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...

(The entire section is 1007 words.)