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The Poetry of John Berryman

77 Dream Songs

by John Berryman
Farrar, Straus, 84 pp., $3.95

Groups of John Berryman’s Dream Songs have been coming out in magazines for the last five years. They have been talked about, worried over, denounced, adored. They are puzzling, not quite intelligible—and beyond a doubt fun to read or hear. When they don’t make you cry—these poems will make you laugh. And that is news.

In many ways, Berryman is typical of his generation, a studious generation, stuffed with new conventions, and squeezed by the pressure of the unconventional. As soon as be began to publish, one heard of his huge library, his phonograph installed by Bernard Haggin, his endless ability to quote poetry, and his work on a conclusive text of King Lear. In his twenties, he was already a keen critic and a distinguished scholar; from the first he wrote with vehemence and calculation. He was disciplined, yet bohemian; unorthodox in the ardor of his admirations, and yet so catholic and generous that he was hampered in finding his own voice. He seemed to throb with a singular rhythm and pitch. One felt the fierce charge of electricity, and feared that it might burn out the wires. He vibrated brilliantly to all significant influences, and most of all to the new idiom of Auden. His proper bent seemed toward an intense and unworldly symbolic poetry.

In the beginning, Berryman might have grown into an austere, removed poet, but instead he somehow remained deep in the mess of things. His writing has been a long, often back-breaking, search for an inclusive style, a style that could use his erudition, and catch the high, even frenetic, intensity of his experience, disgusts and enthusiasm. And how wonderful the enthusiasm! What stirred him most then were the late plays of Shakespeare. He would recite magical, little-known speeches, remarkable for their exploratory syntax and dramatic flights of psychology. Syntax and psychology—in his new poems, each sentence and stanza seemed to clutch after all the twists and experiments spread over many pages of the late Shakespeare.

It is a temptation in poetry to jump from style to style—sometimes without advance and with so little connection to previous work that change is monotony. With Berryman, each succeeding book is part of a single drive against the barriers of the commonplace. Before writing about his Dream Songs, I want to look briefly at his earlier work. A definite pattern or lurch of alteration goes through it all.

Consider the following lines from “The Statue”:

Where I sit near the entrance of the Park,
The charming, dangerous entrance of their need,
Dozens, a hundred men have lain till morning,
And the preservative darkness waning…

The poem is about destitute burns sprawling by a statue of Humboldt. It is an impressive effort to give a pang of squalor to the monumental, and a breath of grandeur to the miserable. What else could make either tolerable? I have selected rather meanly, trying to indicate the Audenesque.

My favorite Berryman poem of this period is “Winter Landscape,” a symbolic description of Breughel’s painting. It is written in one sentence that loops through five five-line stanzas, as if it were trying to make a complete poem out of Keat’s pictorial and next-to-last stanza in the “Grecian Urn.” The old meaning is repeated by a darker, more imperiled voice. The music and imagery move with a relentless casualness. Like the painting, all is simultaneous, and flows in a timeless circle of calm, overshadowed beauty.

These men, this particular three in brown
Witnessed by birds will keep the scene and say,
By their configuration with the trees,
The small bridge, the red houses and the fire,
What place, what time, what morn- ing occasion


Sent them into the wood…

If Berryman had gone on composing with such gentleness and delicacy and clarity, he would at the least have been notable as a technician. He chose, however, a more reckless and tortured line. Lucid, cool Parnassian description vanished and new methods were felt out. In “Canto Amor,” one of his most eloquent and high-flown poems, he tried, like Rosetti and Pound, but with a difference, to adapt the speculative stile nuovo of Dante’s shorter poems.

Dream in a dream the heavy soul somewhere
struck suddenly & dark down to its knees…
And then that other music, in whose sake
all men perceive a gladness but we are drawn
less for that joy than utterly to take
our trial, naked in the music’s vision…

The power of these lines comes from the difficulty of the task, the brave labor to give music and nobility to a bare, archaic style, full of elbows, quaintness and stops. If Berryman’s later work seems idiosyncratic, one should remember that he had the humility and stamina to pass all the hardest standard tests. Elsewhere, about this time, he was working at simpler, more broken and prosaic effects. Here are the opening lines from “The Song of the Tortured Girl”:

After a little I could not have told—
But no one asked me this—why I was there.
I asked. The ceiling of that place was high,
And there were sudden noises, which I made…

The poem in which everything flowers for Berryman is his long “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet.” It is wonderfully wrung and wrought. Nothing could be more high-pitched, studied and inflamed. One can read it many times, and still get lost in it; with each renewal it becomes clearer and more haunting. In part, it is a biography of Anne Bradstreet that reproduces the grammar, theology and staid decor of the period. The poet, however, heightens the action by imagining his heroine with the intensity of a seizure or hallucination. He is in her presence, she seems inside him. In what is almost a love declaration, she speaks to him in a language that is a strange mixture of hers and his. Somehow, the story of her landing, her pious and despairing moments, the bearing of a child, the death of a daughter, and her own aging and wavering relations with her husband and family get told with a passionate fullness. Here Berryman’s experiments with music and sentence structure find themselves harnessed to a subject and trial that strain them to the limit. His lovely discordant rhythms ride through every break, splutter, archaism and inversion. The old rustic, seventeenth-century, provincial simplicity survives and is greatly enriched by the jagged intellectual probing and techniques of the modern poet. “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” is the most resourceful historical poem in our literature.

