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 …

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