By understanding poet John Berryman’s style of writing, we come to understand his style of being (Pxhere).

In his new book, Suppose a Sentence (New York Review Books, $17.95), critic Brian Dillon identifies a long tradition of “writers drunk on the almost erotic possibilities of their sentences.” He names Sir Thomas Browne, Virginia Woolf, and Herman Melville among this communion of sentence-drunk writers; considering the living, I’d add C. E. Morgan and Hilton Als. For these writers, Dillon argues, the power of the sentence lies not in its crystalline perfection but in its “grand engaging awkwardness,” its ability to court disaster before a miraculous recovery:

It is not really a matter of beauty or elegance, though a strangely lucid control of the sentence might be the first thing one admires in these writers. Something else, a grand engaging awkwardness, is soon felt; the sentence does not lose its way exactly, but somewhere forgets itself, and the reader slips with it, smiling. It might be a case of a metaphor too far, a turn of phrase that will not easily give up its sense, or a series of embedded clauses, like steps axed in glacier ice, from which the writer struggles confidently to descend again.

This passage picks up a claim from Dillon’s previous book, Essayism: On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction (2017). There, he describes the kind of stylist he most admires as displaying “ruined poise,” a syntactical and imagistic extravagance that somehow, impossibly, “can keep it together.” A great sentence can’t be rolled through. It causes us to stumble, if just for a millisecond, and it must be read more than once: How did that work, we wonder?

Suppose a Sentence imagines itself as “a kind of commonplace book, product of haphazard notation, ad hoc noticing.” The structure is simple. Dillon offers twenty-seven sentences for which, for one reason or another, he feels an “affinity.” After each, we get a mini-essay on that sentence. The selections are organized chronologically, moving from Hamlet (“O, o, o, o.”) to the poet Anne Boyer (too long to sample here, but wonderful). Many of the quoted writers are to be expected: Thomas De Quincey, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Roland Barthes. There are a few surprises, too: the land artist Robert Smithson, for instance, and the late New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett.

Dillon’s writing plays an exquisite critical sensibility against an exuberant celebratory impulse. He homes in on particular formal decisions (why this comma here rather than there) and he makes it clear why he loves the sentences he does. One essay focuses on a sentence from Susan Sontag, who famously declared in “Against Interpretation” that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” Dillon, like all good critics, refuses the distinction between hermeneutics and erotics. He shows how pleasurable sentences can be, and he does so through supple, sophisticated interpretation.

It’s a book about noticing: about the things great sentences have noticed and about the things Dillon has noticed about these great sentences.

Part of the joy of Suppose a Sentence lies simply in encountering, or re-encountering, the gems Dillon has selected. Here’s Annie Dillard on seeing a total eclipse: “This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds.” And here’s Charlotte Brontë in Villette, describing with brilliantly strange grammar the effects of laudanum: “The drug wrought.” But the real pleasure lies in Dillon’s close readings. Early on, he offers this sentence from Sir Thomas Browne: “Time which antiquates Antiquities, and hath an art to make dust of all things, hath spared these minor monuments.” Then Dillion is off: quoting Virginia Woolf on Browne (“Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, but those who do are of the salt of the earth”); noting Browne’s polysyllabic music that, midway, gives itself up to “a plain array of ten monosyllables...of frankly biblical clarity”; describing Browne’s strange afterlife (his skull was stolen from its original burial place and sold) before offering his own rhapsodic summary of Browne’s legacy (“Sentences that live on, deathless—for every sentence written is a sort of ghost—in the face of universal forgetting”). He gives final word to a different Browne sentence: “Oblivion is not to be hired: The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the Register of God, not in the record of man.” It’s a dizzying and dazzling performance. Like his favorite sentences, Dillon’s essays “keep it together,” just barely, and they’re all the more stylish for it.

