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[John Berryman] is a complicated, nervous, and intelligent writer whose poetry has steadily improved. At first he was possessed by a slavishly Yeats-ish grandiloquence which at its best resulted in a sort of posed, planetary melodrama, and which at its worst resulted in monumental bathos…. (p. 80)
[His latest poetry, "The Dispossessed"], in spite of its occasional echoes, is as determinedly individual as one could wish. Doing things in a style all its own sometimes seems the primary object of the poem, and its subject gets a rather spasmodic and fragmentary treatment. The style—conscious, dissonant, darting; allusive, always over- or under-satisfying the expectations which it is intelligently exploiting—seems to fit Mr. Berryman's knowledge and sensibility surprisingly well, and ought in the end to produce poetry better than the best of the poems he has so far written in it, which have raw or overdone lines side by side with imaginative and satisfying ones. (p. 81)
Randall Jarrell, in The Nation (copyright 1948 The Nation Associates), July 17, 1948.
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[It is] the quality of voice that dominates John Berryman's His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, the … book which extends and completes the 77 Dream Songs of 1964. The annex is a good deal larger than the original building: there are 308 poems here, most of them following the three-stanza, eighteen-line pattern the earlier book established. They rhyme with some regularity; their line lengths vary considerably; sometimes they do and sometimes they do not run on.
But the statistics are only evasions, and will not characterize what the organized sprawl of the book is like or about. Berryman himself has given his own answer to the second question: "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 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." I would be happy to believe all that …, but I really don't. Unless the protagonist of the dream songs is very close to being Berryman, as man and as poet, there seems little reason for his extraordinary language to exist.
That language does two things that seem to me unusual. First, it attempts a formal diction of poetry, with the compression and heightening such a diction normally implies, while at the same time remaining open to the largest possible range of the idioms of American speech. Second, the language attempts, within one continuous identifiable kind of formal poetic voice, to deal with a range of experience that is otherwise ordered only by the fact that it has some relationship to a central figure. The book seems to combine many elements of the journal and of the novel: its effort is not only to refute a boundary between public and private, but also to subvert distinctions of formal and spontaneous, to have both at once and to have them with equal force.
Such a possibility can come about only by rejecting the tug of the convention and establishing a pattern of consistent arbitrary forms. This Berryman does by reversing syntactical patterns, using subjunctive forms, crossing the arcane with the colloquial…. The invention of so personal a language makes it very difficult to distinguish between the speaker and the subject of the poem, especially when the subject is both human and continuously present. The effort is in any event an unnecessary one. If we recognize that the "I" of even the most intimate journal cannot be the identical "I" who writes it, we will have made all the differentiation that is required of us.
But if the poem is exceptionally personal, it is also still a world, it is inclusive. It has the unevenness that a world has: it is selfish, self-pitying, trivial, exalted, funny. It moves by its own laws, but they can be communicated. It sets entirely, entirely its own terms, and if they are sometimes maudlin and sometimes infuriating, they have still the power of great concentration and great consistency, and for that reason they are finally impressive and successful. (pp. 360-62)
William Dickey, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1969 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXII, No. 2, Summer, 1969.
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Through his spokesman Henry, the central character of the Dream Songs, Berryman articulated his view of literary criticism unequivocally: "—I can't read any more of this Rich Critical Prose, / he growled, broke wind, and scratched himself and left / that fragrant area. / When the mind dies it exudes rich critical prose." But Berryman exuded enough of this despised substance throughout his own career to fill a sizeable volume, and that, plus a handful of short stories, is what makes up The Freedom of the Poet. Assembled posthumously from a schema he left behind, the book includes sections on Elizabethan writers, other Europeans from Cervantes to Anne Frank, American fiction, poetry from England and America, stories, and general essays.
Even Berryman's detractors will have to concede that The Freedom of the Poet demonstrates an exceptional range and depth in the poet's cultural interests. (pp. 707-08)
The critical essays in this collection, which occupy the bulk of the volume, also lead us in and out of Berryman's other work, though much more obliquely than the stories. The poet's lifelong fascination with Freud (he was in analysis himself for quite some time) resulted in a good deal of surrealistic verse (e.g., "The Traveller"). Unhappily, the many psychoanalytic interpretations in this collection are surrealistic too; that is, they are best described as textual distortions which obey the logic of dreams rather than rational discourse. An unintentionally funny critique of The Diary of Anne Frank turns that classically simple work into a Freudian cryptogram in which the most straightforward episodes must be treated as dark messages from the unconscious. Freud is invoked again in "Conrad's Journey," a reading of Heart of Darkness which ignores the conscious level of Conrad's dense and difficult text in order to fish for sexual imagery, all of it supererogatory. The student of Berryman's work will recall that Freudian excesses were a short-coming in the poet's Stephen Crane (1951), a sporadically impressive biography.
The mixture of admiration and dissatisfaction on feels toward the Crane study reminds us of another critical commonplace about Berryman's work: its unevenness. The present volume is no exception. Not only are the essays of varying quality, but individual pieces often rock wildly back and forth from insight to absurdity. Berryman's panoramic reflection on Thomas Nashe, including the full sweep of Elizabethan prose narrative, are perceptive and convincing; however, they are also ignorant (Swift's A Tale of a Tub is described as unread) and wrong-headed (topical feuds are ruled out as a proper subject for literature, thus annihilating the heart of 18th century letters). The poet's ruminations on Cervantes and Thomas Hardy are equally spotty. He is at his worst in the incoherent "Despondency and Madness: On Lowell's 'Skunk Hour'"; he stumbles blindly through the Lowell poem, bumping into symbols and themes as he goes, explicating nothing.
