berryman’s papers and walked away from the Elmer J. Anderson Library, I felt loss and grief. I knew I would finish my thesis project. And I knew I was saying goodbye to a beautiful friend in need whom I couldn’t help. After I left the archive, I requested and received permission from Kate Berryman to use a line from an unpublished play, Cleopatra, as an epigraph for one of my poems.

Dear John,

What remains will never balance or preserve the lost.

—John Berryman Papers, unpublished play Cleopatra

I won’t write you a sonnet, share a dream,
or be your lover,

but I have rummaged
through your unpublished lines

and standing above your bones
I know you’d have understood.

These echoes in my brain,
fragments without flesh—

the vibrations ebb
until “been there” is left.



As I explored John Berryman’s papers, I read letters from Delmore Schwartz, another Confessional poet, and a dear friend of Berryman’s. I looked up where to find Delmore Schwartz’s archives and found them at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. I felt honored to sit with Delmore’s boxes of papers, which contained letters to and from John Berryman. I left my fingerprints all over John Berryman’s signature as I read the letters to his friend and wrote poems to capture my emotional responses to the discoveries I made.

I also visited North Andover, Massachusetts, home to the late Anne Bradstreet, first published American poet. Berryman wrote “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” and wove a masterful book of poetry [Homage to Mistress Bradstreet] as the living poet connected with her ghost. I wanted to learn more about this woman to whom Berryman felt a connection, and I was able to visit the North Andover Library where some of her manuscripts are displayed and archived. Berryman had felt connected to Bradstreet in a mystical and yet very personal way: I felt this kind of connection to Berryman, and it was fascinating to learn about this woman who encompassed his thoughts for the years he dedicated to writing his book.

John Berryman and his remains serve as a foundation for my writing process. After the visit to his archives, I promised honesty and presence in my poem—to honor John Berryman’s memory. I finished my collection of poems for my MFA thesis, Fifth Force, a book of love poems, the book I wanted and needed to write. I admitted to a room full of writers I am a proud love poet and read from my collection with my palm placed on a picture of Berryman I keep beside me when I write poetry. John Berryman has been a mentor to me, and I completed my book with his help, with the experience I had at the archives where a piece of John Berryman lives and a piece of me was found.

There are reasons we choose to visit archives. Perhaps we want to conduct academic research. Perhaps we want to find out more about the personal side of someone from the past. Perhaps we look for inspiration. Perhaps we are desperate to find and understand the bonds of a common humanity.


Special thanks to the Berryman family and the John Berryman Papers (MSS 43), Literary Manuscripts Collection, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis.