For a time, John Berryman’s place in the literary history of the twentieth century seemed assured. He was the author of the popular and critically acclaimed sequence The Dream Songs (1969), credited with playing a pivotal role in his generation’s revival of the personal element in American poetry, and his work stimulated a critical engagement that placed him prominently alongside his most important contemporaries, Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Randall Jarrell. He was the subject of significant biographical studies, and his work demonstrably drew a wide readership; one that in the 1970s and 1980s placed The Dream Songs on the promotional lists of book clubs, a position occupied alongside Robert Frost’s Collected Poems. Berryman’s success seemed to be of a particular moment in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was both hard-earned and the result of a long poetic development, beginning with his publishing poetry in the 1940s. Like his contemporaries he made radical shifts in his style during the 1950s, and emerged as a major figure because of that.
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