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Berryman: Tragedy & Comedy Together

The Dream Songs

by John Berryman, with an introduction by Michael Hofmann
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 427 pp., $19.00 (paper)

77 Dream Songs

by John Berryman, with an introduction by Henri Cole
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 84 pp., $15.00 (paper)

Berryman’s Sonnets

by John Berryman, with an introduction by April Bernard
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 115 pp., $15.00 (paper)
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Bettmann/Corbis
John Berryman and Adrienne Rich (seated), with Stanley Kunitz, Richard Eberhart, and Robert Lowell (standing), at a memorial tribute to Randall Jarrell at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, February 1966

On October 25, 1914, just over one hundred years ago, the remarkable poet John Berryman was born in McAlester, Oklahoma. In honor of this anniversary, Farrar, Straus and Giroux offers The Heart Is Strange: New Selected Poems and is reissuing The Dream Songs, 77 Dream Songs, and Berryman’s Sonnets. Both the title and cover of this peculiar Selected Poems obscure the fact that the selection includes not a single poem from Berryman’s most famous work, The Dream Songs. (The publicity notice for the Selected promises “a generous selection from across Berryman’s varied career,” and claims to celebrate “the whole Berryman.”) A reader ordering the book online might well expect that a rational Selected would devote a substantial number of its pages to The Dream Songs, and would feel deceived when the book arrived. (The far more comprehensive Library of America John Berryman: Selected Poems finds room for sixty-one Dream Songs.) What we really need, of course, is a Complete Poems, but that is not forthcoming from any quarter.

The anniversary invites a second look at Berryman’s life, art, and reputation. His life, as related in John Haffenden’s detailed 1982 biography, makes for excruciating reading.1 The maladies from which Berryman suffered—bipolar illness and severe alcoholism—ruined his abused body and shook his excellent mind. Since the medicine of his era could do little for these illnesses, his life became marred by successive hospitalizations, attempts at rehabilitation, divorces, the loss of at least one job, and desperate remedies (including a late return to his childhood Roman Catholicism just before his suicide at fifty-seven). His physical state in middle age brings to mind Whitman’s “A Hand-Mirror”:

Hold it up sternly—see this it sends back, (who is it? is it you?)…
No more a flashing eye, no more a sonorous voice or springy step,
Now some slave’s eye, voice, hands, step,…
No brain, no heart left, no magnetism of sex;
Such from one look in this looking-glass ere you go hence,
Such a result so soon—and from such a beginning!

When Berryman was eleven, his financially unsuccessful (and unfaithful) father, John Allyn Smith, shot himself in Tampa (where the Smiths had moved when they left Oklahoma). The poet’s formidable and overbearing mother shortly afterward married a successful man, their landlord (who had apparently been her lover before her husband’s suicide). She then made it the principal business of her life to establish a fusion of identities with her elder child; as her intrusive and incessant letters reveal, she never relaxed her tentacular grip on her son. The young John Smith, adopted by his stepfather, was known thenceforward as John Berryman, inaugurating a strange duality of identity that was to influence both his poetic themes and his stylistic inventions. The Berrymans moved from Florida to Connecticut, and John was sent to the South Kent School, an Episcopal establishment where he found adolescent devotion serving as an acolyte at morning Mass.

When Berryman went off to Columbia, he began to reap the rewards of his enormous ambition and omnivorous reading; he attracted close friends who prized his wit and emotional abandon, and he was encouraged by his teacher Mark Van Doren, who understood his literary powers. On the Columbia Kellett Fellowship, Berryman went off to Clare College, Cambridge:

O a young American poet, not yet good,
off to the strange Old World to pick their brains
& visit by hook or crook with W.B. Yeats.

(He indeed managed to visit Yeats, who remained his poetic hero.) At Cambridge, Berryman won the prize for the best Shakespeare essay, and developed an interest in Shakespeare that evolved into a lifelong torment as he struggled with various Shakespearean projects (including a never-completed edition of King Lear). While grant after grant supported the work on Shakespeare, grant after grant was undermined not only by the poet’s ever-worsening alcoholism but also by a heartrending set of guilts, humiliations, infidelities, embarrassments, and failures.

Like most young poets, Berryman began with serial imitation—of Hopkins, of Yeats, of Auden, and eventually of Shakespeare, writing when he was thirty-three 115 Petrarchan sonnets to “Lise,” his pseudonym for a young married woman at Princeton. When finally published by Berryman, the sonnets were prefaced by a poem in which the fifty-six-year-old poet plays the ironic spectator of his own past folly, referring to “Lise” as “an Excellent lady, wif whom he was in wuv.”

That mocking line is both a parody of the poet’s own longing and a parody of the European sonnet tradition. Berryman learned irony from the Shakespeare of the Sonnets, and that irony becomes the eventual muse of the Dream Songs. In an acute remark on his own poetry, Berryman announces that his muse, though beginning as “a nymphet,” in time “grew taller” and finally “manifested, well, a sense of humour/fatal to bardic pretension.” Before The Dream Songs, Berryman was unable to leap from colloquial humor to bardic aspiration: it is precisely the triumph of the best Dream Songs to perform tragedy and comedy simultaneously.

In his introduction to The Heart Is Strange, Daniel Swift understandably wishes to urge—against the sorrows teeming in The Dream Songs—the poet’s comedy, “a joy of voices, antic and alive…the pull toward life.” Swift also proposes—less convincingly—that Berryman’s late “devotional” poems also serve as a counterweight to the tragic sense:

His last two collections each include a cycle of devotional verse…. Like all devotional verse—and Berryman here sounds at times like George Herbert, perhaps the greatest devotional poet of all—these poems contemplate the limits of the self, and human life.

The “devotional” poems have none of the aesthetic élan of the tragicomic ones, and never in them does the histrionic Berryman sound at all like the subtle and fine-grained Herbert. He tries out different religious genres, imitating in his “Opus Dei,” for instance, Auden’s Horae Canonicae, a sequence marking the liturgical hours (Matins, Prime, Terce, etc.). Like Berryman’s other religious poems, these “Hours” are a strained mélange of the prophets, the Psalms, the liturgy, and various manners of prayer, interspersed with badly integrated outbursts of anxiety, resentment, and penitence. Here is a sample of the late religious Berryman: at fifty-five, he wildly assumes the persona of King David, summing up his life in “King David Dances,” a poem that ends with an impossible exclamation:

Revolted sons, a pierced son, bound to bear,
mid hypocrites amongst idolaters,
mockt in abysm by one shallow wife,
with the ponder both of priesthood & of State
heavy upon me, yea,
all the black same I dance my blue head off!

Berryman being Berryman, there are flashes of intellectual or emotional fire even in his weaker poems, but those moments are insufficient to bear the weight of the whole. Berryman’s life as a poet ends unhappily in bathos and aesthetic uncertainty, awkwardly imitating devotional predecessors at the close just as he had awkwardly imitated predecessor-poets at the beginning. In January 1972, at the age of fifty-seven, he killed himself by jumping off a Minneapolis bridge spanning the frozen Mississippi.

But if both beginning and end are radically imperfect, the center is remarkable. Berryman’s originality had first been acknowledged when he published the 1953 “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” a daring poem of fifty-seven stanzas taking its origin from the life and work of America’s first woman poet, Anne Bradstreet. A passenger on The Arbella in 1630, Anne had, at sixteen, been married to Simon Bradstreet, to whom she eventually bore eight children. In spite of pregnancies and household duties, Anne continued doggedly to write her poems, which were published in England in 1650 as The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America.

In his “Homage,” Berryman experiments with forms of narration: partly, he retells Anne Bradstreet’s life, partly engages in dialogue with her, partly allows Anne to speak for herself as his own voice recedes, and increasingly, as the poem progresses, fuses his own identity with hers. In a bravura passage at the climax of the poem she gives birth, addressing the poet who suffers her pangs as he ventriloquizes her voice. Fearing in her pain that she is in the grip of the devil, she dramatically banishes, and then recalls, her poet:

So squeezed, wince you I scream? I love you & hate
off with you. Ages!
Useless. Below my waist
he has me in Hell’s vise.
Stalling. He let go. Come back: brace
me somewhere. No. No. Yes! everything down
hardens I press with horrible joy down
my back cracks like a wrist
shame I am voiding oh behind it is too late

