John Berryman Berryman, John (Vol. 25) - Essay

John Allyn Smith


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Berryman 1914–1972

American poet, novelist, biographer, and editor.

Berryman was a key figure in the confessional mode of post-modern poetics. His work is characterized by convoluted syntax and interior, theatrical dialogue with imaginary personae through whom Berryman explores personal concerns and torments. The most significant of these concerns appear to be his father's suicide, self-condemnation based on his break with Catholicism, and an ongoing battle with alcohol. Berryman eventually took his own life.

Although opinion varies regarding the quality of his talent and the importance of his achievement, Berryman won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1965 for 77 Dream Songs and the 1969 National Book Award for His Toy, His Dream, His Rest. His ambiguous poetry presents a universally recognized challenge to literary critics and scholars. Dream Songs, a long personal epic consisting of several hundred lyrical poems, is considered his most significant work and continues to be the focus of the criticism written about him.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed. [obituary]; and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)

William Meredith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

77 Dream Songs is a fine and remarkable book of poems by any standards. (p. 27)

It is a book of powerful originality, almost of eccentricity, and it presents difficulties at first. In the remarks that follow I will try to point out what I think are its chief distinctions and delights, and also to suggest what may stand, temporarily, between these poems and a new reader…. Berryman has long been famous as a poet's poet, with the contradiction that that forlorn phrase carries. This book should make him famous with everyone who uses modern poetry at all.

Two statements by the author about the Dream Songs are suggestive of how the poems are meant to be taken. Reading some of them in public two years ago he said, and has since allowed to be printed: "The poem is about a man who is apparently named Henry, or says he is. He has a tendency to talk about himself in the third person. His last name is in doubt. It's given at one point as Henry House and at other points as Henry Pussy-cat. He has a friend, moreover, who addresses him regularly as Mr. Bones, or some variation on that. Some of the sections … are really dialogues." In the present book he adds: "These are sections, constituting one version, of a poem in progress…. Many opinions and errors in the Songs are to be referred not to the character Henry, still less to the author, but to the title of the work."

In both cases the poet speaks of the poems as a single work, in spite of the fact that the eighteen-line Songs are often self-contained lyrics. And by calling attention to the dubious identity of "a man apparently named Henry,"… Berryman suggests that the unity of the work lies in its being the dream-autobiography of the central character. Whether this character calls himself I or he, Henry or Mr. Bones, his identity doesn't change. What does shift, with dreamlike uncertainty, is the relationship of the dreamer to his dream self…. (pp. 27-8)

The discovery of Henry's whole identity, by him and by us, comprises the plot of the poem. It is a narrative poem and, as is true of a lot of literature, to discover its unity is to discover its meaning. (p. 28)

Henry gradually emerges … as a wholesome clean-cut American Proteus, a man with as many selves as our dreams confer. He commands the idiom, rhythm and experience of a jazzman, both old-style New Orleans and hipster-junkie. He is equally at home with—or, more exactly, he can adapt himself with alcohol or Eastern philosophy to—a meeting of the Modern Language Association…. He has read a lot more than I have and is more implicated in what he reads. He is generous, moral and manic, but also lecherous, alcoholic and...

(The entire section is 1125 words.)

Clive James

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If the contention is accepted that an excess of clarity is the only kind of difficulty a work of art should offer, John Berryman's Dream Songs … have been offering several kinds of unacceptable difficulty since they first began to appear. It was confusedly apparent in the first volume of the work, 77 Dream Songs, that several different personalities within the poet's single personality (one doesn't suggest his "real" personality, or at any rate one didn't suggest it at that stage) had been set talking to and of each other. These personalities, or let them be called characters, were given tones of voice, even separate voices with peculiar idioms. The interplays of voice and attitude were not easy to puzzle out, and many reviewers, according to Mr. Berryman and their own subsequent and sometimes abject admissions, made howlers. With this new volume of 308 more dream songs comes a rather impatient corrective from the author pointing out how simple it all is.

Well, the first book was not simple. It was difficult. In fact it was garbled, and the reviewers who said so and later took it back are foolish. His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, this new and longer book, is simpler, with many of the severally voiced conversational devices abandoned. Its difficulties are more of texture than of structure: the plan is less schematic but the indulgences are proportionately greater, eccentricity proliferating as the original intellectualized, constructional gimmicks fold up under the pressure of released expression. There are passages that are opaque and likely to remain so. Some of the language is contorted in a way designed to disguise the platitudinous as a toughly guarded verity. The range of reference is very wide (the Dream Songs, like dreams in sleep, draw freely and solidly on the cultural memory), but there are some references which go well beyond the legitimately omnivorous curiosity of the poetic intelligence and achieve impenetrable privacy through not being, like most of the rest, explained by their general context.

