Apropos of nothing I picked up “The Dream Songs” by John Berryman, two years after I last read it. I can remember when I last read that book: driving to Madison with my dad in March, a weekend trip. I had known since December I was accepted to the university, but this March trip was the first time I had visited as an actual student, not an applicant. Perhaps that association is why “The Dream Songs” possesses so much poignancy in my memory.
Berryman was an American poet who wrote from the early ’40s to 1972. He was loosely a Confessional Poet, or someone whose personal life is fair game for their art, whose art almost hinges on what happens in their personal lives. And there is no mistaking how much of Berryman’s poetry was autobiography or autobiographical.
He was a luminary for a time after he published a long poem entitled “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” and the two books that constitute “The Dream Songs” (“77 Dream Songs” and “His Toy, His Dream, His Rest”). He committed suicide in 1972 by jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minn. Anyone who likes The Hold Steady may know this is referenced in their song “Stuck Between Stations.”
Berryman was a poet stuck between stations. He was a passionate alcoholic, threading that ever-loving line between sobriety and drunkenness. He cheated on his wife and wrote over 100 sonnets on the subject, which he later published after they were divorced. He commanded respect, veneration, had a National Book Award and a Pulitzer to show for his efforts: Ostensibly, late at night, smashed and drifting, he would call up people and recite his poetry to them, a sort of unwarranted dependence, a plea reeking of gin and desperation.
He was stuck between the living and the dead. Berryman’s father shot himself when Berryman was twelve and neither of them ever got over it.
“The Dream Songs” deal with all of those themes, though not in the way you would expect. Every poem is about a man named Henry, who is sometimes Mr. Bones or Sir Bones, and there might be another speaker somewhere but it’s unclear who’s speaking about who because Henry can and will refer to himself in the first, third and second person.
There’s also the trouble of dialect in “The Dream Songs.” Some of the poems feature lines written like the dialogue in books like “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” what some critics have called minstrel show language. It’s unsettling, discomforting and in some interpretations quite harmful that Berryman chose to write some lines in a tenor whose original purpose was to denigrate African Americans with blackface and farce.
So why did he do it? Keep in mind, first off, that the lines in question do not echo minstrel shows in content. They evoke them aurally, phonetically, which puts the reader into the painful position of considering minstrel stereotypes. This is not an excuse for what Berryman did. And consider the statement Berryman made when he received the National Book Award for “His Toy, His Dream, His Rest”: “I set up ‘The Dream Songs’ as hostile to every visible tendency in both American and English poetry.” That, too, is not an excuse for Berryman’s dialect.
That question, “Why did he do it?” is too long to consider here (whether he did it as a joke or in order to address, as Adrienne Rich said in an article titled “Living With Henry,” “the roots of our [country’s] madness”), but whatever side you fall on, it makes you feel uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Well, “The Dream Songs” are poems of discomfort, anguish, misery, despair and such and such. That is perhaps why I like them, and Berryman, so much. They are not reassuring. They make you think. They kind of hurt, actually. And the dialect, so fleeting, is not so much dialect as idiolect. Berryman’s thorny idiolect.
I am not a big fan of poetry and consequently hold few poets dear to my heart. If my heart were a house, the poets would be relegated to the aortic attic or baying about the atria like dogs while the other writers go about their shrined business.
But Berryman? Berryman will go wherever he damn well pleases in my heart, Bronx cocktail in hand, tapping out odd rhythms on the septum drywall, commenting variously on the red, red wallpaper. He is a sad, mad man who I would not trust with anything. He may have been a genius. He keeps me on my toes more than any other author I’ve read.
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