On a frigid January morning in Minneapolis in 1972 John Berryman, confessional poet and University of Minnesota professor, waved to morning commuters on the Washington Avenue Bridge and hurled himself into the wind. While poetry and suicide go together like PB & J, Berryman's case is interesting as it resonates with artists today. Last year Minnesota natives The Hold Steady immortalized Berryman (and Kerouac) in "Stuck Between Stations":
The Devil and John Berryman took a walk together
They ended up on Washington talking to the river
He said "I surrounded myself with doctors and deep thinkers
But big heads with soft bodies make for lousy lovers".
There was that night that we thought that John Berryman could fly.
But he didn't so he died.
She said "you're pretty good with words but words won't save your life"
And they didn't so he died
More recently Okkervil River, whose singer/songwriter Will Sheff spent his college years at Macalester in Minneapolis, conclude The Stage Names with "John Allyn Smith Sails," a confessional about Berryman's plight into the next world, that incorporates the Beach Boys "Sloop John B" in its cadence. After the band's last tour, Sheff found himself in Minneapolis after a freewheelin' road trip. He had this to say about his experience:
I wanted to go to the Washington Avenue Bridge, which is the bridge John Berryman jumped off of. I went there and I was standing in that same place where he was and I was thinking a lot about him. It was a really bitterly cold day, and it had been a really bitterly cold day when he killed himself in January 1972. And I went to the library where all of his books and a lot of his effects are stored. I was thinking a lot about that and it was, though it sounds corny, a very moving experience for me. After that I was listening to music and thinking about John Berryman and thinking about a lot of different things….There's a part of A Night of Serious Drinking where he talks about the inescapable velocity of the suicide, or something like that, where you might think halfway down, "Wait a second, I've made a bad decision."
No doubt Berryman's legacy haunts some of the most profound, poetic lyricist of our time. Evidence below.
The Hold Steady- Stuck Between Stations
Okkervil River- John Allyn Smith Sails