Turning to the other side of the ledger, Berryman's gifts as a critic are best displayed in his commentaries on Shakespeare, Isaac Babel, and a number of American writers. Much of his strength lies in a combination of scholarly thoroughness, sensible, cant-free critical judgments, and an unusual catholicity of taste and mind. (pp. 709-10)
Although Berryman's observations about his own poetry are unilluminating, and even misleading, he has some discerning thoughts on his contemporaries. From the vantage point of the seventies, one can appreciate Berryman's astute complaints during the forties about the "Auden Climate," whose deadening effects he perceives in John Ciardi, Howard Nemerov, and others. In a more positive vein, we are astounded by his prescience in celebrating Henry Reed's newly published "Naming of Parts," destined to become one of the few post-war English poems that is widely read. (p. 710)
[The] tone of these essays, like most of the work in The Freedom of the Poet, is highly personalized—the loves and hates are set forth emphatically. Thus, Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" emerges as a "short, almost desperate and beautiful story," while Ring Lardner's stories "convey a perpetual effect of going behind an appearance—perpetual, and cheap, because the appearance is not one that could have taken in an experienced man for five minutes: the revelation is to boobs." In fact, one senses that The Freedom of the Poet is constantly striving toward the status of art, embodying not only a distinctive voice (one is tempted to say a speaker or persona) but also flourishing the kind of prose that recalls Berryman's verse. As he cultivated a repertoire of poetic styles (flat and conversational, surreal, allusive and symbolic), here he shifts restlessly from the colloquial to the meditative to the lyrical. (pp. 710-11)
Surveying his own critical accomplishment just before his death, Berryman exulted, "Hurrah for me: my prose collection is going to be a beauty." If The Freedom of the Poet has more blemishes than Berryman realized, it nevertheless comes to us at a time when works of literary criticism, whether handsome or homely, are one of the more endangered species in the publishing world. The author has earned his hurrah. (p. 711)
Robert F. Moss, "Berryman's Last Hurrah," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1976, by Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 52, No. 4 (Autumn, 1976), pp. 707-11.
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I think what strikes any reader of Berryman is how very self-conscious an artist he is: he practices a self-conscious craft, he achieves a self-conscious and deliberate range, he is almost arrogantly self-conscious in his use of the personal. He knows precisely what he wants to accomplish and how to accomplish it. He also knows how very much of his material has to be shaped by the dark turbulence of the human psyche…. Out of the insecurities and disorders and disasters of his life, he constructs with mathematical care what may be the most mature poetry of the twentieth century. (pp. xi-xii)
Berryman, who was in love with form, recognized early on that form gains in power as it is tested. Form, order, harmony—the cohering principles—are attractive but in their purest states not necessarily characteristic of high art. The totally harmonious work, pleasant enough, can be and frequently is dull. On the other hand, out of the conflict between form and formlessness, order and disorder, harmony and the inharmonious can come work of extraordinary intensity…. [Study] taught him that the most effective forms are those that can be forced into flexibility, forms with perimeters elastic enough to provide maximum "stretch," maximum tension.
The job of the artist is to cram into such forms accurate representations of feeling. Under pressure, his works will seem almost—but not quite—to explode. The explosion, when it takes place, is within the consciousness of the audience. (p. xii)
Berryman tackles all the big subjects: the big emotions (love, friendship, hatred, fear, passion, anger), the big intellectual concerns (politics, race relations, the value of history, the nature of art), the big spiritual questions (the 'reality' of a God, the significance of good and evil, the function of sin and redemption). (p. xv)
Berryman inhabits his characters and—much more important—so do we. Precisely because they are so full of private stuff, they remind us of ourselves. Because Berryman accepts his own stubborn self and uses it, Berryman forces us to participate in and to share that self.
In recognizing this paradox—that the unique individual is in fact everyman—Berryman is freed to take liberties that in lesser writers lead to pointlessly 'confessional' writing. But confession—'exposure'—is the last thing Berryman is interested in. Truth, on the other hand, is something that means a great deal to him. By turning the events of his life into significant fictions—by being both himself and his 'other'—he is able to let us also discover truth, not truth about Berryman but truth—to hover on the edge of a dangerous phrase—about our own being and about the nature of being itself. (p. xix)
The Berryman selections [in Five Young American Poets (1940) are] ominous, flat, social, indistinctly allusive, exhausted…. [The twenty poems] give clear evidence of his literary debts (the collection is an echo chamber) as well as of his slavish adherence to conventional forms. A typical Berryman poem of the period organizes itself into stanzas, often of eight or nine lines, with a carefully worked out rhyme scheme. There is a pervasive, generally stultifying reliance on iambic pentameter; some of the work seems to have been composed by a well-programmed computer with Weltschmerz. The speaker, typically, is seated in a room at dusk, alone in thought, brooding about the dangerous reality beyond his walls, all the while making disturbing connections between this public world, with its nightmarish history and uncertain future, and his own private world, haunted by fears and spectres. Certain images appear over and over, invariably related to disease, darkness, fear, exhaustion, inaction, sleeplessness. (p. 25)
"Winter Landscape," the best known of the works in this selection, provides good examples of both the virtues and shortcomings of Berryman's early voice. A commentary on Peter Brueghel's "Hunters in the Snow," it is tightly organized into five-line stanzas, all in regular iambic pentameter, with two seemingly random rhymes. It is actually in blank verse, with stanza breaks serving to reinforce the impression of parts making up a whole, appropriate in a poem modelled on a painting. Since the poem is composed in one flowing sentence (a colon near the middle separates the details of presentation from the philosophical speculations that emerge), one reads the lines as one might look at the painting, the eye moving rapidly from detail to detail and not coming to a complete rest until the composition has been seen in its entirety.
