John Berryman and the American Legacy of Dylan Thomas

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Heinzelman, Kurt

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International Journal of Welsh Writing in English


Lost in the celebration of the 2014 Dylan Thomas centenary was why Thomas’s reputation, at least among literary historians and particularly fellow poets, had declined so much in the nearly sixty years since his death. That those poets once influenced by Thomas – and they were legion – produced a kind of ‘Dylan Effect’, diluting what was once impressive is one thesis of this article, even as non- professional readers continue to this day to revere some of his work. Another poet whose reputation has perhaps declined as greatly, a man born days apart from Thomas, is the American John Berryman. Berryman met Thomas only a handful of times over twenty- six years, but Thomas remained not an influence but a ghostly presence for Berryman. As this article tries to explain, Berryman’s greatest work, The Dream Songs, does not so much imitate Thomas as assimilate his forms of oral performance and gaiety, if not his existential optimism. To use a legal term, the legacy of Thomas in the work of Berryman is the casus omissus – the missing case – among the statutory narratives of literary history. This article contextualises Berryman’s very belated elegy for Thomas, with the Tennysonian title ‘In Memoriam’, which came well after the deeply elegiac 385 Dream Songs were completed. It is, in effect, both a post- scripted Dream Song as well as a kind of weirdly posthumous Dream Song for Berryman himself, whose own death would follow shortly after its composition.



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Kurt Heinzelman, ‘John Berryman and the American Legacy of Dylan Thomas’, International Journal of Welsh Writing in English, 5 (2018), 1, DOI: 10.16995/ijwwe.5.5