Nobody should have been surprised when, on January 7, 1972, the poet John Berryman killed himself by jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River where it winds between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Self-slaughter is known to lurk in the genes; those with parents who killed themselves are more likely to attempt the same act. Like that other moody and bearded Midwesterner, Ernest Hemingway, Berryman had a father who took his own life. Hemingway père used a .32-caliber pistol from the Civil War; in the case of Berryman’s father, the instrument of death was a shotgun, outside the 12-year-old’s bedroom window.
Berryman’s poetry touched upon that gruesome deed, while musing upon his own demise with such regularity that, after a while, it came to seem like an obsession he’d stopped trying to shake. “Death is a box,” he wrote in one of the nearly 400 Dream Songs that, together, make up one of the most audacious (and intimidating) achievements in 20th century American poetry. Yes, Berryman means the pine confines that await all mortal flesh, but even a grade-schooler knows of that dread finale. More stifling, for him, is the psychic trap into which he fell after his father’s death. Thoughts of oblivion, unlike oblivion itself, you actually have to endure. The early deaths of fellow poets—Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, Randall Jarrell and Delmore Schwartz—from suicide or drink (or suicide by drink) made sure he stayed there, and neither the Pulitzer Prize (1965) nor unrivaled fame could coax him back into the light. Like a bat, his poetry yearned for darkness. He wrote in Dream Song #120: “I totter to the lip of the cliff.”