Although its general intentions are admirable (Berryman was responding to Yeats' seductive rhetoric and to the hysterical political atmosphere of the period) the work is flawed by a ponderous, sententious tone….
The pamphlet [Poems (1942)] as a whole, which is very curious, serves to illustrate both the ways in which Berryman's poetry at this stage of his career is utterly unexceptional and the kinds of inhibitions he had to break through to discover an original style. Poems has practically no voice at all; it could have been written by any one of a score of post-Yeats-Eliot-Auden writers confronting the political realities of 1939. The reason for this absence of a unique presence, of a special language, is that the poet, dealing with ideas and politics, almost wholly ignores his feelings. (p. 29)
Certain characteristics that dominate the work help account for its sterility. One is the introduction of topical events that assumes a conditioned response from the politically sympathetic reader…. Another, borrowed from Yeats ("Did she put on his knowledge with his power / Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?") is the significant unanswered question that has as its principal function the resurrection of sagging lines….
Another verbal mannerism, learned from Auden, is the capitalized abstraction: "Our Man of Fear," "the God Exaggeration," "The Hero." There are phrases throughout the book which, if not quite clichés, are flat, tired, ordinary. (p. 30)
[One] gets the impression of a sensibility that is blocked off from a sense of its personal needs, that speaks instead for a generation. For all his references to heartbreak, fear, sorrow, and hate the poem's speaker appears to be far more aware of civic woe than of his own. It is hard to believe that this voice would modulate into that of Henry Pussycat, a creature for whom nothing in the world is more important, newsworthy, or in an odd way, universal than his own private sorrows. Poetry of feeling, of course, is not necessarily more powerful than poetry of social awareness, but it is clearly more compatible with Berryman's gifts. It took him a great many years to realize this. He was in his early work as thoroughly the product of the Age of Anxiety as he was later on the product, and victim, of the Age of Catharsis. (pp. 31-2)
The sense of hopelessness about the state of the world comes through unambiguously in poem after poem [in The Dispossessed]. (p. 32)
Images of night run persistently through this gloomy book, and relate to the brooding sensibility at its center. He associates sunlight and daytime with art, the spirit, and the intellect. Night and darkness are related to the disturbances of man, be they political or sensual (though at this point in Berryman's work the senses are still in harness). And there are so many occasions of night falling or of a night wind rising that these devices finally function as a sort of deus ex nocturna, a way of giving resonance and mystery to lines that otherwise might remain coldly intellectual…. (p. 33)
In addition to sharing repeated, ritualistic, lighting and sound effects, the lines are also indistinguishable rhythmically; any one stanza could be substituted for any other without causing the slightest structural disruption. This is revealing, since it points up just how conventional Berryman's rhythms are at this point, and since rhythm, more than anything else, is what distinguishes one poet from another, just how conventional a poet he was…. Nevertheless, the book is technically interesting and even shows flashes of originality. This is because of Berryman's versatility in the use of stanzaic patterns and because of his extraordinarily skillful use of complex rhyme schemes, many of which employ approximate rhymes to good effect. (p. 34)
Berryman at this stage was most comfortable … with the Yeatsian eight-line stanza…. This stanza, like the octave of a sonnet, affords both rigorous formal constraints and room for considerable flexibility, permitting the technically facile craftsman to create the illusion of freedom within a rigorously circumscribed space…. [It] is understandable that he chose it for Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. The work of The Dispossessed, moreover, looks ahead even further in time: the nine "Nervous Songs" (inevitably, for one especially responsive to the later Berryman, the most successful section of the book) introduce for the first time the extended sonnet that was to become the vehicle of the Songs, the eighteen-line lyric composed of three self-contained but fluid six-line stanzas. (pp. 34-5)
Reading straight through The Dispossessed one moves suddenly from language that is lucid, uncluttered, rather fluid, into passages that are clogged, wrenched, often tortured—a dizzying leap from diction that resembles sometimes Yeats and sometimes Auden to that suggesting, more than anyone else, Hopkins. The difference is largely one of compression (again looking toward Mistress Bradstreet), which, coupled with a jagged cacophony, sometimes makes for difficulties of interpretation. A few of the poems, notably "The Long Home" and "Narcissus Moving," are incomprehensible, largely because Berryman has not yet honed the complex new language to his purposes. Others ("A Winter-Piece" and "The Dispossessed" for example) are uneven, the shifting language occasionally working brilliantly, sometimes remaining private and unduly obscure. Since these strange poems help prepare the way for the later sequences, one welcomes them. Their value, however, is historical rather than aesthetic. (pp. 35-6)
Whatever their relative merit, [the poems of the second section of The Dispossessed] are important poems in the early Berryman canon; they represent a breakthrough of the most crucial sort, involving a willingness to let the senses play some part in his life as a poet. (p. 41)
[In the three love poems of Section IV of The Dispossed] Berryman demonstrates absolute control of terza rima, transcending its technical restrictions to create an effect that is fluid and open. The tone is consistently affectionate without ever lapsing into sentimentality, and the diction is sharp, interestingly quirky rather than strained. The image patterns of light and darkness, heat and cold, storm and quiet, and of "new musics," are elegantly worked out and coalesce in a way that is engagingly solemn and luminously clear. (p. 43)
[In addition to the love poems] the other major achievement of The Dispossessed [is] the sequence of nervous songs [in which] Berryman for the first time adopts the dramatic mode. The nine soliloquies are spoken by an odd collection of men and women who seem on the surface to have little in common but who are actually variations on a single type. They are solitary figures, and all are slightly (or not so slightly) neurotic, agitated, living on the edge of breakdown, confused, tormented, obsessed. Their songs are "nervous" in that they express emotional tension, restlessness, agitation—a disordered state of the nerves…. Though some are more effective than others, the nine poems stand as a compelling series of psychological studies. In its form, the three six-line stanzas with flexible rhyme schemes, and in its mood of intense auto-revelation, the sequence is an important forerunner of The Dream Songs. (p. 45)
