Dream a Little Dream of Me: John Berryman

April 12, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 9 14 min read

coverIf poetry is going to be tortured, agonized, and morbidly introspective, it might as well be funny too. John Berryman’s The Dream Songs are all that and more. Half elegiac lyricism and half lowdown buffoonery, they’re like nothing else in American literature, though they owe a debt to Saul Bellow’s breakthrough mixture of high and low in The Adventures of Auggie March. (The two men shared an office at the University of Minnesota in the 1950s. Can you imagine being an undergraduate there and making a routine appointment to discuss your C+ with Mr. Bellow or Mr. Berryman?) Although I can’t claim to understand The Dream Songs fully, I’m not required to. No one said it better than Berryman himself: “These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand./They are only meant to terrify & comfort.” Reading all 385 of them at a stretch (not recommended), I sometimes find myself bored as well as baffled. This too is allowed:

Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles.

Perhaps the first thing to be said about The Dream Songs is that there are too many of them. By my reckoning (every reader’s will differ), fewer than half are truly first-rate or even intelligible, yet the good ones wouldn’t be so good if not set off by the messiness and prolixity of the others — and even the good ones are pretty messy too. It took Berryman years to break through to the mess that allowed life in. He served his apprenticeship under the ideal of formal severity and impersonality bequeathed by the gods of modernism. Not that he ever surrendered the modernist ideal of difficulty. Them Dream Songs isn’t easy, pal. But although their elisions and allusions seem to invite the sort of interpretive ingenuity that used to make academic careers, they succeed best when speaking more or less clearly about the elemental things: love, lust, friendship, death, despair, memory, and John Berryman.

coverJohn Berryman isn’t exactly a veiled presence in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1953), the major work that preceded The Dream Songs, but that strange narrative poem of 57 stanzas does give us something rarely encountered in his work thereafter: other consciousnesses. It’s true that friends, lovers, wives, children, students, rivals, doctors, nurses, mothers, and murderers populate The Dream Songs, but their appearances are always and openly grist for “Henry’s” — that is, Berryman’s — mill, objects in his psychic landscape. It’s also true that the Anne Bradstreet he brings into being is as much Berryman’s alter-ego or freely imaged object of desire as the actual Puritan poet who married at 16, crossed the Atlantic in 1630, bore eight children, wrote some of the earliest verse in America, and died at the age of 60 in 1672. Nevertheless, he was too much a scholar not to give a convincing sense of Puritan culture and the people who inhabited it. No scholar alone, however, would have dared to create an interior life for his protagonist the way that Berryman does. It’s hard to imagine the Harvard historian Perry Miller, for example, whose studies of Puritan thought and culture Berryman drew on heavily, trying to get inside the head of a woman in labor, as Berryman does in the stanzas describing the birth of Anne’s first child. (Another part of his research consisted of asking extremely intimate questions of mothers that he knew, including his own.) Magnificent in itself, this celebrated sequence is also a useful corrective to those who believe that the adulterous, alcoholic, sexist, self-involved male poet couldn’t write about anything but his own consciousness:

Monster you are killing me Be sure
I’ll have you later Women do endure
I can can no longer
and it passes the wretched trap whelming and I am me

drencht & powerful, I did it with my body!
One proud tug greens Heaven. Marvellous,
unforbidding Majesty.
Swell, imperious bells. I fly.

Nevertheless, the adulterous, alcoholic, sexist, self-involved male poet did write primarily about his own consciousness, and in The Dream Songs, to return to his signature work, he did so over the course of about 400 pages and 7,000 lines. The question almost asks itself: Why should any of us struggle with 400 pages of fractured, nonlinear verse describing one mid-20th-century white academic’s private torments, not excluding details of a hemorrhage in his left ear and much grousing about the weather? Well, if you think The Dream Songs are excessively self-involved, try Love & Fame (1971), which goes on and on and on about insanely trivial matters, as if daring the reader to find the poetry in this mass of congealed autobiography. It’s there if you look hard enough, but some of the verse is so hilariously awful it must be intentional, as in this reminiscence about Berryman’s college years:

I must further explain: I needed a B,
I didn’t need an A, as in my other six courses,

but the extra credits accruing from those A’s
would fail to accrue if I’d any mark under B.
The bastard knew this,
as indeed my predicament was well known

through both my major Departments.