In the Age of Eliot, such violence of language (learned principally from Hopkins) made the poetry-reading public take notice. In his introduction, Daniel Swift says unequivocally that “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” is Berryman’s “masterpiece, in the old-fashioned sense of the word—the early work that proves an apprentice is now a master of his chosen form.” Yet in the light of what was to come in The Dream Songs, there is something stiff and willed in Berryman’s historical pastiche. Archives, histories, and poems supply Anne’s potted récit of life in Andover:

Food endless, people few, all to be done.
As pippins roast, the question of the wolves
turns & turns.
Fangs of a wolf will keep, the neck
round of a child, that child brave. I remember who
in meeting smiled & was punisht, and I know who
whispered & was stockt.
We lead a thoughtful life. But Boston’s cage we shun.

The invented hermaphroditic self of Bradstreet/Berryman and the simultaneous copresence of the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries woke up the reviewers, and Berryman’s fame began.

What was missing in “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” in spite of Berryman’s years of labor on the poem, was his humor—an intrinsic part of his personality but not yet of his style. The voltage of the later Berryman style surged up a decade later in 77 Dream Songs (1964), a volume that still gives transcendent pleasure. Michael Hofmann praises “that whinny; those initially baffling, then canny and eventually unforgettable rearrangements of words; that irresistible flow of thoughts and nonthoughts.”

It is true that The Dream Songs had been preceded in 1948 by the poet’s nine “Nervous Songs,” which Daniel Swift says in his introduction were “each in the same stanzaic form as the later Dream Songs”—except that they weren’t. Each of the “Nervous Songs” does consist of three stanzas of six lines each, but their “stanzaic form” differs in instantly apparent ways from that of The Dream Songs. (The Dream Songs rhyme loosely, and lines 3 and 6 of most stanzas are trimeters, whereas the stanzas of “The Nervous Songs”—all in successive pentameters—have none of the insouciant lilt of song.)

In the first Dream Song, Berryman introduces Henry, a comic and stylized Id, on whose behavior the poet comments in both his own voice and that of an unnamed interlocutor (who resembles in his dry remarks a taciturn but kind pyschoanalyst). Henry’s petulant observations are often relayed in indirect discourse: “It was the thought that they thought/they could do it”—where the “it” is never specified, the “they” perpetrating “it” equally unnamed, but the paranoia patent:

Huffy Henry hid the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point,—a trying to put things over.
It was the thought that they thought
they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
But he should have come out and talked.
All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry’s side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don’t see how Henry, pried
Open for all the world to see, survived.

We can’t see how Henry survived, either. But survive he does, through all the mangled glory of the Songs, jaunty with their adventitious rhymes, aghast at the turns of fortune.

The relation between the narrator and Henry is clarified by the dialogue between Henry and—as Berryman adopts the convention of a minstrel show—his interlocutor, the other nameless “end man” who intervenes in the role of Henry’s conscience, and who sometimes addresses Henry as “Mr. Bones” (“bones” being slang for gaming dice). In a minstrel show, while the stage curtain was down between vaudeville acts, the “end men”—white stand-up comics in blackface—entertained the audience with jokes in coarse Negro dialect. Berryman was perfectly well aware of the political incorrectness of the minstrel show; that was the point. Just as the traditional end men pretended to be black while mocking “their own” black speech and offering crude jokes of black life, so the interlocutor mocks Henry’s resentful wish to live outside the usual moral and intellectual codes.

Henry is a dashing imaginative invention, not merely in concept (although a walking, talking Id is a fine idea) but in language. As occasion requires, Henry can be somber or fantastic, rueful or angry, funny or speculative, awed or contemptuous, and his sentences, especially his opening sentences, are a spectacle in themselves. Sometimes the openings are blunt: “Henry hates the world.” Sometimes they are puzzling: “The taxi makes the vegetables fly.” And sometimes they are painful: “He lay in the middle of the world, and twitcht.” As for the conclusions of the Songs, they are often nightmarish, rife with obscure threats:

—Are you radioactive, Pal?—Pal, radioactive.
—Has you the night sweats & the day sweats, pal?
—Pal, I do.
—Did your gal leave you?—What do you think, pal?
—Is that thing on the front of your head what it seems to be, pal?
—Yes, pal.