The 115 poems [in Berryman's Sonnets, published in 1967, twenty years after they were composed] are the record of a story "Knock-down-drag-out love," and as such they represent, in their confessional intensity and personal imagery, a major departure from the work of The Dispossessed. (pp. 51-2)
Since the sonnets contain patterns of recurring imagery, themes, characters, and settings, there is a temptation to find in the sequence a carefully worked out organizational plan. Any such strategy, however, would be in the mind of the reader rather than of the poet. The poems are diary entries (and love letters) chronicling events and emotions over which the poet has little control. They chart a love affair over a period of several months, and as such the highs and lows are determined by the course of the relationship rather than by the exigencies of literary form. There is a gently unobtrusive temporal framework, worth noticing but not, ultimately, terribly important. (p. 62)
Since the poems were, apparently, written in the order in which they appear, there are occasionally illuminating transitions and continuations, as one sonnet picks up an image, or carries forward a dialogue, or suggests a response to the poem that precedes it. (pp. 63-4)
The final four poems also form a small, unified section, serving, after the erotic intensities that make up most of the book, to bring the sequence to a gentle conclusion…. At the end of number 115 we see that the experience of the liaison is the source of creative energy, more important to the poet, perhaps, than is the relationship itself…. (pp. 64-5)
[The sequence] is important in the development of Berryman's craft because for the first time, in any really substantial way, he drops the mask of neutral objectivity, abandons the cool, slightly exhausted and more than slightly derivative voice, and emerges as a unique man who records his own sensibility in a voice that, at least in the strongest, truest sonnets, is recognizably his own…. It is the experiments with colloquial language, slangy, often inelegant, hot off the heart, going directly to a feeling without attempting to sublime it into formal art, that give this book of utterly conventional structures its unconventional power and importance. (pp. 65-6)
The seeds of the so-called confessional mode can clearly be discovered in [the sonnets]. Much of their quirky strength and odd appeal derive from the sort of vulnerability that makes it necessary for their creator to play games with himself, to adopt masks as a way of separating himself … from some of his darker, perhaps even weaker, personal qualities, though these are invariably revealed…. (p. 67)
So the voices—the formal and the vernacular—alternate, respond to each other [in the Sonnets] together suggesting the nature of the speaker in ways neither could do by itself. The careful, stately lines, grievous and sublime, would be impressive but ultimately dull without the nervous interruptions of the Groucho mode—the puns, bawdy jokes, word play, self-deflating epithets, outlandish diction, personal anecdotes. If the sequence suffers from this slightly schizophrenic behavior it is not because the voices interrupt each other too often, but because they do not do so often enough. The Dream Songs is an eccentric masterpiece precisely because the vernacular mode is given full play, the exuberant persona permitted totally to crowd out the more conventional aspects of his sensibility when there are reasons for this to happen. In the Sonnets the disreputable side of the lover is still held in check; it threatens on occasion to burst forth in all its inventive vitality, but Berryman was not yet quite prepared to run the risks of such public behavior. (p. 68)
His beautiful tribute [Homage to Mistress Bradstreet], long in the making (he accumulated details for nearly five years), was the result of a total immersion in the work of the Puritan poet [Anne Bradstreet] and of the history of Colonial America. It has about it, as a result, an authority and a degree of erudition that both attracted and puzzled readers at its first appearance in Partisan Review in 1953…. The poem was published without notes and with no introductory apparatus, and as a result the demands it made were very rigorous indeed. (p. 69)
With the publication of this book [Berryman] suddenly and spectacularly emerged as a major figure in contemporary letters. (p. 70)
The poem's stanza is composed of eight highly compressed lines filled with jagged rhythms, puns, repeated words, assonance, allusions, rhetorical climaxes, rhymes, and slant rhymes. The rhythms and the rhyme schemes vary subtly from stanza to stanza, but all the stanzas, or virtually all, share certain characteristics. In all but two (and in these the absence of closure is significant) the first and final lines rhyme, thus giving each small unit, even those eleven without end punctuation, a sense of self-containment. The first and last lines of the final stanza end with the word "loves," the repetition producing a sense of resolution even firmer than that created by rhyme. Each stanza is thus a small push forward, the momentum slowed briefly before the insistent advance begins again.
This overall sense of acceleration and retardation is reinforced by the measure of the individual lines and by frequent punctuation. In each stanza the first two lines, often fairly regular iambic but in any case containing five strong stresses, give way to the shorter third line, made up of three stresses, so that the initial motion is brought to a semi-halt. The momentum then increases gradually in the fourth line, of four stresses, accelerates in the fifth and sixth, which have five stresses each, and is then again balked in the short seventh line, an echo of the third, with three stresses, often in as few as four words. The conclusion then resolves the sense of flow and stasis with a long line, six stresses, that moves slowly and deliberately, resembling nothing so much as an alexandrine, toward the final word, with its small resolution. What Berryman was seeking in this stanza was "something at once flexible and grave, intense and quiet, able to deal with matter both high and low." (pp. 71-2)
The measured, tentative quality of the language is suited to the drama it records, a dialogue taking place, out of time and out of space, between two poets, one living, the other, summoned from the past, shimmering for an intense duet and then disappearing…. The work is a variation on and at the same time a reversal of the sonnets, the one of celebration of art, of the power of the imagination to transcend the limitations of the flesh, the other a celebration, one meant to be private, of a physical relationship that could never achieve public sanction. The works are essentially products of the two Berrymans, the man and the artist; some of the intensities of his "respectable" seduction of the spirit of Anne Bradstreet derive from the experience, which he was unable to reveal explicitly, of his adulterous affair with Lise [the persona's love interest in the Sonnets]. (pp. 72-3)
The poem's final four stanzas make up a coda, or peroration, in which Berryman's voice reappears, bringing several of the work's images together in a beautifully cadenced conclusion.
