The Poem

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

The Dream Songs is a sequence of 385 poems grouped into seven numbered but untitled sections. Each poem is eighteen lines in length and divided into three six-line stanzas, variously rhymed. The title of the sequence suggests much about the methods and tensions of the poems. Originating in the primal and unrestrained associations of the unconscious mind, in dreams, they struggle to find conscious and communicable forms in the shapes of song. To compose his furiously contemporary sequence, John Berryman reached back to what is perhaps the oldest source of poetic inspiration: the desire to translate dreams into waking speech, to recapture the imagery that escapes the dreamer upon waking.

It would be impossible to summarize the manic progress of The Dream Songs, not only because of its length, but also because the poems are individually so dense with meanings and emotion that none of them could be contained by a phrase or sentence. Nevertheless, there are several organizing principles and narrative motifs that can be of much use to readers in shaping the whole of The Dream Songs in their minds.

Despite his many protests to the contrary, Berryman himself is very much the model for his book’s protagonist, Henry. Henry suffers what Berryman had suffered, reads what he had read, travels where he had traveled. Thus the character at the center of each Dream Song is also the source of the song, and the entire book may be read as a series of improvisations based upon the unfolding life of the poet as it is recounted by and through Henry. What happens to Henry is the story of these poems, and his interpretations and reactions are their theme. The story tells of the ecstasies and vicissitudes of the poet’s life in the contemporary world, both at home and abroad, and the themes explore the ways in which poetry itself both disfigures and redeems that chaotic, marginal life. The songs are sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic and cautionary, as the figure of Henry never seeks anything less than the absolute extremity of any feeling or idea.

Henry’s life is a chronicle of losses, and the songs detail these losses in the order of their occurrence. Henry’s original and perhaps most devastating loss—that of his father to a suicide that young Henry accidentally witnessed—provides the initial impetus for The Dream Songs, one to which Henry will frequently hearken back in the midst of subsequent...

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Forms and Devices

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

A work of such size and frantic energy as The Dream Songs consumes the devices of poetry as though they were a kind of fuel, in order to maintain its momentum and originality. Since these qualities reside in the book’s protagonist, Henry, one might say that he himself is the central, perhaps the only real, metaphor of The Dream Songs. It is Henry that the reader follows. It is Henry that the poems teach the reader to understand, to believe, to forgive, and to love. Henry’s disasters represent the fate of an imaginative, uncompromising man in the midst of America’s thoughtless conformity in the middle of the twentieth century. Henry’s survival represents the almost miraculous power of the imagination to adapt to grief without recourse to banal or illusory consolations, and, most important, Henry’s relentless self-examination is a metaphor of the simultaneously vital and mortifying necessity of self-knowledge in a world chock-full of temptations to escape self-knowledge: through adulteries, through alcohol, through suicide.

Henry’s metaphorical role being established, one may see the forms and devices of Henry’s madcap, heartbreaking speech as those intended by Berryman to carry the meanings of his book. Time and again, Henry returns to three crucial images, images that, by virtue of repetition and critical variation, acquire the status of symbols. The first of these is the sea. Henry’s father commits suicide “close by a smothering southern sea,” and from that moment on, the sea becomes to Henry a totemic image of death in all its guises. Storm-tossed, the sea is an image of the turbulence wreaked by death upon life. Tranquil, the sea is an image of the peace of annihilation, the respite from struggle and identity that death seductively offers to life. Immeasurable and mutable, the sea is an image of death’s absolute mystery, death’s silent reply to the questions of the living.

The second key...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bloom, Harold, ed. John Berryman. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. Contains several of the most influential essays written on Berryman.

Kelly, Richard, and Alan K. Lathrop, eds. Recovering Berryman: Essays on a Poet. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. A broad approach to Berryman’s art and life. Includes Lewis Hyde’s controversial essay “Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking.”

Kirsch, Adam. The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets—Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, and Sylvia Plath. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. Provides a retrospective assessment of how Berryman’s transformation of life into art fits with that of the generation of confessional poets.

Mariani, Paul L. Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman. 2d ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996. Comprehensively researched account of the poet’s influences, life events, and personal and professional associations.

Matterson, Stephen. Berryman and Lowell: The Art of Losing. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1987. Explores Berryman’s career in the context of his contemporary, Robert Lowell. Discusses the “theme of disintegration” prevalent in Berryman’s work.

Mendelson, Edward. “How to Read Berryman’s Dream Songs.” In American Poetry Since 1960, edited by Robert B. Shaw. Cheadle Hulme: Carcanet Press, 1973. A brief but detailed analysis of The Dream Songs, providing an overview of the complete series as well as detailed explications of selected poems; relies less on biographical material than on the more formal poetic structures and strategies.

Meyers, Jeffery. Manic Power: Robert Lowell and His Circle. New York: Arbor House, 1987. Places Berryman’s work in terms of literary history and the poetry of his own contemporaries.

Thomas, Harry. Reflections on the Poetry of John Berryman. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988. Anthologizes many of the best essays written on Berryman. Includes interviews with the author and a concise time line of the poet’s life and works.

Thomas, Harry, ed. Berryman’s Understanding: Reflections on the Poetry of John Berryman. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988. Provides a broad cultural context for his work and close critical analysis of his poetry.