In the early morning hours of December 6, 1962, having broken his ankle, afraid that he was on the verge of a more general breakdown, the poet John Berryman woke up in a hospital bed. He was forty-eight years old, a year into his third marriage, a new father for the second time. From bed he transcribed his dream:
First, at vast party I was giving, Randall said “You’ve just got to stop writing these pseudo-poems. Come back & write real ones and we’ll all be with you.” Many guests about—all heard—but not said for them: to me, sincerely, and I felt that he was right—all my work was a stupid farce. I promised never to write again—even grateful to him—but no one was satisfied; I must die. Only question: method—& to leave the party unnoticed.
The “pseudo-poems” that had so gravely disappointed this nightmare version of Berryman’s friend, the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, were in fact sections of a long poem that Berryman would eventually collect and publish as The Dream Songs (1969). He had been writing them since 1955; by the time of his nightmare, he had begun to share them with friends and to present them publicly at readings. A few had already appeared in print. Now, his dreams were telling him, the price of their failure would be his death.
The poems record the dreamlife of a character named Henry, who was, according to Berryman, “a white American in early middle age.” Henry was a dream version of his maker, Berryman’s avatar and effigy. When Elizabeth Bishop read 77 Dream Songs (1964), the first book-length installment of the project, she confided to Robert Lowell, “Some pages I find wonderful, some baffle me completely.” It’s not hard to see why. Like dreams, the poems are full of associative leaps and bursts of intense feeling, jarring shifts in perspective and setting, sudden entrances and exits of dimly lit characters. Those characters address Henry with a mixture of intimacy and hostility, literary allusion and slangy babytalk. Most bafflingly, in many of the Dream Songs, Henry speaks and is spoken to as though he were a blackface performer (called Mr. Bones) in a minstrel show.
Just over a decade ago, I visited the Berryman archive at the University of Minnesota and held in my hands the transcript of his hospital nightmare about Jarrell. What I didn’t realize at the time—and what I know now from reading Berryman’s Selected Letters—was that this haunting bit of inner life had taken a circuitous route to the archive, passing through other hands before it returned to Berryman’s and, decades later and in an institutional setting, reached mine. Three days after he’d transcribed his dream, Berryman placed it in an envelope along with a letter to Jarrell himself: “One nightmare in the 2nd hosp. was abt you—I wrote it out & enclose it—may I have it back?” What a strange thing to do, I now think, to put the dream in the mail and send it to the waking version of the man whose judgment had troubled his sleep, and how like Berryman to do it. To read The Dream Songs is to feel the prickly thrill—and also, at times, the tedium and discomfiting imposition—of receiving, unsolicited and without explanation, a casual friend’s dreams in the mail.
Or on the telephone. At around the same time, Berryman regularly sought out another friend, the novelist Ralph Ellison, who later explained the odd routine to one of Berryman’s biographers:
During the period he was writing Dream Songs I grew to expect his drunken (sometimes) telephone calls, in the course of which he’d read from work in progress…. I can’t recall how many such calls there were, but usually he wanted my reaction to his uses of dialect. My preference is for idiomatic rendering, but I wasn’t about to let the poetry of what he was saying be interrupted by the dictates of my ear for Afro-American speech. Besides, watching him transform elements of the minstrel show into poetry was too fascinating. Fascinating too, and amusing was my suspicion that Berryman was casting me as a long-distance Mister Interlocutor—or was it Mister Tambo—whose temporary role was that of responding critically to his Mister Bones and Huffy Henry.1
It’s an extraordinary scene: a white poet summoning the author of Invisible Man as a disembodied voice, enlisting a Black novelist as silent guarantor of authenticity in an elaborate racial masquerade. As Ellison intuited—and as was also true in the correspondence with Jarrell—the psychodramas into which Berryman projected his friends replicated the dreamlike dialogues within his poems. In both his poems and his social life, what Berryman was rehearsing was the production of a self. From Jarrell, Berryman sought the critical authority that could assure him that his “pseudo-poems,” and thus the life from which they sprang, were “real”; from Ellison, Berryman wanted the black background against which his flickering identity, his ghostly whiteness, could become visible, coherent, and powerful.