The first four stanzas describe a resurrection, the final four a burial, and these related sections, narrated with high seriousness by a deeply moved poet, comprise an elegant frame for the poem. This pairing of parts is repeated in the long second and fourth sections, the halves of Bradstreet's monologue, which are separated by the passionate dialogue of section three. Thus the work as a whole is in the shape of an arch, the line of descent reversing the line of ascent (Berryman, Bradstreet, dialogue, Bradstreet, Berryman), giving the poem an overall form and sense of closure that help account for its aesthetic power. Were the two Bradstreet sections of equal length the sense of classical harmony would be even more pronounced, though it is right that the second monologue, concerned with decay and dissolution, should be shorter in duration than the first one, which creates a sense of the new world settled by the pilgrims. (pp. 73-4)
[Berryman] is clearly more interested in [Anne Bradstreet's] rebellion than in her extraordinarily dull work; she manifested in her life the sort of tough-minded independence that she never achieved in her poetry. He has shown her in a series of defiant moments, rebelling against youthful virtue, the new environment, an arranged marriage, her barrenness, her confinement to household duties, a life of illness and loss, and against God's will. The submission, or capitulation, that follows each of these brave moments establishes one of the basic rhythms of the poem, that is, a sequence of alternating assertions and defeats. (p. 81)
What is most impressive is the way he manages to create, out of shards, borrowed images, Hopkinsesque rhythms, and his own imagination, a language that so effectively evokes the atmosphere—social, religious, political—of her era…. [As Hyatt Waggoner says in American Poets from the Puritans to the Present] "In Berryman's poem we get the existential life that is generally buried under the theology and borrowed imagery of Mrs. Bradstreet's own verse writing." (p. 82)
The 77 Dream Songs, published in 1964, were written before nearly all of the songs that appeared four years later in His Toy, His Dream, His Rest; some of the later work, in fact, comments on responses to the earlier book. The poems, however, are not for the most part placed in the order in which they were composed, nor are they organized around any clearly delimited period of time, such as a year in Berryman's life…. [Although] we know that Berryman wrote songs for eleven years we do not know how much "internal" time elapses between the first section and the last, nor is the question either very important or very interesting. (p. 87)
Each [section] suggests in microcosm the overall pattern of the work as a whole, moving from a prying open to a resolution, from imagery of arrival and spring to that of departure and autumn. Each ends with a sense of summing up, a moment of stasis, and it is this stasis, or suspension of process, that the beginning of each section disrupts in images of renewal. To be specific, section one, which begins with images of the sea (invariably associated with Berryman's parents), of an oyster (or coffin, or patient) "pried open," and of a bird in a sycamore, closes twenty-five poems later with a song that reintroduces the singing bird motif ("The glories of the world struck me, made me aria, once") and that then suggests, symbolically, an end of singing: "—I had a most marvellous piece of luck. I died." If the work is to continue there clearly must be some sort of resurrection or rebirth. The opening poem of the second section satisfies this necessity, bringing the work back to life with the lush line, "The greens of the Ganges delta foliate." "Green" appears in each of the three stanzas, accounting for the poem's vitality. To leave no doubt, moreover, about whether the sequence has been resurrected, the song ends "while good Spring / returns with a dance and a sigh." The new section, despite its promising beginning, is filled with images of loss and death, and by its final poem the dance of Spring has given way to "dwarfs' dead times" and to seas that, far from being fructuous and life-giving, are "remorseless." (pp. 87-8)
The final poem of 77 Dream Songs (and thus of section three), though set "in a world of Fall," actually sounds like an opening song, and with good reason, since too strong a sense of closure at this point would block the poet's (and Henry's) options. And so Berryman indicates, in assertive images, that though this book is finished there is more to come…. He is barely getting started, a fact borne out by the publication, four years later, of His Toy, His Dream, His Rest.
Section four, the "Op. Posth." poems that introduce the new volume, continues this reversal of the ascent-descent scheme, its opening song, number 78, dealing not with renewal and spring but with physical and mental diminution, with castration and decay…. (pp. 89-9)
[Book five] documents a symbolic faring forth or resurrection—Henry, suffocating in his hospital room, yearning for oblivion, and still as his cadaver, nevertheless "waking to march." A new series is thus initiated. The book ends fifty-three songs later with a suicide. It is not Henry who seeks the grave this time, however, but his father…. The song ends, like section three, with the assurance of more to come, but the detailed images of the successful suicide create a strong sense of finality. The placement of these opening and closing songs is always anything but arbitrary. (pp. 89-90)
The book ends, in the fall, with references to Henry's house and to the sea (bringing the work full cycle), and with the beautifully resonant final words, "my heavy daughter."… [It] is not possible to imagine a reopening of the Songs after number 385, so absolute is the sense of closure.
