Begun in 1955, The Dream Songs combines two volumes, 77 Dream Songs (1964) and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968). The series of 385 songs is an ongoing, evolving account that mixes historical facts with autobiographical material, current events with philosophy, and archetypal myths with vaudeville humor. John Berryman is often associated with the confessional school of poetry, a style popular in the United States during the 1950’s and 1960’s and connected with the careers of Berryman’s contemporaries Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, and Sylvia Plath. The design of The Dream Songs (that of a series of lyrics organized around a central motif) has roots in literary tradition, including Don Juan (1819-1824, 1826) by the British Romantic writer Lord Byron, and Cantos (1930-1970) by the American poet of the twentieth century, Ezra Pound. Berryman cited Walt Whitman, the nineteenth century American poet, as his model, claiming that he designed the poem after Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1855). In 1965, 77 Dream Songs won a Pulitzer Prize; His Toy, His Dream, His Rest won the National Book Award in 1969.
At first glance, the collection seems loose, spontaneous, and improvised, but actually the individual poems are tightly structured, and they adhere technically and thematically to a complex poetic strategy. Each of Berryman’s songs consists of 18 lines broken into three stanzas of six lines each. The meter is well regulated, utilizing speech patterns ranging from a parody of beatnik black dialect to baby talk to academic jargon. It takes the attitude of a hip literary insider during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. In his 1979 essay “How to Read Berryman’s Dream Songs,” Professor Edward Mendelson points out an even more severe, “arithmetical precision” as a further unifying scheme built around the number seven. He demonstrates “seventy-seven Songs in the first volume . . . 77 x 5 in the completed 385 Songs . . . seven epigraphs; seven Books in all.” The songs also suggest a plot, not in a linear episodic sequence of events, but as a quest of the poet’s search for himself, seeking a fixed, centered ego.
Books 1 through 3 detail the metaphysical angst of Henry, the main character, recounting events and meditations. Henry is self-obsessed, petty, brilliant, dysfunctional, and damned by his need for meaning, for transcendence. The characters—including friends, enemies and acquaintances—are “zoned!” and “screwed up” or they are intellectual hustlers with their own lives to waste. Mixing slang with formal diction, discordant meter with perfect lyrical rhythms, Berryman combines pedantry with a street-smart style to portray a tragicomical blend of voices, personas, embodied in the polymorphous figure of Henry. In the preface to the one-volume edition of The Dream Songs (1969), Berryman writes, “The poem, then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in his early middle age, sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr Bones and variants thereof.”
This “irreversible loss” may be traced, despite the disclaimer, to Berryman’s own loss of innocence. When Berryman was twelve, his father shot himself to death outside the boy’s window. His life after his father’s suicide was punctuated by transience and dissolution, although he managed to garner prestigious poetry awards and various teaching positions, notably at Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Minnesota. Married three times, Berryman spent years fighting alcoholism, infidelity, and madness, and finally began to lose faith in his craft as a poet. The incessant strife and psychological turmoil that began so early in his life, and which is so evident in The Dream Songs, culminated in his own suicide in 1972.
As the title The Dream Songs suggests, the poems are extremely private, subjective, and personal, but as...