Dillon declares that he isn’t after a “general theory of the sentence,” nor does he want Suppose a Sentence to be a how-to manual. Rather, it’s a book about noticing: about the things great sentences have noticed and about the things Dillon has noticed about these great sentences. One of my favorite sentences comes from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: “‘For those who like that sort of thing,’ said Miss Brodie in her best Edinburgh voice, ‘that is the sort of thing they like.’” For those who love sentences, Suppose a Sentence is the sort of thing they’ll love.


One way of describing the genius of John Berryman’s poems and the tragedy of his life is to say that he kept it together, barely, until he couldn’t. Berryman, who was born in Oklahoma in 1914 and committed suicide in Minnesota in 1972, led a vital, sad, and frantic life. His peripatetic years were filled with drink, depression, productivity, and intimacy of various kinds. (Great friends with Saul Bellow and Robert Lowell, he was also a shameless cheater on his three wives.) Berryman also wrote at least one masterpiece: the long confessional poetic sequence, comprised of three hundred and eighty-five short poems, called The Dream Songs.

Berryman’s Dream Songs possess a jittery, manic energy that is just kept in check, largely through formal compression. (Each poem consists of three sestets, though he occasionally breaks this structure.) Take “Dream Song #14”:

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.  
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,  
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy  
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored  
means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no  
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,  
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes  
as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.  
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag  
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving           
behind: me, wag.

The poem begins with two short sentences in a single line, offering the assurance of the depressed. This is a man who’s seen through things addressing a reader who he believes has seen through things, too. And yet the rest of the poem is, of course, anything but boring: that caustic adverb “repeatingly”; the Shakespearean hauteur (“I am heavy bored”) giving way to childish petulance; that final long sentence, stretched out over six puzzling lines (the dog has absconded into the sky?). Even in this poem, which describes the speaker’s acedia, there’s music and vim.

This poem, and Dream Songs more generally, stage how an unstable self might be kept together. The “I” of the poem, who in many ways resembles Berryman, addresses himself as Henry, his primal, unsocialized self. In other poems, he inhabits a separate, more problematic alter ego named Mr. Bones, a character who speaks in Black dialect. (One cringey example: “Henry sats in de bar & was odd, / off in the glass from the glass, / at odds wif de world and its god.”) As the poet Kevin Young puts it, “Instead of a cult of personality, we have a clash of personalities—the poems’ protagonist Henry speaks not just as ‘I’ but as ‘he,’ ‘we,’ and ‘you.’” This isn’t self as chorus; it’s self as crowd, with style shifting mid-line, sometimes mid-word. Berryman’s poem offers a song that is as slippery, and multiple, as the self it sings, simultaneously profane (“Among the last, / like the memory of a lovely fuck, / was: Do, ut des”), childishly satiric (“—I can’t read any more of this Rich Critical Prose, / he growled, broke wind, and scratched himself & left / their fragrant area”), and beautiful (“He dropped his voice & sybilled of / the death of the death of love”). The self is kept together, when it is, through the “ruined poise” of poetic style.

The publication of The Selected Letters of John Berryman (Belknap Press, $39.95) allows us to see Berryman trying on different personae, speaking in different styles and, in doing so, holding his many selves in vibrant, tensile relation. There’s the teenager at boarding school, apologizing for not writing Mom enough. There’s the swaggering Columbia student, bragging about coed conquests and complaining about deadlines. There’s the would-be scholar, asking for fellowship money. (Berryman worked on but never finished various Shakespeare projects, including an edition of King Lear and a critical biography.) There’s the poet-on-the-make, looking for someone to publish his short, Yeats-inspired lyrics. There’s the prize-winning poet, writing to other writers, sometimes complimenting and sometimes offending. (After Richard Wilbur beat him for the 1957 National Book Award, Berryman sent the poet a sour-grapes wire, for which he then wrote an apology, where he insulted Wilbur yet again, describing his earlier work as “skillful industrious effortless & fireless.”) Finally, there’s the broken man, shuffling in and out of rehab, drafting suicide notes, struggling to stay alive.   