[Henry] has suffered an "irreversible loss," we learn in the note to His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, and though we never find out exactly what this is, the evidence suggests that it is related to his father's suicide, the loss that "wiped out" his childhood and filled his adult life with dread and rage. Henry himself is suicidal, often so anxious and depressed that he can barely make through the night. (p. 93)
Confronted with such loathing and suicidal despair, noteworthy even in a generation of depressives, it is possible to overlook the somewhat gentler sides of things. If one of Berryman's sources is Rilke, the great poet of death, he was also deeply affected by "Song of Myself," that great poem of life. Henry is a complex sensibility who at odd moments even sees himself as gentle, friendly, savage & thoughtful, happy & idle, imperishable…. His highs, like his lows, are extreme, not surprising in a performer addicted to self-dramatization, and, like all theatrical personalities, given to bursts of melodrama, hyperbole, and uninhibited self-revelation. He is, moreover, addicted to autotherapy, and the songs represent, as much as anything else, attempts to get his dreams, memories, and fears out in the open as a means of coming to grips with them, of escaping their tyranny. (I say Henry and mean Berryman. I think that anyone who reads the songs carefully will reject the assertion that they are about an imaginary character—some details, of course, are invented, but the sequence adheres closely to the facts of the poet's life and mind.) … [Many] of these songs, in their wit and high spirits, ward off the horror that is their source. (pp. 94-5)
The reader, willing or not, becomes a participant in [a] therapeutic process, sitting as silent auditor and monitoring the material in an effort to discover and understand its mysteries and patterns…. [The reader] may discover what it feels like to be Henry, how it feels, literally, to want to jump out of one's skin. It is because such a reader, secure in the quiet of his home, can get outside Henry by an act of spiritual migration (rather than by leaping from a bridge) that this dangerous book is ultimately liberating and even protective. Our lives are all potentially disastrous, and artists like Berryman and Lowell who live perilously close to the abyss make it possible for us to journey over threatening terrain, to experience its terror, and to return intact. Literature does not tell us anything; it permits us to participate in a life, to share an angle of vision, and often to make some crucial personal discoveries. In courting certain kinds of disaster, Henry spares us the necessity of doing so for ourselves, overpowering as the attractions sometimes are. (pp. 95-6)
A charge frequently levelled at Berryman is that many of his songs are … impenetrable, so that even the most rigorous analysis fails to yield up their secrets…. A poem is not a puzzle to be solved, and in any case no amount of footnoting or explication will communicate the power of an intricate song if one is not attentive, first of all, to its sound and shape. There are indeed many passages in Berryman (as there are in Pound and Joyce) that remain baffling, and perhaps impenetrable, even after numerous readings, but if one is responsive to the general spirit of Henry's language and if one listens attentively to the music these should not finally undermine significantly the delight to be derived from the work. (p. 96)
When Berryman errs on the side of easy generalizations his work invariably goes flat. He is much more effective when he requires his reader to be an imaginative collaborator, when he provides provocative hints and clues rather than bald declarations.
The extraordinary technical dexterity demonstrated over and over in the more successful songs reveals just how gifted and versatile a craftsman Berryman was. In moving from the sonnets to Homage to Mistress Bradstreet he had shifted from one rigidly inhibiting form to another…. For the dream songs he created a form which, while also quite regular (so that any variations are highlighted), permits even more flexibility, more of the sort of raffishness that he could never resist.
Resembling extended sonnets, the songs are composed of three sections of six lines each, the stanzas separated by white space. There are, within this regular pattern, endless possibilities for variation, and since Berryman has chosen not to close off his options (songs about dreams should, after all, have at least some of the freedom of dreams), virtually any assertion about formal characteristics can be challenged…. While the eighteen-line pattern is plainly the standard on which all structural variations are played, the norm for the work's measure, line by line, is more difficult to determine, the variety being greater, the repeated patterns less predictable. More often than not, however, the words fall into iambs, hundreds of lines being as regular as anything in Frost or Yeats…. (pp. 106-07)
What is especially absorbing about [Song 224, "Eighty," for example], and what accounts for its beauty, is the series of elegant variations wrought within the regular framework. (p. 109)
If [Song 224] is quite representative of Berryman's rhythmical strategies, it is, in its elaborate formal organization, rather atypical, most of the poems giving the impression (though it is often just that) of a movement more spontaneous, more dreamlike, less deliberately plotted. (p. 111)
The flaws in the songs generally result either from a dormant imagination (so that the language sounds tired rather than newly minted) or from a reaching for an effect that doesn't quite come off…. [It] is not surprising to find in a work of nearly four hundred pages some lapses in intensity and invention. Particularly in the sequence in which Delmore Schwartz is eulogized inspiration seems to fail, and this suggests that Berryman was able to deal more eloquently with general sorrow, especially involving himself, than with a specific loss. The tone tends to be flat and petulant rather than deeply felt…. (p. 117)
Since the seven books that make up the work are at best occasionally flawed and at worst extremely uneven, every reader is likely to become his or her own godlike editor, identifying those songs that should definitely be included in a slimmed-down version of the book. My own view is that a rather large number, particularly in Books V and VI, perhaps as many as fifty in all, could be dropped without any great loss to the overall work. The Dream Songs gets off to a stunning beginning, the first fifty songs being, line by line, richer, denser, and more complex than any other comparable section. Books III and IV, if not so consistently brilliant as the first two, maintain a high level. The fifth book, with some notable exceptions, shows a marked falling off. Things improve in VI, the longest of the sections, which contains a large number of superb pages as well as many that are relatively flat and loose, the density of imagery in the early sections replaced by an easier prosiness. Book VII is the most unified, the most novelistic, and in many ways, especially in its combination of lucidity and eloquence, the strongest of the sections. It completes the poem in a fashion worthy of its remarkable opening. (p. 118)
[Would not] deletions, however, interfere with the movement and thematic coherence of the individual sections, not to mention the organizational integrity of the work as a whole? I do not think so. Berryman did not have anyone to do for The Dream Songs what Pound did for (and to) The Waste Land, nor did he, like Whitman, continue to revise and edit his song of himself after its initial publication. (pp. 119-20)
