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“The Issue of Our Common Human Life”: Poetic Self and Public World in John Berryman’s Art

JORDAN, AMY (2013) “The Issue of Our Common Human Life”: Poetic Self and Public World in John Berryman’s Art. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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This thesis challenges the critical codification of John Berryman as a “Confessional” solipsist that has to date excluded his oeuvre from efforts to contextualise historically the mid-century generation of American poets. Its exploration of both the literary and the sociopolitical concerns that have shaped his verse furthers current understanding of the work by placing a new emphasis upon the interdependence of poetic self and public world.

Through a chronological survey of Berryman’s published poetry, prose and manuscripts, I demonstrate his fears of marginalisation and the loss of individual agency to represent not an inner but an outward gaze, symptomatic of a wider malaise in post-war American society. Later chapters develop this framework by establishing parallels between the poems’ permeability to the flux of contemporary experience and their ambivalent depictions of Berryman’s growing literary fame. The result, I argue, casts fresh light upon the work as a movement towards a radical metapoetics that figures the persona as the simultaneous product of society and of the text’s public reception. Berryman’s staging of the symbiotic relationship between art and life foregrounds the central function of both self- and sociopolitical critique within his poetry: it highlights the impact of the failed American Dream upon public life and literary ambition.

The Introduction provides a detailed outline of the approach and contents of the thesis. Chapter 1 examines the poet’s apprentice work in The Dispossessed and Sonnets to Chris, and relates dissatisfaction with the New Critical literary school to his subsequent discovery of a “new and nervous idiom” for the post-war world. In Chapter 2, I trace the motifs of national and literary expatriation in Berryman’s first long poem Homage to Mistress Bradstreet to discuss the dispossessed poetic “I” as a vehicle for exploration of American tensions past and present. Chapters 3 and 4 present a sustained analysis of Berryman’s epic poem The Dream Songs. Whilst Chapter 3 focuses upon the work’s depiction of American dystopia, Chapter 4 addresses its performance of Berryman’s own literary success, arguing for the later Songs’ origins in an anxiety of reception that desires to cement the poet’s status in an uncertain world. My final chapter reads Berryman’s last volumes Love & Fame and Delusions, etc. of John Berryman in the light of these discussions, suggesting his conflicting perceptions of fame to function as a catalyst for renewed efforts to reconcile the poetic self with wider society.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:John Berryman; poetry; American poetry; Confessional poetry; public poetry; The Dream Songs; Homage to Mistress Bradstreet
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Arts and Humanities > English Studies, Department of
Thesis Date:2013
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:06 Feb 2013 13:06

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