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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.)
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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 depressive. Three songs treat directly with insanity…. But through all the changes of his dreams the character and the voice remain so individual that you would no more mistake a song of Henry's, finally, than you would a meditation of Leopold Bloom's.
Henry's agonizing and beautiful energy is like that of Joyce's hero in another respect: it is profoundly, essentially humorous. The subconscious, which is chiefly what Ulysses and the Dream Songs record, knows no deliberate mode. It is not serious or joking, tragic or comic. It combines but doesn't rationally select, so that rational incongruity, a source of humor, is its habit…. (pp. 28-9)
Henry is an imaginary Negro … and the poems draw on the several levels of humor that we owe to the Negro. Some of it runs deep and bitter, as it does in the blues, where only language and rhythm remain playful and even the word-play bites…. (p. 29)
Some of Henry's dreams are monologues and dialogues in the dialect of Negro vaudeville, a double-edged joke where the Negro plays it both cunning and obsequious, like an Elizabethan Fool, to amuse both himself and his slower-witted master. But Henry, being only an imaginary Negro, speaks mostly in a black-face parody of this, the vaudeville dialect of The Two Black Crows and Stepin Fetchit—a speech that has a rich, shrewd, rather brutal history in our national humor. Berryman refers once … to Henry's "burnt-cork luck." The phrase could be applied to the success with which this dialect gets at the truth in a world where the Negro's situation is both a symptom and a metaphor of our failure. The world is acutely perceived, in all its wonderful incomprehensibility, in this dialect…. But against this perception is set the cliché of rational, white man's speech and the oversimplified, disastrous culture which that speech accommodates…. (p. 30)
But these Negro masks are only one of Henry's identities. It would be more accurate to describe the hero of this poem as an imaginary madman. He identifies himself easily and completely with every sort of person and situation, even some that are totally unsympathetic. He has the inability of the insane to distinguish between things that are merely alike, and it is this that charges his metaphors with so much force. They are no longer implied comparisons but terrible uncertainties of identity…. [Berryman often] holds to an insane accuracy of colloquial idiom and low image at moments when a sane man would be driven naturally to a more formal rhetoric…. (pp. 31-2)
Madman and black-face are real identities of the "man who is apparently named Henry," who is looking for wisdom and truth along with his identity. He insists on wording himself and his world exactly, as though the mystery might lie in words…. The poems seem to escape mannerism because Berryman never takes his eye off the scene, the event, the mood of Henry's dream. A grand style, or its parody, is frequently used…. As various as they are, we learn to recognize Henry's characteristic ways of wording himself and together they make a character. (p. 32)
77 Dream Songs seems to me to deserve [a place at the top of Berryman's accomplishments]. Moving forward with the intensity of vision that characterized Mistress Bradstreet and with the range of common experience of The Dispossessed, this work is free of the slight air of bookishness that hovered over Berryman's earlier work. (It is an air that hovers over all but the luckiest of modern poems.) The Dream Songs use a diction of their own, one that owes little to the familiar though flexible diction of current poetic practice. The language seems to spring naturally from the gusto (insane? holy?) with which Henry makes the human scene…. (p. 33)
William Meredith, "Henry Tasting All the Secret Bits of Life: Berryman's 'Dream Songs'," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature (© 1965, Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature), Vol. VI, No. 1, Winter-Spring, 1965, pp. 27-33.
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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 Songs Berryman has found a way of pouring in everything he knows while still being able to tackle his themes one, or a few, at a time. Attacking its own preliminary planning and reducing it to material, the progressive structure advances to fill the space available for it—a space whose extent the author cannot in the beginning accurately guess at but must continue with the poem in order to discern.
The Dream Songs are thus a modern work, a work in which it is possible for the reader to dislike poem after poem and idea after idea without imagining that what he likes could have come into existence without what he dislikes. (pp. 53-5)
[Dream Songs have] a structure, and will continue to have it even when the scholars say they do. That is the thing to remember, that and the fact that the structure is inside rather than overall. Especially when a long poem is such a present to the academics as this one is, the humane student is engaged in a fight for possession from the very outset: he needs to remember that to be simplistic is to lose the fight. He must admit complication—certainly here, for the Dream Songs are extremely complicated, having almost the complexity of memory itself. They depend on the perception that the mind is not a unity but a plurality, and by keeping the talk going between these mental components, by never (or not often) lapsing into a self-censoring monologue, they convey their special sense of form. It's even possible to say that the poorest sections of the work are the sections where the poet's sense of himself is projected into it as a pose—where an attitude is struck and remains unquestioned in a work of art whose unique quality is to question all attitudes through the critical recollection of their history and a sensitive awareness of all the clichés attendant on the concept of the creative personality. And the personality in play is, all along, the creative one: the central motive of the Dream Songs can be defined as an attempt by a poet to examine himself without lapsing into self-regard. (pp. 55-6)
[Obviously,] in what is mainly the story of a poet who is currently writing a poem which sounds remarkably like the one the reader is reading, the poet is the hero, a fact readily ascertainable from the amount of autobiographical material being used, some of which would be embarrassing if not rendered neutral by the poem's universalizing mechanisms, and some of which is not rendered neutral and consequently is embarrassing. The question is always being turned up, as the reader ploughs on, of whether the author knows that every so often a certain insensitivity, a certain easily recognizable "creative" belligerence, is getting through unqualified to the page. Here and only here is the central character "me" in the raw sense: in the refined sense the "me" is representative of all artists and hence of all men in their authentically productive moments. The embarrassments are probably best accepted as a contributory quality, a few turns of the stomach consequent upon the many thrills. The poem's devices of voicing are not meant to distance personality but to reveal it: the doubts begin when we suspect that attitudes are reaching us which the poet has not analysed, that he does not realize he is being revealing in a crude sense. But really there are bound to be these. The important thing to say here is that the personality in the poem, manifold, multiform and self-examining in an obsessive way, keeps all one's attention. The language never settles into anything less than readability, and even when the restlessness becomes a shaken glamour in which one can see little, it is evident that something is being worried at: we are not just being dazzled with an attempt to churn meaning into existence. There is not much fake significance, though quite a lot of blurred.