[We] see Berryman trying on different personae, speaking in different styles and, in doing so, holding his many selves in vibrant, tensile relation.

Editors Philip Coleman and Calista McRae have a generous definition of “selected,” with this edition clocking in at more than seven hundred pages. Some of the letters included are obvious choices. Take this one from 1935. College-age Berryman, writing to his chum E. M. Halliday, cultivates an air of jokey, antic erudition that sounds a lot like Ezra Pound:

You have never seen such a dull bastard as Berryman has become. Nothing but the grind—Bacon, Sh, Dante, Shaw, Plato, Hobbes, etc. etc. etc. I did rouse myself last night, called Carson and wended (quite tight) my way to the open dance, but it wasn’t so open that they’d let me in—are you in the dorm? says they, and I says no are you in the dorm? and they says yes so what? and I says Aristotle says.... Well, when I collected the fragments, I’d taken Carson in a huff home and was in the grill, surrounded by my admirers. What a life!

This all sounds gay but it ain’t, Klinker, it ain’t. I be in a berry bad state—sleepless & gruffgruff.

“Sleepless & gruffgruff”: you could imagine this phrase finding its way into Dream Songs more than twenty years later. Other letters jump between moments of exultation (“I am going to write so good the trolls of language will scream & come over to my side”) and lacerating craft-talk (“I have a new technique: I just cut”).

Some selections are more perplexing. Do we really need a letter in which Berryman writes to the children of a friend, “We haven’t been down here yet, but I was ridge-walking today at 6000 feet & feel delightful. Happy New Year to all of you and your preposterous parents”? But the inclusion of these more inconsequential missives is, I’d say, the point. Through the accumulation of so much correspondence, we come to see Berryman’s style of writing, which tells us a lot about his style of being.


One of Berryman’s most regular correspondents, at least for long stretches, was the editor and publisher Robert Giroux. The two became friends while at Columbia, working together on various campus publications and coming under the wing of the Shakespeare scholar Mark Van Doren. Years later, while serving as the final member of the FSG triumvirate, Giroux would edit and publish Berryman’s first mature work, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet—“I was dying,” Berryman writes in a poem to Giroux at the time, “not in brain but in heart & / spirit, when you rescued me”—and, eventually, The Dream Songs.

Those interested in this collaborative friendship should check out John Berryman and Robert Giroux: A Publishing Friendship (University of Notre Dame Press, $45). The author, Patrick Samway, SJ, was professionally and personally close with Giroux. His previous books include The Letters of Robert Giroux and Thomas Merton and Flannery O’Connor and Robert Giroux: A Publishing Partnership. At his new book’s end, we learn that he presided over Giroux’s funeral liturgy.

For stretches, John Berryman and Robert Giroux is less a joint biography than two biographies squished together. Samway will stay with Berryman’s life for a few pages, then switch to Giroux, then back to Berryman, without integrating the two. This makes a certain sense, as the two didn’t meet until college and then were estranged for the years between the publication of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and the acquisition of The Dream Songs. Samway largely skates over this four-year frostiness—an odd omission, in a book ostensibly about friendship. (Samway posits in passing that the rift probably resulted from FSG remaindering copies of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet without telling the poet.) The book offers great detail on the negotiations between poet and publisher, quoting long letters in full. Now Berryman makes emendations to his manuscript. Now Giroux tweaks contractual language. Now the two discuss publicity strategies. (Despite the disarray of his personal life, Berryman made sure that his books found their way into the right hands.)  

John Berryman and Robert Giroux, a strong work of scholarship, doesn’t describe with adequate life the affective bond between the two men, why and how they loved one another. Perhaps that’s because the most intense relationship Berryman had wasn’t with his publisher. Nor was it with his several wives. It was with those many hectoring, pleading, shouting, singing inner selves that echo through his life and in his poems. “Dream Song #384” puts it well: “When will indifference come, I moan & rave / I’d like to scrabble till I got right down / away down under the grass.”

Anthony Domestico is chair of the English and Global Literatures Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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