Unlike The Dream Songs, Love & Fame is meant all too clearly to be understood. It’s so lucid, in fact — a scrupulously detailed bildungsroman in verse — that most of the poetry gets lost in the glare. No one ever accused The Dream Songs of being too lucid. At their frequent worst, they are so clotted with private reference as to be impenetrable. Any poem that requires an annotation like the following (from John Berryman: A Critical Commentary by John Haffenden) plainly doesn’t give a damn whether it’s penetrable or not:

The ‘Little Baby’ is Berryman’s daughter Martha; Diana, the daughter of Kate Berryman’s friend, Eugenia Foster. ‘The Beast’ is the nickname given to the boy who lived next door to them in Lansdowne Park, Ballsbridge, Dublin. ‘Mir’ is the family name for Berryman’s mother.

Furthermore — to get the bad stuff out of the way — even if Songs were consistently successful, they would still suffer from the defect of most uniform poetic sequences: too much of a good thing. If Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets begin ever so slightly to pall, Berryman’s 385 sonnet-like Songs — 18 iambic lines divided into stanzas of six, six, and six, with varying rhymes and half lines, usually in the middle and end of each strophe — can hardly escape a similar but much heavier numbing effect. There is, of course, a fairly simple solution to this problem — don’t read them straight through. Although there are sequences within the sequence, the ordering has no organizational principle that holds for long. You could read them backwards and do almost as well.

Another difficulty is the minstrel dialect that Berryman mixes with the slang, jokes, baby talk, impossible grammar, and syntactic inversions. Readers of modern poetry are accustomed to such unstable compounds, but the appropriation of an idiom associated with racial oppression induces squirms, and is meant to. At least I hope it’s meant to. Sometimes I’m not so sure. I feel a little better knowing that Berryman’s friend Ralph Ellison had no problem with the blackface dialect and especially admired Song 68, which deals in part with the death of Bessie Smith. I guess I’ll always have some qualms, but would anyone really prefer The Dream Songs to be shorn of their outrages to decorum and taste? Don’t we read them partly because they’re so unlike what “great” poetry is supposed to be? The half-lunatic syntax serves many purposes — chiefly, the subversion of psychological defenses preventing access to primal guilts, fears, needs, and shames, or as Kafka might have said, the taking of an ax to the frozen sea within. The Songs are, after all, inspired by dreams, where we take our clothes off and don’t speak or think the King’s English, but Henry’s language is also extremely funny, an all-American music of boisterous vulgarity. Troubled and troubling as they are, The Dream Songs give back in delighted sound what they darkly ruminate on sense. The overall tenor of the book might be roughly stated as follows: Just because we’re buffoons, it doesn’t mean our lives aren’t tragic.

coverIn the preface Berryman explains, somewhat misleadingly, that the poem “is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr Bones and variants thereof.” Although just enough distance exists between character and creator to allow for the writing of the book, few people believe Berryman’s disclaimer. Berryman is Henry, and Henry is, to a greater or — let us hope — lesser degree, us. More useful, I think, is Berryman’s statement to The Paris Review: “Henry to some extent was in the situation that we are all in in actual life — namely, he didn’t know and I didn’t know what the bloody fucking hell was going to happen next.” This barroom wisdom underwrites every line of the book. (“Parm me, lady,” drunken Henry says to his seatmate on an airplane in Song 5. “Orright” she replies.) I might add, before I look at a few Songs, that the principle of chaos and disorder to which this wisdom attests found spectacular expression in the poet’s everyday life. According to Bellow, Berryman “knocked himself out to be like everybody else,” but despite his efforts to be a responsible husband, father, citizen, and colleague, he failed in every respect. In Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman Paul Mariani describes a fairly typical night in the life of the poet when, drunk as usual and declining out of envious pique to attend a poetry reading at Berkeley, where we was then teaching:

Berryman came over to see Miriam [Ostroff, a faculty wife], chatted with her, read her some of his Dream Songs, and was soon boasting of his sexual prowess. In spite of her protests, he began chasing her around the room. When she told him to get out, he suddenly became contrite and downcast and promised to be good if only he could stay. After a short while, however, he started again, until he finally browbeat her into letting him spend “ten or fifteen minutes reverently caressing her feet, while reciting poetry.” Then, realizing that the house had windows and that someone might be watching, Berryman recovered himself, hailed a taxi, and went home.

Mariani’s biography is not edifying. Out of such squalor, however, Berryman created masterpieces like Dream Song 4, Henry’s appallingly believable version of “lust in action”:

Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken paprika, she glanced at me
Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the fact of her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her

or falling at her little feet and crying
‘You are the hottest one for years of night
Henry’s dazed eyes
have enjoyed, Brilliance.’ I advanced upon
(despairing) my spumoni. – Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls.

