The Selected Letters of John Berryman by Philip Coleman & Calista McRae (edd) - review by David Wheatley

David Wheatley

Poet of Procrastination

The Selected Letters of John Berryman


Belknap Press 726pp £31.95

In 1957 John Berryman nursed high hopes of picking up a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Award for his long poem Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, before being beaten to both those honours by the young Richard Wilbur. In his disappointment, he fired off a telegram to Wilbur at Columbia, only to learn from the operator that no one with Wilbur’s name could be found there. Another operator rang back to say that Wilbur had been located at Wellesley, where, despite efforts from Berryman to stop it, the message was then delivered. We know all this from a letter written by Berryman acknowledging receipt of a reply from Wilbur – which, Berryman says, he is too nervous to open – and apologising for the bile he dispatched in his crestfallen state. The saga then takes an unexpected twist. Berryman opens Wilbur’s letter and learns that the younger poet hadn’t been annoyed after all, for the good reason that Berryman’s sour grapes had amounted to nothing more dramatic than ‘Congratulations … your vigorous stuff will live.’

Panic, procrastination, recrimination, anticlimax and farce: standard fare in a Berryman letter, and all to be found in abundance over the seven hundred plus pages of The Selected Letters of John Berryman, unobtrusively and expertly edited by Philip Coleman and Calista McRae. ‘I think all biographical facts ought to be

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