It is not very surprising that [Love & Fame] was attacked and misunderstood. The first edition contains something to offend nearly everyone. The unprecedented exhibitionistic revelations of the first two sections, moreover, caused unsympathetic readers to overlook the later poems, which quietly but effectively undercut the hubris of the earlier parts. In the 7,000 lines of the Songs Berryman is able to say the most intimate and outrageous things. Since he is speaking through Henry, however, a reader, even if he makes little distinction between poet and persona, can attribute and especially shocking excesses to the imaginary character. (p. 151)
Whether the six poems [Berryman] deleted from the second edition are disgusting is a matter of taste, but that they are inferior to the other work in the book is indisputable. One is surprised not that they were deleted but that they were ever included in the first place. (p. 152)
The question of reinforced and undercut motifs is of particular importance in this book since the poems derive much of their point and all of their irony from a careful patterning of the sequence as a whole…. [The book] takes a dramatic turn at the beginning of section three, progressing from the poet's randy and confident young manhood to his depressed present, from ribald skirt-chasing and self-promotion to a humble series of prayers to God, who judges a man's merit not by his verses but by his virtue. (pp. 153-54)
With part three, however, we leave behind all the discoveries and pretensions, the hubris and awkwardness, the hope and energy. The poet now focuses exclusively on the present, and it is very grim indeed, any illusions of love and fame, as they exist in the earlier parts, disappearing completely…. [This] section, the richest and most moving of the four, has considerable thematic range, far more than any other. It is constructed as a descent into the dark night of the soul that is followed by a gradual recovery, or, to use a word that figures importantly in two of the later poems, by survival. (pp. 158-59)
Many of the poems [in Love & Fame], particularly in the first two parts, are prosy and free. One generally gets the sense of a voice talking naturally, informally, without embellishment, the phrases produced by the breath and by the details that make up the telling rather than by adherence to a rhythmical norm. (p. 168)
There are a few poems in the book that have fairly conventional rhythmical patterns—that is, they can be scanned—and these contrast dramatically with the work's more representative idiomatic passages. Some of the more regular poems are deceptive, seeming at first to strive for a sing-song regularity that doesn't quite fall into place, that sounds, in fact, more chaotic than harmonious. If the lines are read aloud several times, however, one begins to hear underlying rhythms which, anything but clumsy, are hauntingly beautiful. (pp. 168-69)
[However,] there are passages here and there in the book that are technically weak. These lapses are anything but unobtrusive, and yet they do not really account for the fact that Love & Fame has been almost universally reviled, regarded more often than not as a sequence of poetic mistakes that should never have been published. There are, I believe, two principal reasons for this low critical esteem. The work, first of all, unlike Mistress Bradstreet and The Dream Songs, is not a good seminar text, and a generation of teachers and critics responsive to the labyrinths of Nabokov, Robbe-Grillet, Pynchon, Lowell, Beckett, and others (including Berryman himself) find little here to unravel or to illuminate. There are so few mysteries, metaphysical and stylistic (the most engaging problems, as I have suggested, are structural) that the most one can do by way of explication in many cases is simply read a poem out loud. What is one to demonstrate, after all, about lines, however crafty, that sound so much like unembellished prose? Finding themselves with virtually nothing to say, critics have assumed that it is the poems themselves that lack inspiration.
The book has also been consistently misread, or worse, not read at all, by those who damn it most vigorously…. [If] a reader is so annoyed by the poet's supposed vanity that he fails to notice that love and fame finally sink to nothingness, then the capacity for misinterpretation is virtually limitless. (p. 170)
I regard Love & Fame as a finer book, by a good deal, than Delusions, Etc. It is not, however, either so brilliant or so startlingly eccentric as Mistress Bradstreet or The Dream Songs. There is, nevertheless, after the intricacies of these two superb sequences, much that can be said for a work that strives for direct, unambiguous communication, and that more often than not achieves its goal. Lacking this vulnerable book, whatever its shortcomings, the Berryman canon would be noticeably slighter. (pp. 171-72)
The poems in Delusions, Etc., already in proof at the time of Berryman's death, were all composed during his final months, and as such this volume represents the real culmination of the poetic journey that took him from the restrained elegance of the early lyrics through the mannered confessions of the sonnets, to the compressed intensity of Anne Bradstreet, the eccentric drama of the dream songs, the lucid revelations of Love & Fame, and finally to these nervous, obscure religious musings.
The "Etc." of the title is deceptive, a casual gesture that suggests an informality that is utterly at odds with the puzzlingly dense character of the book. And what, after all, does "et cetera" encompass—fears? suspicions? guilt? renunciations? We never quite find out, for the title serves as an earnest of other obscurities to follow. What we do know is that like the latter Songs and like Love & Fame, this "final" book has as its central concerns questions of belief and doubt, reinforcing the view that the later Berryman is a religious poet par excellence, a man engaged in a strenuous, nearly obsessive dialogue with his God. (p. 174)
The book is divided into five sections, the first and last bearing directly on the poet's relationship with his God. Part one, "Opus Dei," opens with an epigraph on which variations are played throughout the book: "And he did evil, because he prepared not his heart to seek the Lord." This opening sequence of eleven poems is structured around the canonical hours, not, the poet tells us, through one day, but over many weeks. They reveal the poet at his prayers…. These lyrics are expressions of fear, shame, and suspicion. They communicate the poet's ambivalent yearnings in a language that is clotted and obscure, one that lacks completely the vernacular ingeniousness of Love & Fame. The transition from book to book could hardly be greater….
The book's final section also consists of eleven poems, again all centered on the poet's relationship with his God, as indicated by such titles as "Somber Prayer," "A Usual Prayer," "The Prayer of the Middle-Aged Man." This series resembles canonical hours without any sequential pattern. The last two poems bring the section, and the book, to a rousing conclusion. In "The Facts & Issues" the poet experiences a profound sense of God's presence, but expresses, nevertheless, a feeling of intense self-loathing, concluding on a note of despair that is suicidal…. (p. 175)
[It] is clear that Henry's voice is far better suited to the expression of fears and struggles than is the more impersonal, less consistent mode that dominates most of this final collection.