Thematically, these new songs are first of all a disorderly, desperate and besotted funeral for Berryman's literary heroes, who might be called, following the author's own terminology, the "lovely men." Of these, Delmore Schwartz is easily the star. His decline is convincingly (one hopes fairly) illustrated. There are sketches towards blaming this writer's collapse on society at large, but there is also a more powerful evocation of a sheer inability to cope…. In the new book the simple admiration for the masters continues, but in Schwartz's case (and to a lesser extent in Randall Jarrell's) it goes a long way beyond admiration, and a good deal deeper than craft, into a disturbed exploration of the artist's way of life in America now—and this concern again, through the internalizing way the poem has, is referred back to the condition of the poetnarrator, a condition of physical crack-up and a fearful but no longer postponable facing of the unpalatable truths. (pp. 56-7)
A lack of "good taste" is one of Berryman's strengths, in the sense that he can range anywhere for images without a notion of fitness barring his way. But positive bad taste is one of his weaknesses. His tough, anti-intellectual line on the American virtues can bore you in an instant by the insensitivity of delivery alone. There are moments when Berryman writing sounds a bit like John Wayne talking. For all his absorptive capacity for the fine details of life, Berryman's conception of America and of civilization itself seems cornily limited, and even the book's elegiac strain, its congested keening for the gifted dead, edges perilously close to an elementary romanticism whose informing assumption is the withdrawal of support by the gods. Waiting for the end, boys. But at their best the Dream Songs are a voice near your ear that you listen to, turn towards and find that you must turn again; a voice all around you, unpinnable to a specific body; your own voice, if you had lived as long and could write in so condensed a way; a voice not prepossessing, but vivid and somehow revivifying. (pp. 57-8)
Clive James, "On John Berryman's 'Dream Songs'" (originally published in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3513, June 26, 1969), in his First Reactions: Critical Essays, 1968–1979 (copyright © 1974, 1980 by Clive James; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; in Canada by Literistic, Ltd.), Knopf, 1980, pp. 53-8.
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"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 impossible dialogues by Berryman with his possible selves. Daydreaming and nightmaring on the printed page, Berryman broke from his earlier, academic, Audenesque verse into confessions of over-drinking, over-smoking, over-sexing, pill-popping, whathaveyou. That these poems are confessions is undeniable—though Berryman claimed they are about a character named Henry. (p. 92)
Of the two volumes, the second and fatter is the superior. For this reader, 77 Dream Songs, with its twisted syntax, Negro minstrel-show dialogue …, and the sheer sloppiness of its several sequences has not worn well…. His Toy, His Dream, His Rest is more coherent, and the minstrel friend is kept in the wings for most of the performance. Moreover, many of the second set of Dream Songs give off a great shimmer of beauty.
The difference is the difference in the poet at the time of composition. 77 Dream Songs seems the work of some randy contender, youthful despite his years. His Toy, His Dream, His Rest is mellow, sad, and at times maudlin. Death in the first book is discussed in detail only in several poems centering on Robert Frost … and in one brief stanza on his father's suicide. The second collection, on the other hand, is filled with accounts of friends' deaths and suicides, events which took their toll on Berryman's psyche…. These personal losses were experienced during a time of great public loss as well: John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner. Yet none of these personal or public deaths figure so importantly in the volume as the suicide of Berryman's father which is, in one sense, the sole subject of the latter collection.
What these losses did to Berryman the man can be deduced from the great number of poems on death or contemplated suicide…. Indeed the first fourteen Dream Songs of the second volume are designated as "op. post.," as if written after the fact of the poet's death. Only one Dream Song in all, number 259, seems directly counteractive and assertive of joy in life: "My desire for death was strong / but never strong enough. I thought: This is my chance, / I can bear it." That the desire for the grave became stronger and overcame the desire to accept the chance and bear up to life, was tragically made public on January 7, 1972, when spectators saw Berryman jump from a bridge onto the ice of the Mississippi River. (pp. 93-4)
[Though] both collections are confessional, the second is far more personal, bearing greater witness to Berryman's attempt to confront his past. (p. 94)
Berryman was a long time coming to a method which would allow him to expiate his guilt, to confront his demons if not exorcize them. His earliest verse was … elegant, his mentors Auden, Housman, Hopkins, and Yeats. Only when he wrote Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956), a long, intricate and anguished poem, did he break with literary tradition and find his own quirky style…. But using Mistress Bradstreet as self-spokesman was only partially satisfactory or satisfying, and it was through Berryman's later development of the personae of Berryman/Henry/Mr. Bones that the poet was able to let go.
And let go he did, for 385 Dream Songs' worth…. It is this third-person singular device which struck a necessary note of distance in the Dream Songs. Whereas Anne Sexton's best work is her most personal …, the reverse is true of Berryman. So long as Berryman does not wallow in the first-person singular, he is capable of striking, if not important, poetry; after the completion of the Dream Songs, unfortunately, he chose to do so…. His last works are his least. In them, something seems to have happened to the poet or the poet's method; the two books which came after The Dream Songs—Love & Fame and Delusions, Etc.—were derived from the same imagination and the same life, but the result was altogether different. (pp. 96-7)
[Love & Fame is] the most blatantly self-aggrandizing sequence of autobiographical poems…. [In it] Berryman clearly came to equate fame with money. The book also demonstrates that for him love had become equated with lust. It is this self-aggrandizement and lack of compassion which make Berryman's late confessions a series of false notes. Instead of confessing for therapeutic or purgative purposes, he appears to have done so to gratify his formidable ego…. Rather than displaying moral courage, these poems display instead immoral callowness. In place of love and fame, we have lust and notoriety.
These tendencies were present in The Dream Songs, of course, but were held in check by Berryman's use of the Henry persona. When in Love & Fame he abandons altogether the third-person singular fiction, he gifts us only with unprecedented breast-beating. The Dream Songs are motivated by the ego; Love & Fame is sheer vanity. Berryman tries to make himself egoistic, but in fact becomes egotistic—which is why his confessions seem false. (p. 97)
[Love & Fame reveals] much of what is wrong with bad confessional poetry, and can educate us to what makes a confessional poem go wrong. (p. 98)
Mr. Berryman, alas, was toting up his relative successes in the game of love and the game of fame. And about love Mr. Berryman seemed to know sadly little, though of lust he wrote a lot. The poems literally attest to his status as a "sexual athlete."… We would suggest that [his] catalog of sexual performances, without passion or personal commitment to other values than satisfying the itch, is indicative of the poet's total lack of commitment to other higher values as well.
About fame Mr. Berryman is equally boastful, and the matter-of-fact attitude toward celebrity found in Dream Song 133 … has vanished. (pp. 98-9)
Being famous, of course, provides opportunities for the poet to meet others famous. Berryman, I fear, is guilty of dropping names as readily as he says he drops his trousers, and always on a first-name basis so that the reader can see how very well he knows them…. The truth seems to be, Berryman is guilty of the sin of hubris, a sin which has been the downfall of greater men than he. Here he brags as much about his friendships as he does his money. Berryman's hubris is not a trait as in the Aristotelian hero's fall. The reader will neither thrill with horror nor melt with pity at what takes place. He might be a little disgusted though. (p. 99)
[Berryman also] writes about receiving "elephant checques" for his readings and books….
If the amount of money a poet makes seems a supremely trivial topic for poetry, it is absolutely Olympian when compared to some of Berryman's others. He writes of losing the vice-presidency of his class in school…. One poem is on getting a C in a course at Columbia…. These could be topics for poems, of course: ironic or spritely light verse by John Betjeman or deliberately deprecating and played-down lines by Philip Larkin. But in Berryman's heavy hands they are mawkish at best…. Is the poet guilty of overwriting or, worse, of failing to see through the personal experience to the poetic experience? This can be seen as a major fault of bad confessional poetry, and time and again Berryman seems unwilling to sacrifice the personal meaning to the poetic.
