I’d often say in class that Berryman was one of the bigger influences on my work, and it’s true; but I never met the man, never took a class from him, wish I had. YouTube’s of course amazing for discovering wonders like these two videos. The first is a discussion with Al Alvarez followed by a recitation of “Life, friends—”; the second is “There sat, once, a thing on Henry’s heart” and by the time you’ve seen it, you’ll know a few important things about Berryman’s working process, as well as get an idea of the man’s depth of knowledge where art’s concerned.
As is probably pretty obvious, Berryman was pretty well inebriated (which makes the fact that he’s reciting apparently from memory that much more surprising). He tried to drink down his demons, the memory of his father committing suicide outside his bedroom window most of all—and the unswerving belief that he’d be drawn down the same way. He knew, long before he wrote the final poem, known as “I didn’t—” (it appears in Henry’s Fate) that it was going to happen, as though it was a literal outside force and not essentially a creation of his own will. It needn’t be said that Berryman was what we would now call a person who had suffered PTSD and whose death was a direct result of that trauma.
At any rate, Berryman is read far less often than he should be; if you like these videos, check out his Complete Poems. Enjoy: