Essay about Alcohol and Spiritual Deadlock--John Berryman

Essay about Alcohol and Spiritual Deadlock--John Berryman

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Alcohol and Spiritual Deadlock

In his introduction to John Berryman's unfinished work Recovery, about his efforts to recover from alcoholism, Saul Bellows asserts that the act of writing poetry "killed" Berryman, and alcohol helped fuel the writing process: "Inspiration contained a death threat. He would, as he wrote the things he waited and prayed for, fall apart," (Recovery xii). During his career as a poet, he was diseased with alcoholism and suffered from extreme lapses of anxiety. Berryman wrote a majority of the Dream Songs, his largest and best-known collection of 385 poems, while suffering, sometimes excruciatingly, from alcoholism. Throughout the Dream Songs, the narrators, Henry, Mr. Bones, and sometimes an anonymous speaker (all alter-egos of Berryman), ponder a tumultuous life, attempt to transcend overwhelming loss, and seek reconciliation with a torturous past. Although Berryman argues that the Dream Songs are not autobiographical, they are resoundingly autobiographical, as nearly all of the events in the poems directly correlate with Berryman's life. Yet most importantly, at the core of his self-destructive pain is the haunting childhood memory of his father's suicide. Subsequently, as an adult Berryman habitually used alcohol to remedy his pain and dilute the magnitude of the tragedy. The Dream Songs are saturated with references and direct mentions of suicide and loss, and repeatedly indicate that Berryman experiences a significant spiritual and emotional deterioration based on his father's death and his own inability to recover from the "irreversible" loss (Recovery, preface). In accordance with Bellows' assertion, when Berryman labored to accept his father's death and soberly confront his reality by...


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Ultimately, Berryman was not able to forgive his father, evade his "goblins," or find his "inner resources." Near the end of his life, he wrote a poem that contained all the same sentiments of an alcoholic, anguished, depressive Henry:

It seems dark all the time.

I have difficulty walking...

I said in a Song once: I am usually tired.

I repeat and increase it.

I'm vomiting...

I certainly don't think I'll last much longer. (Recovery xiv)

Leaping from a bridge, Berryman committed suicide in January 1972, leaving behind the "survivors" and the "blood and disgrace" that had formerly revolted him. His emaciated spirit and disease inevitably destroyed him. Henry is an immortal reminder that the famed relationship between alcohol and writing is not as enriching as Berryman, Lowell, Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or Poe had hoped.

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