Berryman's questionable topics are at times elevated by superior poetics, as they indeed are in certain of the Dream Songs. But in fact his rhetoric and glib abbreviations and slang here help not at all. (p. 100)
Moreover, there seem to be no memorable images or metaphors in Love & Fame…. Weighing the six hundred pages of his last four books, Berryman might have done well to heed Ezra Pound's dictum: "It is better to present one image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works."
All that has gone wrong can be examined in the book's first poem, "Her & It." The "it" ultimately is fame, and how it gets in the way of the poet's recovering his past. But initially "it" is also the vagina of a girl the poet once knew; or, as Berryman indelicately puts it, "a gash." The poet in times past seems to have been in love with a disembodied female organ, if one trusts the poem. In stanza one he conjectures that this "gash" must now have "seven lousy children," though why the children should be lousy is not indicated. (pp. 100-01)
The second stanza is offensive for a different reason: the poet wishes the girl would now write to him…. The famous poet boasts about his correspondence…. Stanza three continues the hubris….
The fourth stanza contains the offensive description of Berryman's "elephant checques," plus the observation that his Dream Songs are selling well in Tokyo and Paris, and that his publishers are very friendly both in New York and London….
In the fifth stanza the poet compares his reputation to that of Saul (Bellow, of course, but with Poundian pride unidentified). Berryman further lets the reader know he himself was in Time magazine the year before…. (p. 101)
The poem concludes with the promising line, "She muttered something in my ear I've forgotten as we danced." Promising, because for the first time in a poem titled "Her & It" we finally have a portrayal of the "her" in a human (as opposed to dehumanized, disembodied, anatomical) way. The poem's missed potentialities are for a moving contrast between human relations when one is an unknown lover and when one is a famous poet. But all the bravura and insecurity of the narrator have stood between him and the unrealized poem.
Berryman in his last poems seems to have eschewed [syntactical and rhetorical synthesis completely]…. (p. 102)
Which is not to say the entire collection is ragged. Part four [of Love & Fame], subtitled "Eleven Addresses to the Lord," reveals (briefly) a Berryman capable of contemplation, reminding us of the religious poet of Dream Songs 194 and 234. It was a mode he was to continue in the first section of Delusions, Etc. as well. In these eleven short lyrics hubris is displaced by what would appear to be a genuine humility…. The self-aggrandizement gives way to a search for salvation. The poet here admits he does not know all the answers, but is willing to commend his spirit into the hands of the Lord, and "Whatever your end may be, accept my amazement." Berryman's choice of the word "amazement" is fresh and vital within this context, and the entire sequence possesses imagery and insight superior to the callow autobiography which precedes it…. (pp. 102-03)
Delusions, Etc., which, unlike the posthumous books of Sylvia Plath, was given order by the poet himself and seen in proof before he died, shows the extroverted poet to have assumed a new tone of humility in his final years. If Love & Fame was Berryman's loudest work, Delusions, Etc. is surely his quietest. The pathetic boasting and glory-seeking somehow segued into movements of melancholy and finally of cold despair. (p. 104)
The fame so touted in the former book is now seen, perhaps more realistically, as only "half-fame." The lust which has supplanted love is now replaced by tenderness for a wife and worship of God. Berryman was surely moving in these directions with the "Eleven Addresses to the Lord" which conclude Love & Fame. Beginning where that book left off, Delusions, Etc. opens with a group of eight meditations. But a return to Catholicism is not to save the poet, any more than a return to the origins of his boyhood and youth had done in the previous volume. All are, as the title testifies, delusions, etc. He is still sick in life and more than ever haunted by death…. Berryman seems more forgiving than before, now calling his father merely a man who was "not … very able." It is as though, in his own new-found humility, Berryman was finally able to forgive others. Even his suicidal father.
This humility is best expressed in the opening section, "Opus Dei."… (pp. 104-05)
The third section is a mixed bag of thirteen poems on various personal, theological, and historical topics. A fourth, arranged as a scherzo, briefly) reintroduces the figure of Henry (from The Dream Songs). Henry's randyness has turned to pure despair. "Henry By Night" depicts Berryman's insomnia, night sweats, and shakes, concluding, "Something's gotta give." "Henry's Understanding," a companion piece, presents the poet's certainty that some day he will take his own life…. (p. 105)
The fifth and final section, meditations and reflections, culminates in "The Facts & Issues," the true climax to the book and to Berryman's life ("Let this be it. I've had it. I can't wait"), though a short poem ("King David Dances") follows as a sort of coda. In David's dance before the Ark, as in Beethoven's death, Berryman perceives a joyful triumph after trial and adversity. In the Beethoven poem we find identification by the poet with the composer; let us hope that in his vision of the survival of art after the death of the maker ("You're all over my wall! / You march and chant around here! I hear your thighs") Berryman saw and believed in a probable parallel in his own life and work. Delusions, Etc. is not Berryman's best book. But it redeems his reputation, tarnished so badly by the offenses of Love & Fame. (pp. 105-06)
Robert Phillips, "Balling the Muse," in The North American Review (reprinted by permission from The North American Review; copyright © 1971 by the University of Northern Iowa), Vol. 257, No. 4, Winter, 1971–72 (and reprinted as "John Berryman's Literary Offenses," in his The Confessional Poets, Southern Illinois University Press, 1973, pp. 92-106).
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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 poet becomes his own public relations man, as well as a man at the mercy of the public relations of literary reputations. Berryman, who in life could manage a loud speaking voice, finds comparable pitch and volume in many of the dream poems. The poems display the paraphernalia of mikes, broadcasts, spotlights, gramophones, P.A. systems, televisions, radios, telephones, and box-office attractions. Repeatedly, Berryman's voices are scored for bravura and brass. (pp. 49-50)
As the dream songs alternate between manic and depressive maneuvers, perhaps a modern equivalent of Thomas Nashe's "queerly schizophrenic" style, Berryman complicates both extremes by similar, paradoxical impressions. (p. 53)
Berryman composes out of a love which never seems adequate to or in expression. At times, this love takes on the sexual-aesthetic dimensions of the work of Walt Whitman or Hart Crane. Significantly, these poets are among the artists most prominent throughout the dream songs.
"It's a matter of love." But Berryman uses every imaginable device to deflect that fact, however simpler the syntax of the later poems became. The poet gains distance by proceedings that assume the force of a method and a dialectic. The poems … insist upon coming to their world obliquely. The poet distances his material through the persona of Henry and, in turn, through Henry's ability to shift person and voice, face and style; through lending things the impersonality of anecdote and bad joke and tale; and through devoting whole poems or strategic portions of poems to forestalling criticism of The Dream Songs as a long poem.
