Dusting off: John Berryman Interview in the Paris Review, 1972

Posted by Jason Diamond

Former resident of the late John Berryman’s home turf (Minnesota), Craig Finn, dedicated a verse in the opening song of his band The Hold Steady’s 2006 album Boys and Girls in America to Berryman’s suicidal leap from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis in 1972. A few months later, Will Sheff and his band Okkervil River gave us their own interpretation of Berryman’s last moments on planet earth, ending the song with a reworking of the Beach Boys “Sloop John B” that adds a ‘death is a journey’ message to the whole thing and also gives Sheff another chance to add a nautical touch to one of his songs.

Is it a strange coincidence that in less than a year two of musics most gifted lyricists would comprise their own sort of tributes to a poet who goes largely unnoticed among most folks that aren’t academics or students taking poetry classes in college for credits sake? I’m not sure, and I’m not much of a believer in coincidence, but it certainly got me a bit more interested in Berryman, who I always just thought of more as a contemporary of Delmore Schwartz.

In the year of his death, Paris Review published an interview in their winter issue (I’m assuming this was published posthumously) with Berryman. If you are down for 30 + pages of reading, it’s a good one. If not, some highlights include an answer to the question of being labeled (alongside Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell) as a “confessional” poet. His answer: “(W)ith rage and contempt! Next Question.” He also diagnoses Dylan Thomas as being doomed and self-destructive (but not about his own alcoholism which probably had something to do with him jumping off a bridge), and taking tea with William Butler Yeats.