Peculiar as it may have seemed, ghastly as it was, Berryman’s minstrelsy was also typical of the form’s history. In his landmark book Love and Theft (1995), Eric Lott argued that, from the 1830s on, blackface minstrelsy gave white working-class performers a way to tap into the insurrectionary potential hiding within their fantasies of blackness while simultaneously reasserting their supremacy over the Black people who were the objects of their racist mimicry. Blackface thus not only lent itself to the brutalization of Black people; it also played an essential part in the construction and consolidation of its participants’ whiteness.
Those projects were linked. Over the course of the twentieth century, as actual blackface performances (largely but never entirely) receded from the American stage, minstrelsy’s legacy seeped into the culture, so that, for instance, Jim Crow, once the most famous character of the minstrel stage, became the name for the legal system that governed the racial segregation of American life. By the middle of the twentieth century—a period coterminous, not incidentally, with the civil rights era—the white performer in blackface was nowhere and everywhere. He lurked behind Elvis Presley’s uncanny channeling of the blues, Norman Mailer’s description of the postwar hipster as a “white Negro,” John Howard Griffin’s darkening his skin and touring the South for his book Black Like Me. Berryman’s minstrelsy at once sits alongside these contemporary examples and—anachronistically, scandalously—draws the source of their artifice to the surface. Henry doesn’t dream that he is Black. He dreams that he’s a white man in blackface.
That kind of literary posturing, in which a provisional identification with the markers of blackness allows the white writer to identify with a figure whom he can also discipline and disavow, has had a long history. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, a generation or two older than Berryman, addressed each other in letters with nicknames plucked from Uncle Remus (Eliot was “Old Possum,” Pound “Brer Rabbit”) and channeled the undercurrents of minstrelsy to help stage the cultural upheavals that we have come to associate with modernism. In an early draft of The Waste Land, for which Pound served as ad hoc editor, Eliot ventriloquized lyrics from the minstrel songbook: “Meet me in the shadow of the watermelon vine/Eva Iva Uva Emmaline.” Those lines did not make it into the finished poem, but ragtime, jazz, and the vestiges of the minstrel tradition on which those popular musical forms drew did: out of that tradition emerges, for instance, the “Shakespeherian Rag” that echoes in the poem’s chaotic soundscape. As the scholar Michael North and others have shown, moments like these, in which white writers used dialect associated with stereotypical notions of racialized others, were central not only to the private correspondence of Eliot and Pound or to the composition of a single poem but rather to the very formation of Anglo-American literary modernism, whose legacy dominated the institutions in which Berryman learned to be a poet.
After World War II, Pound had become institutional in another sense: held in St. Elizabeths, a federal insane asylum, for thirteen years, avoiding treason charges for his fascist wartime radio broadcasts. In 1947 Berryman wrote to him there and described the way the literary landscape had changed since Pound and his cohort had come onto the scene:
Thirty years ago the (“intellectual”) public knew nothing, at present it is only too damned apparently-familiar with everything—among others, with all of you…. There is a whole school of now-academic criticism to be broken down also (Ransom Winters Tate Blackmur Warren), which I am convinced is stifling talent.
In his final parenthetical, Berryman rattles off the names of prominent New Critics, a loosely affiliated group of writers who developed the ideas of Eliot’s early essays into an understanding of literature—particularly poetry—as a formal craft that could be divorced from the lives of its makers and the history from which it emerged. Berryman had come to believe that the New Critical approach, which had taken as axiomatic Eliot’s claim that poetry should be “impersonal,” was a dead end for poetry. “It seems to me,” Berryman told an interviewer, “on the contrary that poetry comes out of personality.”