Berryman also, ironically, achieves distance by "letting out" so much love that a reader or audience has no option at times but to seek invisibility. Pathetic, bathetic moments create their own spaces of reserve, whether or not the poet chooses to point the way back to feeling and however much or little he may feel called on to help. Sometimes, in the course of a poem, Berryman is able to move beyond a heart-rending plea for a "vision of friendlies" to discover a more acceptable and finally more moving lyricism…. At home or abroad, Berryman addresses what is a recurrent dilemma for him as a needy, wanting poet and man.
Berryman's deflection in the dream songs, then, is not what it might first seem. Evasive poetic ways never completely disguise feeling which the poet often gives the impression of trying to skirt. Attempts at evading feeling by using minstrel blackface and impersonal, slangy idioms work both ambiguously and not ambiguously at all: "—You is from hunger, Mr. Bones," Berryman writes in Dream Song no. 76. The very vulnerability and need, intended for denial, not only are admitted but underlined. Vaudeville turns, introduced to create distance, in part bridge that distance and even can conclude by becoming "hellish." Related to this method, Henry's tales, started about someone else, end by being about a first-person Henry: "So. / I am her."… (pp. 53-6)
The distinctiveness of The Dream Songs resides in how the crises in feeling recorded by the poet have to be dealt with, moment by moment, as artfully as the poet knows how…. The poems break off, resume, only to give way to the welling up of new feeling. Recurrently, emotion gives the impression of beginning in medias res…. (pp. 56-7)
"Need" and "love" are among the most insistent words and foci in The Dream Songs. They are as insistent as Lear's "no"s and "nothing"s, and as pathetic as some of the later moments in that play where "need" and "love" also figure so centrally…. Need and love extend beyond the particular contexts to assume dimensions which are archetypal. An urgency appears in these songs which the Short Poems and the Sonnets noticeably lacked. (pp. 57-8)
Considerations of love and need caused Berryman to raise questions that are at once abstract and intensely personal…. In the course of The Dream Songs, Berryman creates more complications about matters of need and love than he can ever begin to untangle. (pp. 58-9)
Berryman assigns to "the concept 'love'" … a weight and an intensity that are inordinate. Such extreme burdens are placed upon love that Berryman significantly surrounds it, as word and as concept, with quotation marks. In the case of the deaths of his father and his friend, Delmore Schwartz, to whose "sacred memory" His Toy, His Dream, His Rest is dedicated, Berryman's love is so overwhelming in what it would give and in what it needs to be sufficient that it almost "dies" from him. The rhetoric proves to be more than a stylistic device. It represents a typical, defining movement in all of Berryman's work. Commonly, in the guise of a negative syntax or dialectic Berryman sets down his most mystical, loving words. (p. 60)
For Berryman, an acknowledgement of "overneeds," the need for "extra love" or "surplus love," causes him not to abandon man in the contradictions that surround him. Instead, Berryman begins where he can begin, with what defines man and makes him unique, his capacity for language and love. Love may not last, and need may linger on. But this does not stop Berryman from loving and "versing." Out of this situation, The Dream Songs proceed, like self-generated love songs or "Valentines." What the poet seeks is the creation of a community of caring friends, men and women who will share with him their talk and love. (pp. 60-1)
That the Dream Songs are love poems becomes most obvious in the lyric-linguistic bias of Berryman's work. In the elegies and "Op. posth." pieces, Berryman insistently links the figure of poet and lover. Love and expression are one. (p. 61)
Versing in The Dream Songs … joins the sexual to the aesthetic. Berryman's numerous memorial poems link the "heart" and "art" of love; his rhyming "heart" and "art" functions as instructively as his "need" and "seed" does in other contexts. The poet-figures Berryman eulogizes in his poems are remembered for writing well, for crafting poems as an act of love. Translators and translations also become, respectively, workers and works of love.
Berryman joins himself in The Dream Songs to poets like W. C. Williams and Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz and Sylvia Plath. These poets, as Berryman views them, also made "a good sound" out of love. That poet-critics like Robert Lowell and William Meredith have written some of the best criticism of Berryman reveals similar connections. Such men entered into the loving, writing community which Berryman so desperately came to depend upon. The community of caring friends which Berryman established in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet between himself and that one poet is infinitely enlarged in The Dream Songs to range more freely among countries, cultures, and centuries; and this community intently seeks comfort in numbers. (pp. 61-2)
Each Dream Song makes a new attempt at expression and love. Berryman never deceives himself about the labor involved. He knows the risky attractiveness of silence and refuses to turn The Dream Songs into dejection odes…. But this is the Berryman of The Dream Songs; the later poems and books and suicide are still to come. (p. 62)
Berryman draws our attention [to the link between] that of art and of love.
Whether Berryman's poetic expression in The Dream Songs will be adequate merges into fears for his sexual potency. Mikes, gramophones, telephones, pens, and pencils link the instrument of expression or communication with phallic strength and length. Berryman's Henry alternately boasts and fears for his sexual-aesthetic self…. In the course of The Dream Songs no humor is too indecorous for Berryman, whose habit of sexual punning becomes notorious: "whole," "country," "come," "lay," "piece," "stub point," "Venus." But Berryman's puns seldom are indulgent. They often return the reader to what is an important center in the poems. "Venus" can be both Goddess of Love and brand of pencil. "Lay" can be both song and "lovely fuck." Berryman manages to pass so effortlessly from love to art or from woman to poem that the two continually merge, sometimes happily, into one…. (p. 63)
In some very intimate way, Berryman may remind the reader of the Calvinist who, although finally uncertain of salvation, must go on to act as if he were to be among the saved. Berryman wrote The Dream Songs, aware of the contradictions and ambiguities of man and of man's art…. [The] cost involved in that effort helps to explain the continuing distractions along the way: the quirky syntax, extreme topical references and the range of styles included in the poems. (p. 64)
"The horror of unlove." To move from "unlove" to love—this is what these poems are all about. The prefix "un-" recurs throughout the poems. It proves symptomatic both of how the poems proceed and how they must be read (unread?)…. But, even more important, it is symbolic of the kinds of seemingly contractory movements and maneuvers which take place in so many of the poems. (p. 65)
Lyric by loving lyric, The Dream Songs proceed. As separate poems. Yet in the process, Berryman simultaneously moves toward the creation of a long poem, the long poem to the extent that his intentions, ambition, and craft will allow. The second volume of the songs, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, reveals increasing attention given to the progress and process of what Berryman has chosen to take on. The procedure assumes the enormity of a life work in art. (p. 66)
Berryman places himself in that long line of American poets who also wrote long poems: Whitman, Crane, Pound, Eliot Stevens and Williams. Pound's "MAKE IT NEW" and Williams's "Invent" consciously figure in Berryman's long poem…. (p. 68)
Berryman's concern in writing a long American poem determines many concerns within the work. These are concerns which both join him to and separate him from the poet of the Cantos. Berryman reveals in The Dream Songs several things: a large fund of Puritanical guilt; a search for an adequate tradition and for ancestors; a preoccupation with "know-how" and with the "labour" that never seems to get done…. Work, for Berryman, the born Catholic, amounts to nothing less than Puritan exorcism and prayer.