After publishing the breathtaking 77 Dream Songs, one of the permanent volumes of twentieth-century American poetry, Berryman went on compulsively to write still more. By the time of His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968), the number mounts to 385 (and he left behind, when he died, both finished and unfinished Songs, together with boxes and boxes of manuscript notebooks, dream analysis, and letters). While it’s true that after the first seventy-seven, the vivacity and humor of the Songs diminished, there are still numberless sardonic remarks and comic scenes to entertain the reader: “Three limbs, three seasons smashed; well, one to go” begins one of the hospital sequences:

His friends alas went all about their ways
intact. Couldn’t William break at least a collar-bone?

Deaths begin to crowd out gaiety, and the Songs increasingly become dirges. And still the Songs pursue their thorny way, tirelessly pursuing possibilities of utterance, elaborate and spare, hit-or-miss and mad:

O formal & elaborate I choose you

but I love too the spare, the hit-or-miss,
the mad, I sometimes can’t always tell them apart.

Berryman inherits his bold stylistic inclusiveness from Whitman’s Song of Myself:

I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots,
And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over….

But Berryman differs from Whitman in his willingness to be deliberately illiterate; even Whitman was not prepared to operate outside of grammatical norms. Whitman is full of humor, but it is not syntactic or grammatical humor. On the contrary, his ornately parallel syntax, his fluid grammar, do not risk outraging literacy itself, no matter how heterodox his themes. Influenced by Hopkins’s wrenching of syntax, Berryman adopted grammatical and syntactic violations as his stylistic signature, wronging syntax in a mode beyond even that of Hopkins.

Although Berryman has been criticized for “appropriating” the “black English” of the minstrel show end men, his aim is not transcriptive but again, as always, stylistic: he invents a freedom from standard English not by writing poems in authentic dialect (as both black and white poets had done) but by confecting an intermediate form of speech—half dialect, half sophisticated—that never existed in “real life.” Berryman makes up his own weird form of incorrectness, exaggerating the hybrid diction of the white man in blackface. Berryman’s grave interlocutor, too, is a stage presence, not a person, and the Songs’ parade of idiosyncratic models, from Hopkins to folksong, is Berryman’s Dickinsonian “menagerie,” his Yeatsian “circus animals.”

Everyone has a repertoire of favorite Dream Songs. Michael Hofmann (in his recent collection, Where Have You Been?
2) says that in his youth, intoxicated by Berryman’s language, he could, if cued merely by number, have recited many of the Songs: say “fourteen” and he could flash back “Life, friends, is boring.” To read the Songs as Hofmann did is to find (on one page or another) one’s own life, simultaneously jeered at and sympathized with. In Dream Song 134 (the song for university lecturers) Henry-as-academic is at once bedraggled and heroic: sick with a hangover, his digestion deranged, he wakes at dawn not only to vomiting and depression, but also to a grim sense of the avid narcissism of his students:

Sick at 6 & sick again at 9
was Henry’s gloomy Monday morning oh.
Still he had to lecture.
They waited, his little children, for stricken Henry
to rise up yet once more again and come oh.
They figured he was a fixture,

nuts to their bolts, keys to their bloody locks….

He had smoked a pack of cigarettes by 10
& was ready to go. Peace to his ashes then,
poor Henry,
with all this gas & shit blowing through it
four times in 2 hours, his tail ached.
He arose, benign, & performed.

“Benign” (exalted by bracketing commas) and “performed” (reflecting on the lecturer’s meta-role as actor) pull readers up short. On such a morning, with such a hangover, who could rise to being “benign” and at the same time possess the detachment to watch himself “perform”? After Berryman’s theatrical fireworks, some mid-century poets could seem buttoned up, inhibited, careful of the proprieties, in thrall to a filtered conception of life. Plath and Lowell and Ginsberg, however, cooperated in the postwar performance of the improper. In “The Creations of Sound,” Stevens remarks that “Speech is not dirty silence/Clarified. It is silence made still dirtier.” Berryman would have understood those lines.