When he invented Henry, Berryman felt as though he had landed upon a way to reclaim modernism’s poetic energy unburdened by the orthodoxy that constrained its latter-day, midcentury adherents. Minstrelsy may have seemed to him, four decades after The Waste Land, like a means by which he could upset the “stifling” status quo that Eliot had unwittingly, even paradoxically, prefigured, but it reinscribed another. No matter the liberating potential Berryman saw in it, inevitably, as Saidiya Hartman has written, “the donning of the blackface mask reiterated racial subjection.”2
Such a possibility did not seem to worry the early reviewers, all of them white, of 77 Dream Songs. In The New York Times John Malcolm Brinnin called Mr. Bones “perhaps the very last minstrel in the stranded Tom Show of the universe,” before judging the book “strictly in terms of technique…a knockout.” Lowell reviewed the volume in the pages of this publication. To Berryman’s horror, his friend mistook Mr. Bones for another character in the poem, rather than as another name for Henry (“he does not understand it AT ALL,” Berryman complained). Lowell’s misunderstanding may have been born of some ambivalence about minstrelsy, but in the end he deemed both the book and its use of dialect a success: “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.”
For Adrienne Rich, writing in The Nation, Berryman’s diction (“half Uncle Tom, half baby talk”) had allowed him to write “private history without self-photography”—to be, in other words, personal and impersonal at once. “Within the flexibility and inventiveness of Berryman’s diction,” she wrote, “almost anything seems possible.” (Berryman was delighted.) Five years later, writing about the newly complete edition of The Dream Songs, Rich expanded on her earlier praise:
Some streak of genius in Berryman told him to try on what he’s referred to as “that god-damned baby-talk,” that blackface dialect, for his persona. No political stance taught him, no rational sympathy with negritude. For blackface is the supreme dialect and posture of this country, going straight to the roots of our madness. A man who needs to discourse on the most extreme, most tragic subjects, has recourse to n[—–] talk.
Rich spelled out that final slur; after all, she might have felt like she had recourse to it just as Berryman had had recourse to the “talk” that it named. (The same slur also appears twice in Berryman’s Selected Letters, though on both occasions Berryman is quoting other sources.) What gave Berryman’s “streak of genius” unfettered access to “the roots of our madness” was whiteness, the identity whose contours were invisibly—and yet sharply—drawn by the first-person plural (“our madness”) that so casually claimed it.
In Playing in the Dark Toni Morrison wrote about such literary descendants of blackface performance:
Just as entertainers, through or by association with blackface, could render permissible topics that otherwise would have been taboo, so American writers were able to employ an imagined Africanist persona to articulate and imaginatively act out the forbidden in American culture.
Such role-playing both perpetuated the exclusion of actual Black writers from the “vast party” (to use Berryman’s dream phrase) of American literature and nursed an anxiety at the heart of whiteness itself. And though Ellison may have played along with Berryman’s long-distance casting, he understood, all along, what motivated its demands. By the time he received Berryman’s drunken phone calls, Ellison had published this sentence about blackface minstrelsy, its antecedents, and its heirs: “Out of the counterfeiting of the black American’s identity there arises a profound doubt in the white man’s mind as to the authenticity of his own image of himself.”3
Berryman would likely have read “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” Ellison’s essay in which that sentence appears, when it was first published in Partisan Review in the spring of 1958—he had a poem in the same issue. He would therefore have had Ellison’s diagnosis in mind later that year, as he drafted some of the earliest sections of The Dream Songs in which Henry appears as Mr. Bones.4 Berryman had read, in Carl Wittke’s Tambo and Bones (1930), his primary source for the history of minstrelsy, that “Bones” was traditionally one of the two “end-men” in a minstrel show (the other was “Tambo”; they were so named for their instruments, knocking bones and tambourine); endmen typically played for the broadest, most buffoonish kind of racist humor. When Mr. Bones appears in The Dream Songs, he is usually accompanied by an unnamed friend (presumably, if not Tambo, then, as Ellison had speculated, the Interlocutor, the show’s host and straight man), who in turn eggs him on and chides him for his excesses.
Minstrelsy, in other words, supplied Berryman with a ready-made, racialized structure within which he could stage the dramas typical of confessional poetry, which tried to unsettle the “stifling” decorum of midcentury poetry. Berryman resented the “confessional” label, but it makes sense to think of The Dream Songs alongside Lowell’s Life Studies (1959), W.D. Snodgrass’s Heart’s Needle (1959), Anne Sexton’s To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), and Sylvia Plath’s posthumous Ariel (1965). For all of these poets’ many differences, and notwithstanding the craft that went into each of their volumes (these were far from artless confessions), the books tend to follow a similar arc: the wayward poet makes a putatively shameful disclosure about his or her life, usually involving some breakdown of the nuclear family (the given family of childhood, the made one of adulthood, or, often, both), only to have the form within which they make that disclosure, the well-made lyric poem, lead them back, by poem’s end, into the boundaries of respectable domesticity.
