John Berryman was born in 1914 and classically trained in formal poetry at Columbia and Cambridge Universities. His early work includes a cycle of love sonnets called Sonnets for Chris and the collection Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, which marked his turn towards more innovative and experimental forms.
The publication of 77 Dream Songs in 1964 marked the beginning of the major project of Berryman's career, ultimately culminating in nearly four hundred of his astonishing near-sonnets. Many of the poems are narrated by Henry, Berryman's alterego, who speaks as if from a dream world, among uninterpretable, but strangely familiar dream symbols and situations. Awarded a Pulitzer Prize, the poems of 77 Dream Songs are characterized by their unusual syntax, mix of high and low diction, and virtuosic language. Commonly anthologized dream songs include "Filling her compact & delicious body," "Henry sats, " "I’m scared a lonely," and "Henry’s Confession." The book famously begins:
Huffy Henry hid the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point,--a trying to put things over.
It was the thought that they thought
they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
But he should have come out and talked.
Sometimes grouped with the Confessional poets, along with Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell, Berryman is separated from these writers by the startling world his characters inhabit, which obscures any sense of autobiography—Henry is at once Berryman, and not Berryman, and comparisons become, quickly, besides the point. Berryman once said, "Henry is accused of being me and I am accused of being Henry and I deny it and nobody believes me."