Berryman complicates a particularly American thrust in the poem by an extension of his work not only to a European and Western humanistic past, but to an Eastern culture he finds attractive as a sensibility and as an art form. (p. 69)
What Berryman seems to intend for The Dream Songs is the stature of a work that can manage national and international naive and elitist styles…. How the poem should be judged became an obsessive concern for Berryman. Sections of poems hammer away at the would-be critic…. In the Sonnets, Berryman had also seen the problems involved in the ability or inability of criticism to handle innovative, long works…. (p. 70)
Berryman's ambitions for The Dream Songs as epic work raise considerations not unlike those of Williams's Paterson or Lowell's Life Studies or Notebook poems. In all these works, there are epic dimensions, just as there are narrative, satiric, and dramatic modes. Yet, in the end, it is as lyric or lyric sequences that these poems most profoundly proceed and succeed, if they succeed at all.
Despite Berryman's use of "Books" and some of the machinery of epic, his long poem continually makes its way and creates its impact by means of lyrical images of loss and love. Successful individual poems stand more autonomously than Berryman might have intended. Lyric power is most in evidence, while Berryman struggles with the epic unity of the work. (pp. 70-1)
The lyrical center of The Dream Songs, once located, brings with it considerable problems for the poet and for the reader. The intensities and compressions which involve Berryman commonly result in creating an impression of an impersonal, lyric voice. As with Berryman's ambitions for The Dream Songs as epic work, his lyricism runs the risk of pushing language more and more to the foreground at the expense of whatever was to be done or said or sung.
Part of Berryman's dilemma in his long poem derives from a continuing attempt to move toward some pure, ultimate song…. (p. 71)
The attraction to some kind of final poetry Berryman often expresses in analogies from music and painting, definitively nonverbal media. And, beyond that, he links such poetry with those moments or achievements in music and painting which seem to him most extreme in their accomplishment, the accomplishment of notes or brush-strokes almost beyond the human reaches of art—the particular intensities of Mozart and Beethoven, Van Gogh and Renoir. Berryman knows the costly effort of his undertaking and of the undertaking of all major, absolute art….
Berryman's program for The Dream Songs is at once inclusive and exclusive. It is exclusive in its content and in the elitist, Yeatsean audience it imagines. It is inclusive to the point of having Berryman wish nothing or no one, living or dead, escape from the work. This inclusiveness, instead of being comforting, turns into a nightmare of proliferation where, after endless ledgering, Berryman lets no one go…. (p. 72)
The risks of language replacing life never disperse themselves completely in The Dream Songs…. At times, instead of reverting to Berryman, the construct which we encounter as The Dream Songs looks like an inadequate, deflective substitute for life…. It is not that Berryman is unaware of the dangers of an implicit, marginal decadence. The humor he can manage in its face can be considerable…. But in many of the … songs there is less of a conscious, real struggle between the claims of art and life. Too often pen threatens to replace penis. Love and life tend to be kept at too comfortable and safe a distance. What begins as a humorous retelling of a story barely hides what is occurring, namely art replacing sex as source and organ…. (pp. 73-4)
In The Dream Songs Berryman's language frequently suffers from the masturbatory indulgence we meet in characters and in the language of characters, in Genet and Albee, in Bellow and Salinger and Roth. (p. 74)
Berryman, by giving language a more and more prominent place in his work, necessarily commits himself to the risks of leaving out or obscuring feeling. It is that fund of feeling which major poetry must somehow manage to embrace. From the Sonnets to The Dream Songs, Berryman's "words," or "mots," "fly," The Sonnets, although written about an actual affair, exceed the sonneteers' conventional attention to his poor, inadequate art. And The Dream Songs turn a traditional concern of the poet with language into an obsessive, even pathological motif. In theory, the world which Berryman wishes to create in his long poem sounds at once reasonable and ambitious: "the construction of a world rather than the reliance upon one which is available to a small poem."… [Yet, Berryman's plan for his long poem looks] like an apology for a decadent aesthetics: life existing and aiming to end in a book.
Just as Berryman deftly passes back and forth between the realms of life and art, so at times he moves toward the establishment of a "style" that is "black jade," a potentially decadent lyric-elegiac mode. In The Dream Songs, Berryman is fond not only of "style" as word, but of style, styles, and stylists, as question and meaning…. Berryman is aware of a defining style he needs to work out for himself, and, in the case of The Dream Songs, for his long poem.
The most triumphant of The Dream Songs manage to find that music, a style which can be austere or grand, austere and grand at the same time. (pp. 75-6)
In a very basic sense, what The Dream Songs evidences is an unending preparation for death or, more specifically, for executing a death-style adequate to artful dying…. (p. 78)
Love & Fame, published in 1970, soon after The Dream Songs, offers the same distractions and dangers of that long work: a linguistic center which is potentially evasive, an incipient elegiac decadence, and the sustained impression of a posthumous, prophetic book. And it was not long before Delusions, Etc. and the novel Recovery appeared, not as metaphorically posthumous books but as literally posthumous facts.
As with The Dream Songs, Berryman lends to this new book the force of a stock-taking which becomes part of an artistic and spiritual biography executed before a reader's eyes. At worst, this stock-taking degenerates into another Advertisements for Myself or another Making It, very much in the American grain.
At a very basic and obvious level, Berryman attempts in Love & Fame to address what comes after love and after fame (which he sometimes calls "after-fame")…. Also, in the new book he seeks a unity of its own, moving more or less chronologically back to his prep school days, Columbia College, graduate school in England at "the other Cambridge," and up to his days as an established poet. But whatever differences and distance he seeks to establish in this new volume may in the end be superficial. More ghosts, technical and spiritual, linger on in Love & Fame than Berryman might have wanted to admit.
Love & Fame reveals familiar Berryman country. Again, there is the poet's need for caring, loving friends or "confrères"; again, the obsession with deaths and suicides of friends, writers, and fathers; again, Berryman's fears for art and love. (pp. 78-9)
[But in Love & Fame] he is a man even closer to mortality, more profoundly aware of his own eventual death. (p. 79)
Love & Fame ostensibly moves in its last section, made up of "Eleven Addresses to the Lord," to an art of praise, from the love and fame recorded in the earlier sections to a love of God the Father, in a style complexly echoic of Donne and Herbert and Hopkins. But these addresses, concerned with praise, reveal less sureness of first and last things than he would have liked them to.