Untold pages have already been written on Berryman. The old questions—the existential status of Henry (a persona? an alter ego?) and the interlocutor (a caricature? a guardian angel?)—have been well aired, even to excess: after all, representation of a person in the fictive brevity of lyric could hardly be anything but a stylized sketch, with none of the “roundness” of novelistic character. What remains true is that The Dream Songs finds a thrilling way of creating a protagonist far more winning in his failure and sadness and rage than the archaic troubadour of Berryman’s Sonnets or the stiff Mistress Bradstreet’s symbiotic poet. The Dream Songs dramatizes a history of indignities and humiliations expressed with a striking candor that Berryman learned, it seems to me, from Shakespeare’s tragedies. Shakespeare’s is a candor both plain (“No cause, no cause”—Lear) and baroque (“If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come”—Hamlet). And Henry’s dramatic inventories of explicit misery draw on those that Shakespeare poured out in Lear:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?

Berryman’s candor is medical (“More Sparine for Pelides”); physical (“Three limbs, three seasons smashed; well, one to go”); sorrowful (“There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart/só heavy”); comic (“What wonders is/she sitting on, over there?”); intellectual (“I am heavy bored”); marital (“It is a true error to marry with poets”); social (“The doomed young envy the old, the doomed old the dead young”); legal (“He had a court case/he was bound to lose”); and interrogative (“Why then did he make, at such cost, crazy sounds?”). The reader is arrested by the bristling or plangent candor of Song after Song. In the Songs, Berryman is an orchestra all by himself, in which one instrument after another prevails. In a single stanza, an insistent percussion (“need need need”) suddenly pivots into the silent writing-voices of a dismembered body:

Hunger was constitutional with him,
women, cigarettes, liquor, need need need
until he went to pieces.
The pieces sat
up & wrote. They did not heed
their piecedom but kept very quietly on
among the chaos.

In the Songs, it is, in Prufrock’s words, “as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen.” Whenever a complex problem demands attention—health, family, despair, God, art, reputation—restless modulations thrust themselves forward on the screen, frustrated in turn by their own vacillations.

Berryman’s quest for fame (in his more abject and therefore flamboyant moments) led him to measure himself constantly against famous poets of his century; curiously, among these Stevens stands out as the real challenger. Berryman’s elegy “So Long? Stevens,” in its reluctant and envious judgment, memorably flouts Stevensian sublimity. It begins in comedy, proceeds to a self-deprecating definition of poetry as a “mutter,” and then comments, baffled, on the impression of “something…something…not there in [Stevens’s] flourishing art.” In mid-stanza Henry addresses himself apologetically to Stevens (“O veteran of death”) and then cannot decide whether Stevens’s extended meditations are “monotonous” or “ever-fresh”: “It sticks/in Henry’s throat to judge—brilliant, he seethe;/better than us; less wide.”

Berryman knows very well the cost of relinquishing a Stevensian stoicism in favor of the world’s broad social comedy, but he makes that choice, all the while doubting its value. He suspects, in fact, that the minimalism and pessimism of an author such as Beckett are fully warranted, and rebuke his own comedy. Questioned whether it is the artist’s duty to express “human affirmation,” Berryman replies:

Well, I don’t know. I am incredibly doubtful. All you have to do is to think about Samuel Beckett: a mind so dark that it makes you wonder if the Renaissance really took place!

The “Dark Ages,” in short, never ended: And what, the example of Beckett sarcastically asks, is there to “affirm”?

Berryman was twelve when he wrote his first long work, a science-fiction novel. Henry and his stern interlocutor as well are like characters in science fiction: programmatic, single-functioned, allegorical: the Id and the Conscience. Within the encounters of this nonrealistic pair, Berryman inserts the imperfect, grandiose, inebriated, wry, grieving, guilt-ridden existence of a greatly gifted poet possessed by the devils of mania, depression, and drunkenness. The Dream Songs, flawed as they are, remain infinitely quotable—the witty lament of a singular man with the courage to exhibit himself in shame, indignity, and exuberant speech. Nothing else in Berryman equals them.

Letters

Berryman’s ‘Bones’ June 18, 2015

  1. 1

    The Life of John Berryman (Routledge). Poets in Their Youth, the memoir of Eileen Simpson, Berryman’s first wife, was also recently reissued by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

  2. 2

    Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.