The Dream Songs “flash and yearn” with all the wild and incoherent intensities of Berryman’s dreamlife, but the volume’s final two poems, tellingly, return Henry first to a confrontation with his absent father and then to a reunion with his own “heavy daughter.” For Berryman as for the other confessional poets, the poet’s psyche, seemingly on the brink of falling apart, is reconstituted at the end of the book. “My house,” proclaims Henry in the final Dream Song, “is made of wood and it’s made well.” What Berryman’s example helps make visible is the extent to which that well-made domestic architecture, aligned as it was with the period style, had always been part of the historical production of whiteness.
It was, in Berryman’s own estimation, a dangerous game. Dream Song 53 ends by (nearly) quoting the German poet Gottfried Benn: “Gottfried Benn/said:—We are using our own skins for wallpaper and we cannot win.” For Berryman as for Benn, that image was meant to evoke the heroic peril of making one’s art coextensive with one’s life. If modernism had demanded impersonality in art, what Berryman sought was a restoration of poetry to the scale of the self. What made that gamble possible was that the skin in question was white. Any project in which one’s identity could seem both particular, grounded in one’s life, and also sufficiently universal or culturally representative to command the attention of the reading public seemed to require the (usually unspoken) logic of whiteness, which staked its claim not as one racialized identity among others but instead as a kind of neutral and unmarked—and therefore universally “human”—position.
Berryman was central to the personal turn that American poetry took in the middle of the twentieth century. And yet more than any of his peers, he made the racialization of that turn—and the whiteness of the lyric tradition for which confessionalism seemed the culmination—explicit. Berryman’s influence is today most apparent in the work of Black poets (among them Michael Harper, Wanda Coleman, Kevin Young, Tyehimba Jess, and Tiana Clark), who have directly responded to him and who see most clearly the violence encoded in his chosen form. Half a century after the publication of 77 Dream Songs, as she thought through the possibility of writing, as a Black woman, from the point of view of a coherent and representative “I,” Claudia Rankine returned to Berryman and Dream Song 53: “The pronoun barely holding the person together./Someone claimed we should use our skin as wallpaper knowing we couldn’t win.” Rankine’s silent citation (she names neither Berryman nor Benn in the text of Citizen, though she lists The Dream Songs in her book’s bibliography) makes clear the extent to which the very idea of a lyric subject, an “I” whose interiority the poem presents, had been premised on the whiteness of that “I.” For Rankine, if lyric was to avoid the replication of white supremacy, it would have to expand its sense of who, in the first place, could count as “someone,” and it would have to dismantle the cloistered form of the confessional lyric. “Don’t lean against the wallpaper,” Rankine enjoins her reader, “sit down and pull together.”5
Rankine also helps us see what animated the anxiety at the heart of Berryman’s autobiographical poem. If, as Berryman worried in his nightmare about Jarrell, these Dream Songs were “pseudo-poems” and not the real thing, that was because they took what was essential to lyric poetry, the construction of an “I,” and rendered it as antic performance. The poet’s self, projected onto a stage, threatened to flicker out of view. Was there no one behind the curtain? To present the self as Berryman does—to enlist, in particular, the scripts of minstrelsy in order to render the “I”—was to manufacture a ghost, to make a body that both was and wasn’t there, a grinning skeleton whose white bones signified at once solidity and a deathly kind of absence.
Take the hair-raising Dream Song 26, which Berryman drafted in the fall of 1958 and which assumes the form, from beginning to end, of a dialogue between Henry (as Mr. Bones) and his unnamed interlocutor.6 Henry speaks first, and the interlocutor interrupts him with a question in lines 2 and 3 (dashes indicate changes in speaker). Henry refers to himself in the third person as he answers the interlocutor’s questions; that grammatical oddity signals what becomes by the end of the poem a spectral detachment from the speaking self. I can’t think of many other poems with a twist ending quite like this one, a final line that so unnervingly makes the whole fiction of the poem—that there is a live body at the other end of the line—shimmer and dissolve:
The glories of the world struck me, made me aria, once.