This last, the general context, is the true structure of Berryman's complete book of 385 individual, but not isolated, lyrics. It is not wise to contend that the ambitions of Structure (with a capital "S") can go hang, the individual lyrics being all that matters. In fact, the lyrics mostly explain each other's difficulties—sometimes across long distances—by tilting themes to a different angle, revisiting a location, repeating a cadence or redefining a point. It was Yeats's way and for that matter it was Petrarch's—the long poem as an arrangement of small ones. One proof that this is the operative structure in the Dream Songs is that the work feels more comfortable to read as one gets further into it. But if it is not wise to say that the structure is nothing and the individual lyric everything, it is still less wise to say that the work is unintelligible without a perception of its grand design. It is unlikely that a clear account of such a grand design will ever be forthcoming…. It will probably not be possible to chart the work's structure in the way that the Divine Comedy, for example, can be charted out in its themes, zones and stylistic areas. The development of the Dream Songs is much more a development by accretion: Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams are the two obvious models. An indication of this is the already mentioned fact that the multivoiced interplay of 77 Dream Songs is in these later ones not so much in evidence: as a device it has yielded to ideas more productive, especially to the unabashed elegiac strain, sonorous as lamenting bagpipes, which in many ways makes this new book a convocation of the literary ghosts. One feels at the end of this new volume that there is no reason, except for the necessary eventual loss of inspiration, why the work shouldn't go on literally for ever—just as the Cantos, whose material is undigested information (Berryman digests his), could obviously go on to fill a library. The work has no pre-set confining shape to round it out, and one doesn't see why the 385th song need absolutely be the last one—not in the way one sees that the last line of the Divine Comedy, for many previously established reasons, must bring the poem to an end.

In brief, with the Dream...

(The entire section is 1786 words.)

Robert Phillips

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand. / They are only meant to terrify & comfort," John Berryman wrote in his 366th Dream Song. And understood many have not been. Packed with private jokes, topical and literary allusions …, they boggle many minds…. The situation was considerably beclouded when, four years [after the first 77 Dream Songs were published in 1964,] Berryman dumped on the world a truckful of 308 additional Dream Songs, under the title His Toy, His Dream, His Rest.

This latter title could apply to all the Dream Songs. At once Berryman's plaything, hope for immortality, and major achievement, after which he could repose, the cycle consists of 385...

(The entire section is 2371 words.)

Arthur Oberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Dream Songs are distracting and distractions. They are His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, as Berryman indicates in the title of the second volume of poems which, together with 77 Dream Songs, form the long work. [In addition to refusing to yield what they are about, Berryman's poems] are distracting in other regards as well, especially in the insistence and self-consciousness from which they proceed. The 385 poems, or songs, draw attention to themselves in every possible way: by their sheer number, by their language, by their range in knowledge, thinking and feeling, and style. The poems build toward an elliptical long poem that seems unwilling to end…. Through the voices assumed in the poems,...

(The entire section is 3970 words.)

Carol Ames

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his uncompleted, posthumous novel, Recovery, John Berryman creates a remarkable tension between traditional form and experimentation. As in Action Painting, the content and the form of Recovery are united to present and embody the visions and revisions, the versions and reversions of a suicidal alcoholic struggling with his disease. Recovery shows that addition is a major impediment to art, because it infects both language and imagination. In the novel, Alan Severance feels that only the truth can heal, but he discovers that language lends itself less easily to truth, than to wit, metaphor, story, myth, evasion, and delusion. Unlike the poet, the alcoholic confuses the essential differences...

(The entire section is 675 words.)

Diane Ackerman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a natural way, John Berryman is oblique, private, elliptical. We seem to overhear him. Locked in a verbal spasm, he has trouble, often enough, in getting out or across, and an essential part of his performance is a rheumatism of the sensibility, in which the grammar is so knotted up that his poems evince the difficulty of getting them written at all. Beginning, he seems not quite to know what is nagging at him; finished, he has allowed into the poem various accidents, concomitants, and ricochets…. One of the most ego-ridden poets, he makes authoritative rhetoric out of the nervous tic, and an original voice as well. It is almost out of the question to confuse lines by Berryman with those of any other poet, though...

(The entire section is 1539 words.)

James E. Miller, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Berryman has said that it took him two years to get over the writing of his "Bradstreet" poem, first published in [1953]…. He began work (or planning), then,… and lived with the creation of The Dream Songs [some thirteen years]. (p. 246)

The mid-1950s, then, was a critical moment in Berryman's career. It was at this time that he made the decision to remake himself as a poet, to give over the Eliotic kind of impersonal or "made" poetry that he had previously written and to launch a personal epic with an open-ended structure in the Whitmanian (or "orbic-flex") manner and tradition. His enthusiastic 1957 essay on "Song of Myself," with its extravagant praise of Whitman, provides an indirect...

(The entire section is 1353 words.)