The five sections, then, with their forty-three poems written in a variety of forms, in a number of voices, about a number of subjects, comprise a curious heterogeneous collection, a gathering together of random pieces, a congeries of notes sent to the world from a soul in a state of extreme agitation, a state that precludes, more often than not, the kind of control required if desperate emotion is to be translated into art. Delusions, Etc. lacks the structural coherence that characterizes all of Berryman's other work—especially Love & Fame—and it is obvious that the collection was not subjected to the rigorous self-editing and pruning that help give the other works their shape. The book is, in all, an honorable failure, one that raises questions about whether Berryman could have continued to produce had he lived on—though it is altogether possible, each of his books being so remarkably different from the ones that preceded it, that he would have surprised us with a new approach.
One of the stylistic peculiarities that makes this book distinctive, setting it apart in particular from the direct, prosy locutions of Love & Fame, is an odd juxtaposition of formal, academic language (relating to canonical hours, Latin phrases, and astronomy, to give but three examples) with breezy colloquialisms usually associated with adolescence. (pp. 178-79)
This fusing of disparate modes, combining the bookish with the colloquial, is related to the juxtaposition of language that is odd and muddled with that characterized by luminous directness and simplicity. The most effective (and affecting) lines in the book are those few, clear and deeply felt, that float to the surface from a murk of clotted rhetoric:
I'm not a good man
I am ashamed
I've got to get as little as possible wrong.
I still feel rotten about myself
I have not done well
These spontaneous laments of a man in distress make much of the surrounding verbiage sound cluttered, cranked out by a nervous, tinkering imagination. Much of the book's complex religious poetry, in fact, seems to exist at several removes from the poet's deepest feelings, while the simpler statements emerge because of emotional necessity. After giving up Henry, Berryman was not able, consistently, to find a voice that would communicate, believably and consistently, his inner hell, his awful guilt, or his accidie, and the moments in Delusions, Etc. that are moving are those most reminiscent of the dream songs. Like so many of the extremist poets, as John Thompson writes [in "Last Testament," The New York Review of Books], "he found that on the far side of his breakthrough—or his breakdown—everything was flat. Henry, that blithe and desperate spirit, came no longer with his fractured dreamy songs, his soft-shoe shuffle, his baby-talk that frightened the grown-ups with its naked infantilism. Without him, the world was small and orderly like a room made of cement blocks."
The obvious contrasts in the work, between what is mannered and what is deeply felt, go far toward explaining the book's central problem. Berryman is primarily a poet of loss, and when he expresses his griefs, his guilt, his depressions, the language is credible, the poems affecting. In his noisy, disputatious poems, however, one senses that he protests too much, almost as if trying to convince himself, and his God, of his faith, both in individual prayers and in the placement of these prayers at the beginning and end of the book. As A. Alvarez observes, it is as though Berryman were attempting to defend himself against his own depression…. Alvarez (for whom the poet had great respect) holds the view that Berryman's was "a gift for grief," and that his masterpiece is the late Dream Songs [see CLC, Vol. 2], in which he mourns a generation of friends and artists, in the process mourning his own impending death. This tone is found in a few of the private poems in the final collection…. These intensely personal poems—"He Resigns," "No," "Henry by Night," "Henry's Understanding"—make up the radiant center of the book. Next to them the prayers seem strained and somewhat manic—again quoting Alvarez, "Berryman's religious verse seems like a willed, nervous defense against the appalling sadness which permeates the real poems at the heart of the book." (pp. 179-81)
[It is] somehow fitting that the other of his major posthumous books should be in prose, and that it should succeed where many of the final poems fail. Recovery, written during the same period as Delusions, Etc., recounts more memorably than do the poems some of Berryman's struggles, principally to regain the faith of his childhood and to shake his dependence on alcohol…. Rough and incomplete as it is, however, it is a strong and moving work, one of the most important things the poet did, both for its own intrinsic merit and for the light it throws on Berryman and on his poetry, particularly on The Dream Songs. (pp. 183-84)
Joel Conarroe, in his John Berryman: An Introduction to the Poetry (copyright © 1977 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1977.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 282
[The posthumous collection Henry's Fate] begins with 45 Dream Songs, not necessarily rejected by Berryman but uncollected; they followed on from His Toy, His Dream, His Rest in 1968 and were written "just out of habit", as he admitted. But a habit is not always a mere tic, a mannerism, and many of these are well worth having. They seem in fact to suffer less from mannerism (using the word now of style) than some of the earlier Songs; even allowing for the fact that familiarity has reduced the impression of obscurity in Berryman's work, his crabbed, knotted language and dislocated syntax are here less evident as a barrier to understanding…. Not all of these work; some are merely silly or self-obsessed. But there are some good pieces, including several on his tour of European cities ("my God what visible places".) Assuming that one can take the Dream Songs at all, with their first-person/third-person Henry and their relentless tricksiness, one can well take these.
The remainder of the book is in three sections: finished poems in forms other than that of the 18-line Dream Songs; a few fragments and unfinished poems (interesting to scholars and aficionados but not in themselves very satisfying); and finally a group of poems written at the end of the poet's life when he was once again receiving treatment for his alcoholism. These are agonised and agonising, full of pain; full also, inevitably, of self-pity. But why not? It was natural in the circumstances, and as it is an emotion to which so many of us are subject we may as well have it expressed for us in literature. (pp. 84-5)
Fleur Adcock, in Encounter (© 1978 by Encounter Ltd.), August, 1978.
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