—What happen then, Mr Bones?
if be you cares to say.
—Henry. Henry became interested in women’s bodies,
his loins were & were the scene of stupendous achievement.
Stupor. Knees, dear. Pray.
All the knobs & softnesses of, my God,
the ducking & trouble it swarm on Henry,
at one time.
—What happen then, Mr Bones?
you seems excited-like.
—Fell Henry back into the original crime: art, rime
besides a sense of others, my God, my God,
and a jealousy for the honour (alive) of his country,
what can get more odd?
and discontent with the thriving gangs & pride.
—What happen then, Mr Bones?
—I had a most marvellous piece of luck. I died.
What begins in the first line as a standard account of poetic vocation (the poet “struck” into song by beauty) quickly descends, in response to the friend’s needling (“What happen then, Mr Bones?”), into a taxonomy of Henry’s lusts. His waywardness is racialized, his broken grammar, even as it coincides with a certain grandiloquent tone and diction, made to seem a symptom of the hapless, leering energy of his blackface persona: “All the knobs & softnesses of, my God,/the ducking & trouble it swarm on Henry.” This white fantasy of hypersexualized blackness becomes the form through which Henry’s (and, behind them, Berryman’s) appetites get expressed and out of which his artistic ambition grows. That racialization is both license and sentence; in the poem’s last line, the first appearance of an “I,” we realize that this voice has been reaching us from beyond the grave. Blackface was, for Berryman, a form of necromancy.
Berryman was haunted by death—by the memory of his father’s suicide, when he was only twelve years old, and by the premonition of his own. As early as 1953, when he separated from his first wife, Eileen Simpson, he wrote her a long and deeply depressed letter, describing his intentions methodically:
What I am going to do is drop off the George Washington bridge. I believe one dies on the way down but I don’t wish anyway to hit anyone or be splattered on the pavement, and in case my body is not found nobody has the bore & cost of burial.
One can hear Berryman, a scholar of Shakespeare, dramatizing his own despair in the style of a dying soliloquy:
Don’t sell my typewriter, it’s worth nothing, have it broken up; the new ribbon is worth 88¢, or was this morning, which is why I am not dining tonight; for twenty-five years I wrote badly on it, and for a few months well, and I loved it well; break it up.
A decade later, in a Dream Song, he wrote:
The cold is ultimating. The cold is cold.
I am—I should be held together by—
but I am breaking up
and Henry now has come to a full stop—
vanisht his vision, if there was, & fold
him over himself quietly.
Break the typewriter up, break up the man who sat before it—for the “I” whom he had made there could not be held together, try as Berryman might. “Henry’s parts,” he announced in another Dream Song, “were fleeing.”
On a cold morning in January 1972, Berryman ended his life by stepping over the railing of the Washington Avenue Bridge and falling onto the frozen banks of the Mississippi River, which cuts through the campus of the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, where he’d lived and taught for seventeen years—and where he’d invented Henry. Over those years Berryman had held tenaciously to life, held to it even in the face of the twinned afflictions of depression and alcoholism. In his writing, that tenacity produced a weird coupling of intensity and distance—not only in the poems, which reached readers, even while Berryman was still alive, as from a ghost, but also in the letters, which could make desperate demands on their recipients. In 1959, nearing the finalization of his divorce from his second wife, Ann Levine, he sent her a typescript of a Dream Song that he never published. He signed the poem “John ex-Henry House” and added the postscript, “I thought I had abandoned the poem, when this came. I may not write any more.” The poem arrived as a letter to a lost love, and yet it reaches us now as ars poetica, Berryman’s letter to a world that he felt had neglected him:
Three blue rooms, & one brown, where he thinks,
only from his typewriter blurts sound,
here’s Henry free,
with none of his beloved wives around,
no telephone, no friend for miles.
Why then is Henry weeping like a child
& feeling out of his mind
or desperate in it, in it?