What happens in the last section of Love & Fame, at least what happens to part of Berryman as he records that part in art, is the expression of a confessional need for a Pauline persona or protagonist. (pp. 79-80)
If anywhere at all in Love & Fame, it is in the third section that Berryman writes poems closer to what I consider major Berryman. These poems keep before a reader what the too casual poems of the first two sections and which the willfully sure, tensionless poems of the last section avoid—that horror of unlove which The Dream Songs made into a defining music. (p. 81)
[For example, the] short poem "Despair" is one of the longest, slowest, most agonizing poems Berryman ever wrote. The other better poems in the third section of Love & Fame, which happen also to be the best poems in the book, "The Search," "Message," "Antitheses," "Of Suicide," proceed as unflinchingly as "Despair." And they comprise the poems which show the most awareness of the dramatic situation behind the book….
Berryman was most successful and most recognizably Berryman when he was uneasy about the intimate, intricate alignments among life, fame, art, love, death, lyric, and elegy. Love & Fame is no exception. In this book, his poems still are his "lovelies." His lyrics still are, in a repeated phrase from the book, "deathwords & sayings in crisis." (p. 84)
Berryman's posthumously published work—his book of poems, Delusions, Etc. and his uncompleted novel, Recovery—only confirm directions and dangers which I noted in earlier volumes…. What we witness in Love & Fame is the same irony and pity which distinguished The Dream Songs but with more pity and less irony than we had seen before…. The complexities of lyric, elegy, blues, ballad, minstrelsy, and vaudeville dwindle to something less than art.
If in Love & Fame Berryman did not "entirely resign," he calls one of his poems in Delusions, Etc. "He Resigns." If in Love & Fame he still saw the Blues (and, by extension, poetry as the Blues) as "the most promising mutual drama," Recovery descends to A.A. group therapy, which makes the possibility of recovery seem one more delusion along the way. The titles of the two posthumous books are almost beyond irony. Delusions, Etc. suggests in its second word the will toward some movement counter to delusion as much as it suggests pure physical, psychological, and artistic exhaustion and spiritual despair. And Recovery gives the lie to the emergence of recovery on every page of the book.
Both books are undistinguished. Delusions, Etc. has several fine poems in it,, "Washington in Love," "Beethoven Triumphant," "Scholars at the Orchid Pavilion," "He Resigns," "Henry's Understanding," "Defensio in Extremis," but most of the poems are thin and artless. Recovery is helplessly, relentlessly bad; Berryman not only was unable to disguise his biography but unable to find the art necessary for any novel at all. Berryman falling apart—drinking himself to death, engaging in failed loving encounters, harboring incestuous desires, fouling himself behind, finding fame the last infirmity or delusion of mind—is the spectacle we never are allowed to bypass or forget. Berryman the man and writer come more and more together, ironically as Berryman comes more and more apart.
Motifs from the earlier books continue—the endless need for "the lovely men" or "unloseable friends," for love in all its forms against loss. (pp. 86-7)
The problem facing the critic in Delusions, Etc. and Recovery, even if he tries to forget that the books are posthumous and that Berryman finally killed himself, is that the books are full of contradictory impressions. Berryman wants to live and to die. He wants to move from lay artist to Catholic layman at the same time we wonder about his "layman's winter mockup." He wants to move to the love of the Virgin and Christ as the God of Love, while he knows that God the Father and Christ the Son have to be One. And it is easy to transpose…. But the problem, as Recovery so chillingly sets it forth, is that the saying or hearing of "I love you" … evokes in Berryman the most terrifying feelings of all. In part, Berryman's horror of unlove is as much Berryman's horror of love, love too good to be believed….
The poems in Delusions, Etc., like the Twelve Steps of A.A. in Recovery, finally prove "maladaptive devices" for the poet and protagonist. (p. 88)
The Dream Songs managed to suggest that there might be another method or music if only the poet could find those loving sounds. By the time of the writing of "He Resigns," however, probably the best and most significant poem in Delusions, Etc., Berryman had written a poem which looked back to poems like "Snow Line" and "Despair" at the same time that it moved closer to that final dejection ode and its accompanying exhaustion which Berryman had tried so hard to stave off…. (pp. 88-9)
Arthur Oberg, "John Berryman: 'The Dream Songs' and the Horror of Unlove," in The University of Windsor Review (reprinted by permission), Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall, 1970 (and reprinted in a different form as "John Berryman: 'The Horror of Unlove'," in his Modern American Lyric: Lowell, Berryman, Creeley, and Plath, Rutgers University Press, 1978, pp. 49-92).
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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 between language and experience.
In Recovery, Berryman creates an original form that reveals the gradual movement of a mind away from delusion, evasion, and showmanship and toward truth and honesty.
"Recovery" implies a conventional plot or narrative with action rising to a climax. The title implies that Severance will follow "The Twelve Steps" outlined by Alcoholics Anonymous, complete treatment, and change—the climax. Because treatment has twice failed, Berryman supplements this impulse toward change with the possibility that the study and discipline necessary to Judaism will insure a lasting change—the denouement.
Against this possible optimistic story with a traditional form, Berryman plays off a pessimistic story with an experimental form. The pessimistic story shows that the alcoholic can never recover his pre-alcoholic self. He can never again have a casual drink or two. He can only become a more-or-less controlled alcoholic, renewing his struggle each day, each moment, in the face of ever-shifting moods, tempting and threatening situations, emotional crises, and whims….
His keeping and rereading [a] diary lead to the split narration of the novel, in which excerpts from Dr. Severance's Journal are interspersed within the third-person narrative. The first-person journal shows Severance struggling with the duplicity of language….
Berryman and his personae, Henry Pussycat and Alan Severance, drink more and more whenever they create, even though alcohol weakens their stamina and makes them suicidal, i.e., willing to sacrifice themselves for the progress of their art.
Creation necessitates being able to imagine and perhaps to verbalize ideas, solutions, and hypotheses that do not exist, or do not as yet exist, or can never exist in actuality. The language of a metaphor joins ideas, objects, situations, and feelings that may otherwise be experienced as separate.
Alcoholic hallucination involves a parallel separation of language from actuality. But the alcoholic behaves as if saying or thinking something is the same as doing it…. The poet can write about dying and coming back from the dead, as Berryman does in The Dream Songs, 78-91, which are individually titled "Op. posth. nos. 1-14." In contrast to the poet, however, the alcoholic believes he actually possesses any powers he can express in words…. Thus, both the imagination of the poet and the hallucination of the addict manipulate language, but the addict confuses the words with the reality. The poet knows the difference.
Recovery draws on Berryman's experience during his third cure, but it is not simply a diary of that experience. Writing it, Berryman, now dry, has to imagine his way into the mind of a drunk who is still hallucinating. Berryman's dry mind has to bypass the later revisions and perceptions to recreate the early moments of detoxification. The writer must maintain the distinctions among his past pain and longing for death, his present lesser pain and longing, and his powerful, imaginative fabrication of the past pain and longing. The task is original and daring. The challenge may have been overwhelming. Berryman committed suicide without finishing his novel.