Dream Songs is larger and sloppier. The scene is contemporary and crowded with references to news items, world politics, travel, low life, and Negro music. Its style is a conglomeration of high style, Berrymanisms. Negro and beat slang and baby-talk. The poem is written in sections of three six-line stanzas. There is little sequence, and sometimes a single section will explode into three or four separate parts. At first the brain aches and freezes at so much darkness, disorder and oddness. After a while, the repeated situations and their racy jabber become more and more enjoyable, although even now I wouldn’t trust myself to paraphrase accurately at least half the sections.

The poems are much too difficult, packed and wrenched to be sung. They are called songs out of mockery, because they are filled with snatches of Negro minstrelsy, and because one of their characters is Mr. Bones, who keeps questioning the author and talking for him. The dreams are not real dreams but a waking hallucination in which anything that might have happened to the author can be used at random. Anything he has seen, over-heard or imagined can go in. The poems are about Berryman, or rather they are about a person he calls Henry. Henry is Berryman seen as himself, as poète maudit, child and puppet. He is tossed about with a mixture of tenderness and absurdity, pathos and hilarity that would have been impossible if the author had spoken in the first person.

Berryman is very bookish and also very idiosyncratic. The bookishness shows up as a fault in a certain echoing hardness, yet it tempers his quirkiness, and lets him draw on whatever models will serve his purposes. Many masters support him and are extended by his undertaking.

Here is a bit of Pound:

I seldom go to films. They are too exciting,
said the honorable Possum.

Here is Stevens:

Pleased at the worst, except with man, he shook
the brightest winter sun.

And here is a passage that would have pleased Cummings:

This is the lay of Ike.
Here’s to the glory of the great white—awk—
who has been running—er—er—things in recent—ech—
in the United—if your screen is black,
ladies & gentlemen, we—I like—
at the Point he was terrific…

Berryman’s debt to these three authors is much deeper and more imaginative than such verbal similarities would suggest. From Pound he learned the all-inclusive style, the high spirits, the flitting from subject to subject, irreverance and humor. I say learned, but it is really a question of resemblance. I feel the presence of Stevens in sonorous, suggestive, nuance-like, often not quite clear, lines; in cloudy anecdotes about fanciful figures, such as Quo, or in the section about Clitus and Alexander the Great. Henry has much the same distance and identification with his author as Crispin in “The Comedian as the letter C.” The resemblance to Cummings is in the humor, verbal contortion and pathos. There is also Joyce.

Several of the best poems in this sequence are elegies to other writers. His elegies are eulogies. By their impertinent piety, by jumping from thought to thought, mood to mood, and by saying anything that comes into the author’s head, they are touching and nervously alive.

Bless Frost….

His malice was a pimple down his good
big face, with its sly eyes…
He had fine stories and was another man on the whole in private.
He apologize to Henry off & on
for two blue slanders, which was good for him… For a while here
we possessed an unusual man.

Henry’s queer baby talk was at first insufferable to me, and yet I soon surrendered to the crazy joy, the wildly personal use of minstrel language.

I could quote many funny and many sad lines from Dream Songs. Instead I will select one entire section, one of the best and most unified.

There sat down once, a thing on Henry’s heart
so heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more & weeping, sleepless in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.


And there’s another thing he had in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;
thinking.

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows; he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody’s ever missing.

The voice of the man becomes one with the voice of the child here, as their combined rhythm sobs through remorse, wonder and nightmare. It’s as if two widely separated parts of a man’s life had somehow fused. It goes through the slow words of “Henry could not make good,” to the accusing solemnity of the Sienese face, to the frozen, automatic counting of the limbs, the counting of the bodies, to the terrible charm and widening meaning of the final line.

Dream Songs is a hazardous, imperfect book. One would need to see the unpublished parts to decide how well it fills out as a whole. As it stands, the main faults of this selection are the threat of mannerism, and worse—disintegration. How often one chafes at the relentless indulgence, and cannot tell the what or why of a passage. And yet one must give in. All is risk and variety here. This great Pierrot’s universe is more tearful and funny than we can easily bear.

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