Difficult Books: The Cantos, The Dream Songs, The Sonnets

November 12, 2009 | 4 books mentioned 10 3 min read

“He was drunk and exhausted
but he was critically acclaimed and respected.”

The Hold Steady, “Stuck Between Stations”

Writing about literature is often figured as a sort of parasitism – “what lice will do, when they have no more blood to suck,” is how I’m told they put it in the Nineteenth Century. For a time in the Twentieth, however, the relationship between a certain school of exegetes and a certain coterie of writers was closer to symbiosis. The job of New Critics and their Formalist counterparts was to decode a text’s meanings through close examination of its language. The job of the poet, meanwhile, was to create a text that would stand up to such scrutiny.

coverEzra Pound‘s Cantos constitute, it seems to me, the paramount example of poetry alert to – even anxious about – its own interpretative possibilities. It is the tension between Pound’s confidence in the cryptographic stamina of his readers and his desire to make the poems finally unsolvable that makes The Cantos (all 800 pages of them) so frustrating. And so beautiful. Behind the bricolage of quotations (translated, mistranslated, untranslated), the syntactic suspensions, the typographic oddities and the lunatic fragmentation, there’s always a sense of something powerful, mysterious, and epic at work.

coverJohn Berryman‘s The Dream Songs, which I came to by way of The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America, clearly counts The Cantos among its million billion influences. And at first blush, The Dream Songs seem equally baffling – the kind of private language the philosophers tell us isn’t possible:

                      Le’s do a hoedown, gal,
one blue, one shuffle,
if them is all you seem to réquire. Strip,
ol banger, skip us we, sugar; so hang on
one chaste evenin.

-Sir Bones, or Galahad: astonishin
yo legal & yo good.

Who is Mr. Bones? Why the dialect? And what’s up with that accent mark over the “e”? These are the same kinds of questions Pound invites. For all their fragmentation, though, The Dream Songs are intensely intimate in a way The Cantos never quite manage. Through a variety of moods and methods, they adumbrate the life and consciousness of a hero as multifarious and singular as Joyce‘s Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Also: Berryman’s ear is astonishing. Sometimes a Difficult Book is more swimming pool than jigsaw puzzle. Rather than trying to solve it, we do better just to jump in.

coverThe final poem cycle worth mentioning in this troika of Difficult Books is Ted Berrigan‘s The Sonnets. Berrigan is often identified as a “second-generation” New York School poet, a designation both helpful and un-. On the one hand, The Sonnets draw on both the suggestive opacity of John Ashbery and the urbanity of Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch. On the other, nothing about these poems feels self-consciously “School”ed. By the time his generation came of age (Berrigan was born in 1934), the New Criticism’s dominance was waning, and with it the legacy of programatic formalism. The fragmentation of The Sonnets speaks of openness and freedom, rather than discipline and constraint. Which is to say it’s a very 1960s kind of book. “And high upon the Brooklyn Bridge alone,” Berrigan writes,

to breathe an old woman slop oatmeal,
loveliness that longs for butterfly! There is no pad
as you lope across the trails and bosky dells
I often think sweet and sour pork”
shoe repair, and scary.

What does it mean? I have no idea. I often don’t, when I read these three marvelous poets. But I don’t know what life means, either – just that, like Berrigan, Berryman, and Pound, it makes me feel alive.

More Difficult Books

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. As far as poetry that I love but can’t quite get a complete grasp on most of the time, I would nominate the poetry of Hart Crane. White Buildings is more lucid and is excellent. The Bridge is sometimes incomprehensible to me but so vast and mysterious and American. I love it.

  2. Wonderful description of The Cantos–when I talk with people who know of the book but haven’t read much of it, the trouble of understanding his references is the major complaint I hear. “Behind the bricolage of quotations (translated, mistranslated, untranslated), the syntactic suspensions, the typographic oddities and the lunatic fragmentation, there’s always a sense of something powerful, mysterious, and epic at work” does a great job of explaining why those difficult references are so exciting.

    A couple nominees for difficult poetry: David Shapiro’s A Burning Interior and Zukofsky’s “A.” Exciting, exciting writing.

  3. An excellent post, if too short. I agree with Andy’s nomination of “A” and would add the collected works of Basil Bunting, short by comparison but very knotty. Theodore Enslin’s “Ranger,” another work heavily influenced by Pound, deserves a lot more attention than it’s gotten.

  4. I wrote a paper on Berryman as an undergraduate many years ago, so I do have some familiarity with his work. I consider him as a sort of second wave of Modernism, with the peak of his career occurring in the 50’s, when many of the original Modernists had died or were at the end of their careers. A longer work, such as Homage to Mistress Bradstreet is both traditional and experimental, and also has passages that are more musical, aria-like. Consider this, where Anne Bradstreet is in labor:

    “So squeezed, wince you I scream? I love you & hate you
    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”

    Etc. This could be lifted from Joyce, or Woolf, or Faulkner. The Dream Songs seem more personal, concerned with everyday frustrations and Berryman trying to deal with his severe depression (for which he was hospitalized several times before his suicide in 1972). But also reveal a wicked sense of humor. Consider these:

    From #45: ” He stared at ruin. Ruin stared straight back.
    He thought they was old friends.”

    Or from #53: “–It takes me so long to read the ‘paper,
    said to me one day a novelist hot as a firecracker,
    because I have to identify myself with everyone in it,
    including the corpses, pal.”

  5. Im very pleased with your Difficult Books series. Its already inspired me to pick up Dream Songs by John Berryman. Upcoming entries Im really looking forward to include The Tunnel by William H Gass and of course Ulysses.

  6. Hey, can you please bring back this series? Is it still going?I just discovered and love these perfect little essays and comments, with their wit, modesty, and erudition.
    There must be more impenetrables out there to conquer . . .

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