Nevertheless, the completed portion of Recovery succeeds because it develops a compelling tension between a traditional plot moving toward a climax and an experimental ebb and flow of ever-renewed struggle. Recovery is important, because fresh, powerful insights about truth, imagination, and language emerge from Berryman's portrait of a suicidal alcoholic.
Carol Ames, "The Form and the Language of John Berryman's 'Recovery'," in Notes on Modern American Literature, Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter, 1979.
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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 like a celebrant magpie he echoes dozens of poets from Pound and Stevens to Hopkins and Cummings. His "grammaticisms" alone would identify him, I suppose: his wrenchings or mutilations of grammar are not those of others. In fact, nearly everything about him is manneristic and, at times, he seems almost like an involuntary exercise in the manner of poet as idiosyncratic paradigm. A hard nut to crack, he is a poet fully qualified for exegesis and often badly in need of it.
My purpose here is … to consider certain tendencies in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and Delusions, Etc. There were times when Berryman verged on the metaphysical mind, although never sustainedly; it seems to have haunted him, the possibility of getting into such a frame of mind (and reference) flickers in his work like morganatic fire. It shows up in Dream Songs, I think, in the persona of intervening Mr. Bones, the death-figure who puts awkward questions at the wrong moments only to answer them himself in a weird combination of black lingo and uncouth blues. Henry, the poet figure whose interior biography the Songs jerkily reveal, owns Mr. Bones and, presumably, goes on owning him until Mr. Bones owns him, which is when the Songs end, as they did in 1972. But I don't think it would be right to regard Dream Songs as metaphysical … [their drift is social]…. The entire sequence is an almost spastic search for a self, and it's not a self blurred through transcendental overlap with rocks and stars and trees, it's a self blurred by its own chemistry. If Berryman reaches out in these short poems, it's to bring himself back, not to steal a magic from the universe at large. Psychologically of enormous interest,… they are actually a bit short—in voracious interest, in intuited vastness, in empathetic penetration—compared with certain other works…. (pp. 141-42)
Homage to Mistress Bradstreet is an imaginary portrait almost in the manner of Walter Pater; indeed, Berryman's real-life alias has more fictional range than does the invented, arbitrary one of Henry. The answer, I think, is that, down the track, there was something precise and vivid to aim at, whereas Henry is too much Berryman himself to have edges. The one poem is a monument, the other a potpourri of broken images. Not that Homage isn't a poem of voices; it is, and these include the poet's own…. In fact, vocally, it is a polyphonic tour de force, sometimes achieving the uncanny effect of what has been presented serially becoming simultaneous: the voice lingers in one's ear and overshoots the next voice that comes along. Most impressive of all, the rhythm of Anne Bradstreet's mind comes boldly through, not only from Berryman's study of her own Meditations and his occasional use of phrases from them (some of which she had culled from the Scriptures), but also from his almost involuntary impersonations, which leave her mental gait on the silent white space around the poem like an oral signature. Adroit, subtle, tight, Homage … is an astonishing feat of invasive homage; her mind breathes again and, courtesy of the later poet, makes new images galore…. My point is that, through grammar or "grammaticism," Berryman offers optional readings which, rather than providing us with alternative insights into Anne herself, multiply her world instead, attuning us to things she may not be aware of, but which the intruding poet has supervised. And the motion thus implied, on our part complied with, not only turns the duo Bradstreet-Berryman into the Marcus Aurelius of Massachusetts, but also provides the poem with almost supernatural auspices that … turn the whole thing ontological. (pp. 142-43)
[In the verse on childbirth Berryman accomplishes a vivid empathy. How] many male poets have gone so alertly, so keenly, to the core of a female experience? Pain, relish, and disgust come together here to make a shocking, though far from sensationalist whole. The odd thing, as so often in Berryman, is that the means to this effect feels also like the means to something bigger that looms just beyond the stanza's edge. It's not just a woman, a woman poet, it's a human being in a fit of being tweaked by body chemistry, if you like by the matrix of all human life. The apparatus, the cadences, the sheer drops, the psychodramatic speaking of the unspoken in response to the unspeakable, all betoken the sense of being put upon by the universe; only—this qualifier will reappear apropos of Berryman—he never quite takes it to the limit…. (p. 144)
[Further on, his poetry accomplishes an] iconography of panic, the physical equivalent of a pandemonium which Berryman excels at conveying without, however, getting quite past it into an imaginative survey of its sources…. If ever a poem sat on the edge of an abyss, Homage does: it teeters, wobbles, falls apart, invites some cosmic power to rend it further, rends itself, comes provisionally together again, and comes to a dead stop…. (pp. 144-45)
Berryman, in this long poem at least, [is] the master of the ceremonies of homelessness. Not at home in the universe, he isn't located anywhere else. Unable to sift from cosmic phenomena the one he wants (maybe a personal intervention in his life by a caring God?), he transcribes the froth of wanting. In other words, he uses Anne Bradstreet to delineate the bittersweet, thwarted transcendence of a non-believer who asks only: Why should all this emotional ferment lead to nowhere, have no point? He aspires to a metaphysical habit in almost purely emotional terms without the least reaching out into the cosmic evidence. (pp. 145-46)
Twenty years separate Delusions, Etc. from Homage. The imagery has widened out, especially the cosmic sort, from references to "the Local Group" (of galaxies, that is), the Hale reflector, Wolf-Rayet stars (which are extremely hot ones), to God as "Corpuscle-Donor," "pergalactic Intellect," and such novelties as collapsars and the expanding universe…. But the references come out of duty, not enthusiasm…. Agile, suave in the extreme …, full of cultural and historical allusions, the poems are monuments to a failed religious attitude. As much dares as entreaties, as much acts of defiance as calls for help, they more or less ask the Creator why the hell He hasn't come yet and gotten John Berryman, whose untidy, cussed, bad-mouth waiting is getting on John's overwrought nerves. In the wake of Auden's clinical and public-school "Sir," Berryman comes up with a miscellany of vocatives, from "Your Benevolence," "Thou hard," "Dear," to "You," "in-negligent Father," "Sway omnicompetent," and others; but, although he works dismally hard at his new-found vocation of convert-disciple-prodigal unbeliever—he only keeps running headlong into the old panic which no flip "Okay" is going to mitigate…. [Berryman is] a poet of unsignifying pain, whose yearning is as metaphysical as Herbert's, say, whose images are as dishevelled as those of Cowley and Carew, but whose mind just cannot shed ego and hitch an atomic or molecular or electromagnetic lift along one of the avenues of out. It is a sad spectacle, an even sadder sound, when he recites the physique of Angst. That is what he does from his beginning to his end and he has few competitors for his demoralized post. Perhaps no one else has done this narrow, yet inescapable thing quite so vividly, knowing that at the end of the line (end of the life-line) there is only sensuous escapism … or something unspeakably bleak…. (pp. 147-49)
Berryman may not have cut through to the x for unknown that he craved and coveted with all his being; the increasing scope of his references has more a look of trophy-hunting than that of awed immersion; he never achieved what a Newsweek reviewer incredibly gifted him with (an "austere, level voice … so quiet it's sometimes hard to hear him"!); but it is impossible not to recognize the gibbering convulsions of his need. I think of him as a naturally metaphysical spirit, but one unable to sense the wonder that accompanies what he thought the insult, the snub, behind the nomenclature, almost as if the Local Group … were something from which he'd been shut out. That is the least we can say about him, though; the best is that he somehow mustered the courage to face ontological precipices dared by only a few. (pp. 149-50)
Diane Ackerman, "Near the Top a Bad Turn Dared," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © Poetry in Review Foundation), Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1979, pp. 141-50.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1353
Berryman has said that it took him two years to get over the writing of his "Bradstreet" poem, first published in …. 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 account of his own poetic turmoil in change.
