Book details

The Heart Is Strange

Revised Edition

Author: John Berryman; Edited and with an Introduction by Daniel Swift

The Heart Is Strange

The Heart Is Strange


About This Book

John Berryman was perhaps the most idiosyncratic American poet of the twentieth century. Best known for the painfully sad and raucously funny cycle of Dream Songs, he wrote passionately: of love...

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Book Details

John Berryman was perhaps the most idiosyncratic American poet of the twentieth century. Best known for the painfully sad and raucously funny cycle of Dream Songs, he wrote passionately: of love and despair, of grief and laughter, of longing for a better world and coming to terms with this one. The paperback edition of The Heart Is Strange has been updated to include a selection from the Dream Songs alongside poems from across his career.

The Heart Is Strange shows Berryman in all his variety: from his earliest poems, which show him learning the craft, to his breakthrough masterpiece, "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet"; then to his mature verses, which find the poet looking back upon his lovers and youthful passions; and finally to his late poems, in which he battles with sobriety and an increasingly religious sensibility.

The defiant joy and wild genius of Berryman's work has been obscured by his struggles with mental illness and alcohol, his tempestuous relationships with women, and his suicide. This volume celebrates the whole Berryman: tortured poet and teasing father, fiery lover and melancholy scholar. It is a perfect introduction to one of the finest bodies of work yet produced by an American poet.

Imprint Publisher

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



In The News

“Berryman is arguably the most irreverent and inventive . . . of the confessional American poets that emerged in the late 1950s and early '60s . . . [In The Heart Is Strange] you see Berryman's voice and tics develop--his playful use of grammar and nonsense words, his contrasts of comedy and despair, his intimate style.” —Andrew Travers, The Aspen Times

“It is thrilling, if sometimes unnerving, to be in the presence of an antic imagination. This same imagination is reflected beautifully in Berryman's distinctive body of work … A new collection of selected poems, The Heart Is Strange, judiciously edited and introduced by Daniel Swift . . . give[s] us an opportunity to see afresh what he made of his careening journey through our literary landscape.” —Christopher Merrill, Los Angeles Review of Books

“What he is most remembered for, though there are glories in his other work, is The Dream Songs, which you could think of as a poème-fleuve: he found (and there is an American tradition of this stuff going back to Whitman) an expansive, accretive, flexible open form that allowed him to somehow drift net the jetsam of a life and the flotsam of his place in the century . . . Berryman is (relatively) unusual among poets because he's funny. Daniel Swift, who has edited some handsome centenary reissues of Berryman's work for Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US . . . suggests that his status as a minor major poet--his not quite getting his due--is in part down to this. People still don't think funny poets are as important as the non-funny kind. But Berryman is the proper sort of funny: the funny that is involved with heartbreak . . . The Dream Songs is a slapstick Book of Job . . . But funny as Berryman is, he's a poet of mourning . . . You find in him remarkable technical command, deep and riddling allusiveness, killer gags and an antic harlequinade of aspects and personae that recalls Looney Toons as much as it does The Waste Land. But you also find a voice: this character Henry, who is half Berryman and half not, and who lives on the page and speaks to you. The voice looks easy to imitate or parody--with its fractured syntax, its tics and ampersands--but, as many who have tried discover, it isn't . . . Here is poetry that is not only heard: it buttonholes you.” —Sam Leith, The Guardian on John Berryman

“These books make a fierce little pile. When you aren't looking, they may scald a hole through your bedside table . . . There are excellent things in The Heart Is Strange, among them a remarkable poem called 'Mr Pou & the Alphabet,' which has not previously appeared among Berryman's published poetry . . . This poem, in its stealthy way, begins to seem like one of the great divorce poems in the English language.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times on John Berryman

“Berryman's own traumas are balanced against the wreckage of his literary generation, which he laments, and the sleaze and rubble of mid-century America, which he assails . . . Among the poets he counted as his peers only Lowell has produced as large a body of work which so vividly spoke to its time and continues to reverberate beyond it.” —Robert Shaw, Poetry on John Berryman

“Randall Jarrell wrote that a poet was someone who stands outside in storms hoping to get struck by lightning. Berryman, who spent so many years waiting for genius to find him, eventually lured it by making the waiting around, with all its attendant boredom, guilt and vice, the very subject of his poetry . . . [Berryman] used every technique of artificiality - in diction, syntax, allusion, rhythm - to create a voice of shocking honesty and directness; and by achieving this paradox, he liberated himself from the impersonality (itself, perhaps, no more than ostensible) of high Modernism. If we have no poets like John Berryman today, it is not because we are less ingenious than he is, but because our poetry seems to have so much less at stake.” —Adam Kirsch, The Times Literary Supplement

“[The Dream Songs are] one of the most audacious (and intimidating) achievements in 20th century American poetry . . . Very few are bold enough to try a feat similar to Berryman's today, and even fewer have actually succeeded in writing poetry that transcends the artless solipsism of workshop verse. In that rarefied latter category belong Patricia Lockwood and Michael Robbins, both of whom are young and profane and unafraid. Their forefather is Berryman, who in Mistress Bradstreet writes from the voice of a 17th century poetess . . . who knows that if you're not writing about longing and dying, you might as well be composing infomercial jingles . . . [Berryman's] is a poetry of anxiety and attention deficit, as earnest as an episode of Glee, as revealingly scattered as the tabs left open on your browser. It is also surprisingly political for a poet who effortlessly channels Sir Thomas Wyatt's lyrical seductions, a poet who often seemed lost in the dim labyrinths of his own mind. Berryman was weirdly attuned to the chaos of the Cold War . . . It can, indeed, be as furious as Charlie Parker bebop, full of what Berryman himself called 'sad wild riffs.' . . . Reading Berryman is a reminder that poetry is sound, that it should be enjoyed as music, not words alone . . . The best thing one can do for Berryman today is to forget him and to remember his poems.” —Alex Nazaryan, Newsweek

About the Creators

The Heart Is Strange

The Heart Is Strange