John Haffenden The Life of John Berryman.
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 451 pages, $22.50
If John Berryman had not committed suicide, I wonder, how many readers might there be for a four-hundred-page story of his life?
In his definitions of classical and romantic artists, W. H. Auden assumed dementia as their common condition; the classical artist was “one whose dementia was simply the occasion for his talent"; the romantic, “one whose dementia became his subject matter.” Berryman, in that showing, was a Romantic in extremis but not unique in the American scene. Convinced that to write great poetry required great suffering and being unsupplied by America, mid-century, with a tragedy of European dimension, he proceeded to stock himself with traumas and compulsions which, if not wholly invented, were at least enlarged as he had need for them, in order to fuel the desperation...