The wooden desk hurts. Miles? Here’s a new wound.
Has he been tried & found wanting,
tried & found wanting?
Murdered he, long, a love of someone who,
alone, cared about Henry,
& he cared back?
Wood, tears, a raw breast, the blue of the sea
in the other rooms where he’d drown
only he blurs & thinks.
Berryman writes from the blue in a few different senses: from depressive states, in a profane mode (he “works blue”), and as though from nowhere, from out of the blue. (He also thought—mistakenly—that blackface granted him access to the musical genre of the blues.) Weeping blurs his vision but Henry also blurs in an intransitive sense: shimmering between states, projecting himself into the dreamlife of whiteness, the paradoxically brown and putatively dry room from which, for the time being, he could try to think—and send his words to us.
“I’ve never met Berryman, that I know. One has the feeling a 100 yrs. from now that he may be all the rage, or a ‘discovery’—hasn’t one?” So speculated Bishop in 1962, again in a letter to Lowell. From where I sit today and write—six decades after Bishop’s prediction, four decades before it comes due—such a future seems unlikely. I doubt that Berryman will be sufficiently forgotten in order to be rediscovered, but it also seems improbable that his racial politics will allow him ever again to take center stage. Berryman’s blackface was far from incidental to his poetics; rather, his reliance on its formal structure reminds readers today (and, presumably, readers tomorrow) of just how white, and therefore how exclusionary and impoverished, confessional poetry, his own included, ultimately could be.
He may have turned to blackface dialect in an attempt to break free of midcentury poetry’s stifling decorum, but its use tethered his greatest poem to the ground of whiteness, which gave him the bed from which he could dream. Yet Bishop gets something right about Berryman’s wild ambition and anachronistic talent. Dreaming as a white man in blackface held out a mirage of timelessness; it seemed to offer Berryman the ability to hold together a self that threatened to fall apart, to address himself, from an apparent position of coherence and stability, to a past by which he had been wounded and to a future that he meant to haunt. I suspect Berryman would have been pleased by Bishop’s judgment; what he wanted was to be discovered “100 yrs. from now.”
Such ambition had dire implications for Berryman’s present—and for ours. Among the most heartbreaking letters in this collection are the ones addressed to Berryman’s son, some of them written before their recipient was old enough to read. When Paul Berryman was four years old, his father began a long letter to him by confessing, “I haven’t seen you in so long, I don’t know how you talk or what you can understand.” Two years later, he included half a dozen Dream Songs in a letter to Ann, Paul’s mother, and suggested that she read them to him: “He might like the sound, though he won’t understand much.”
Those gestures were, of course, meant for Ann as much as for Paul, but they were also addressed to Berryman’s dreamlife, where the injuries of his past could find their restitution in his fantasy of a posthumous future. A few months later, just before Paul turned seven, Berryman wrote: “I would expect you to keep my letters, so that you can read them when you are older. It is a source of pain to me, still, that I have no letters from my father, who died when I was twelve.” Like these letters to his son, The Dream Songs were themselves addressed to the future, ours and the one to come, in which they’ll reach readers who will recognize their author only too well.
The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner (Random House, 2019), pp. 922–923. ↩
Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-century America (Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 32. ↩
Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (Random House, 1964), p. 53. ↩
We can know when some of the Dream Songs were composed because Berryman dated many of his drafts and included others in letters. When Ellison later reprinted “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke” in Shadow and Act, Berryman responded by giving Mr. Bones the following lines in Dream Song 119, whose manuscript is dated October 15, 1964: “Shadow & act, shadow & act,/Better get white or you’ get whacked,/or keep so-called black/& raise new hell.” ↩
See also my “The Atlantic Ocean Breaking on Our Heads: Claudia Rankine, Robert Lowell, and the Whiteness of the Lyric Subject,” PMLA, Vol. 134, No. 3 (May 2019). ↩
Berryman liked to play coy about the identity of the interlocutor. At a reading a decade later, he joked, “I know his name, but the critics haven’t found out, yet. We must leave something for the professors to do, don’t you think so? How otherwise can an assistant professor become an associate professor?” ↩