But it is The Dream Songs that provides the spiritual history of that remaking of the poetic self. The epic is in the broadest sense about Berryman's personal transfiguration from one kind of poet to another. As a newly committed personal poet, Berryman felt able for the first time in his poetry to confront the personal events of his life—as, for example, the earlier suicide of his father. The poetic remaking of the self, then, was in a sense a move to come to terms with the battering events of a difficult life.
Berryman's form, the interior "dream song," enables him to scramble chronology at will (as in a dream). But there is running throughout this work a recognizable "contemporary time" paralleling the time of the writing of the songs, roughly 1955–68, a period that provides the basic frame. But many poems break out of this frame into various levels of the past, treating those events that continue to haunt the poet.
Moreover, The Dream Songs has a symmetry of form in spite of its chaotic appearance. The first three books (77 Dream Songs) look back from the "contemporary time" frame to focus on the poet's life up through his first (or Eliotic) poetic identity. These books sketch in the long foreground of the poet before the radical change or remaking (death, resurrection) that comes in Book IV. They carry the poet not lineally but cyclically or spirally, to the point of publication of his poetry previous to writing of The Dream Songs, including Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. The short Book IV ("Op. posth. nos. 1-14"), the only book with a title, dramatizes the death of the old and the birth (or self-resurrection) of the new (or Whitmanian) poetic identity…. The new being that comes "back" to life in Book IV is clearly the poet who will embark on The Dream Songs, written in a style radically different from that of all his previous poetry. The last three books of the work, balancing the first three, focus on this new identity—and the problems of writing a long epic poem in the Whitman tradition. These last books carry the poet through significant stages of his later life to a deeper awareness of some of his most persistent personal problems (or recurring nightmares), to resolution of them or resignation to their endurance.
The "narrative" outlined above is embedded in a cyclic or spiral structure encrusted with a multitude of themes—those that enter the poet's consciousness over the years of the poem's writing (1955–68), carrying the poet from his forty-first year to his fifty-fourth; themes supplemented by memories and imaginative extensions, memories of past years (especially the poet's all-important boyhood) and imaginative re-creations of national or world events. (pp. 246-47)
The most vital event of The Dream Songs is one which occurred long before the time of the loose "narrative frame" of the poem, but which haunts it throughout and provides its most deeply obsessive theme. Berryman was no doubt referring to it when he mentioned in his prefatory Note that Henry had "suffered an irreversible loss": the suicide of his father when the poet was only twelve years old…. [Berryman had a theory that ordeal was necessary for great artistic achievement and his] ordeal for The Dream Songs clearly was his father's suicide. (p. 260)
It is perhaps impossible to ferret out the entire presence of this event in The Dream Songs. But it is easy to guess that it exists behind the guilt, [bitterness, and loss of faith] so brilliantly dramatized in [the work]…. (p. 261)
If we consider the father's suicide the central theme of The Dream Songs, we may imagine the other themes as radiating out from this core and shaped by it. Song 1 ended with an image of continuous, universal death…. There is, of course, all of Book IV envisioning Henry's death and burial—and ultimate resurrection. There are many many other songs that touch on death—friends, acquaintances, often unnamed; and there are many poems that touch on death in a general way, often with a personal twist. (p. 265)
More often than not, death is the inescapable horror in The Dream Songs, and most frequently the poet draws a personal connection—even envisioning his own death, sometimes even seeming to hope for it, sometimes trying to evade it. (p. 266)
In Song 4, the sex-love theme is introduced in The Dream Songs—a theme that seems omnipresent but seldom emotionally dominant. In its context of death, sex seems to get short shrift from Henry, like a passionate spasm followed abruptly by the old familiar agony. (p. 267)
There is a wide range of treatment of the sex-love theme in The Dream Songs…. This theme is, in a way, put in its place in The Dream Songs in Song 311, in which Henry makes an inventory of his desires and needs…. A list of needs, and on the list: women. Before them, hunks of bread and raw onion. Well! But the point is made: the poem above all. When the poet goes to pieces, even the pieces will sit up—and write. The poet's creative vitality is to be conserved, not for love, but for the making of poetry.
The personal dimension is so all-consuming in The Dream Songs that it is sometimes forgotten that the poem was written in a historical context with a great many historical-political references. The period of 1955–68 was a period of great moment in American and world history, and Berryman includes many songs on topics of the day. (pp. 268-69)
[But nowhere] do we feel the passion of political outrage sustained, as, for example, in Ezra Pound or Allen Ginsberg. It seems clear that Berryman felt uneasy in writing these "political" poems. (p. 271)
The sex-lust-love theme and the political (or topical) themes in The Dream Songs by no means go against the grain of the poem; on the contrary, they fill out the "record of a personality" (in the way the various themes in Leaves of Grass, Berryman's acknowledged model, put a personality on record). When Berryman described his model as "Song of Myself," he pointed out that Whitman's poem proposed "a new religion," that it was a "wisdom work, a work on the meaning of life and how to conduct it." Berryman said, "Now I don't go that far … [in The Dream Songs] but I buy a little of it." In short, Berryman believed that, although The Dream Songs did not propose a new religion, they were—in some measure—a wisdom work.
And indeed, the poem conveys a strong sense of "questing" throughout, a search for (to use Berryman's words for Whitman) "the meaning of life and how to conduct it." (pp. 271-72)
Henry's imagination—the source of his poetry, the place of his quest—will be his house until his death. The quest has not revealed the secret, but the quest must go on: in the questing itself is life. In a sense, then, Henry is wrapped in the secret he cannot find. To quest is to live, to know, to be. (p. 274)
James E. Miller, Jr., "The American Bard/Embarrassed Henry Heard Himself a-Being: John Berryman's 'Dream Song'," in his The American Quest for a Supreme Fiction: Whitman's Legacy in the Personal Epic (reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press; © 1979 by The University of Chicago), University of Chicago Press, 1979, pp. 234-75.
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