— Black hair, complexion Latin, jeweled eyes
downcast . . .  The slob beside her     feasts . . . What wonders is
she sitting on, over there?
The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars.
Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.
— Mr. Bones: there is.

coverThe self-disgust is palpable and — who can doubt it? — thoroughly earned. Why then is this poem so exceedingly funny? Perhaps because like the best of the Songs it manages to be so many things at once. There ought to be a law against Henry, but his raging sexuality doesn’t stop him from idealizing both the object of his desire and his desire itself. The funniest thing about the Song is that it exists — a gross parody of poetic adoration that is touched with the lyricism of jeweled eyes and an apostrophized “Brilliance.” Helen Vendler writes in The Given and the Made, “We become marginally convinced, by such a poem, that the troubadours were Henrys too, and that Berryman is merely uncovering the unsalubrious, but oddly solacing, layer of psychic squalor beneath high artistic convention.” Nicely put, but somehow it sounds funnier when Henry says it.

Among the adjectives Vendler applies to Henry are “regressive, petulant, hysterical, childish, cunning, hypersexual, boastful, frightened, shameless, and revengeful.” Also, “complaining, greedy, lustful, and polymorphously perverse.” Did we miss anything? How about self-pitying, irresponsible, envious, and grandiose? Vendler, who notes that Henry is simultaneously “imaginative, hilarious, mocking, and full of Joycean music,” is making an important point about the intrusion of the Freudian Id into the august precincts of lyric poetry. If Henry’s worse than we are, it’s only by a matter of degree. Why shouldn’t self-portraiture, in poetry as well as prose, allow for the base and ignoble as well as the socially approved? Maybe because I’ve written a few myself, I’ve never understood the knock on memoirs as pointless exercises in narcissism. Until we all live lives of wholly integrated personhood, there will be much to learn from the microscopic examinations of the self performed by Mary Karr or Tobias Wolff or Henry Adams or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Because The Dream Songs derive so much from the model of self-examination provided by psychotherapy (and from Berryman’s long hours in group and private sessions), they’re more uncensored than most such memoiristic exercises but are unique only in their peculiar combination of hilarity and despair.

coverI’ve mentioned self-pity as one of the characteristic modes of Henry and his Songs. Since this particular vice isn’t going away any time soon and is, in fact, more ubiquitous than the alcoholism and lust for fame that the Songs also relate at inordinate length, I consider it wholly to Berryman’s credit that he presents Henry, in the midst of all his tribulations, feeling genuinely and unrepentantly sorry for himself. Instances aren’t hard to find: “Henry hates the world. What the world to Henry/did will not bear thought” (DS 74); “This world is gradually becoming a place/where I do not care to be any more” (DS 149); “The only happy people in the world/are those who do not have    to write long poems” (DS 354); “Mr Bones,/stop that damn dismal” (DS 98). Mr Bones never did stop that damn dismal. Berryman, who regularly assigned Miguel de Unamuno to his students, must have learned something from the Spaniard’s metaphysics of pity. In the Tragic Sense of Life, Unamuno writes, “Man yearns to be loved, or, what is the same thing, to be pitied. Man wishes others to feel and share his hardships and sorrows. The roadside beggar’s exhibition of his sores and gangrened mutilations is something more than a device to extort alms from the passer-by. True alms is pity rather than the pittance that alleviates the material hardships of life.” For Unamuno the next step in the progression is turning the pity for the self outwards, towards a universal compassion for all suffering beings. Berryman never got that far. He occupied the huge gray area where self-pity and genuine pathos blur their edges. Song 149, for instance, sounds outrageously petulant — because Henry’s friends have died, he hates the world. Yet this petulance frames an elegy for a man whose sufferings easily surpassed Henry’s (or Berryman’s), his great friend Delmore Schwartz. A sober, chastened acceptance of death is precisely what Berryman does not provide. Henry’s refusal or inability to come to terms with necessity makes the Song doubly true — true to the intractability of grief, and true to the memory (half solace, half torment) of a loved friend:

This world is gradually becoming a place
where I do not care to be any more. Can Delmore die?
I don’t suppose
in all them years a day went ever by
without a loving thought for him. Welladay.

I imagine you have heard the terrible news,
that Delmore Schwartz is dead, miserably & alone,
in New York: he sang me a song
‘I am the Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz
Harms & the child I sing, two parents’ torts’
when he was young & gift-strong.

coverBerryman had a lot of grieving to do in The Dream Songs — for “Delmore,” “Randall” (Jarrell), “Richard” (Blackmur), “Louis” (MacNeice), and other friends, but mostly for himself. He too sang “Harms & the child”: his father’s suicide occurred when Berryman was 12. His unseemly bewailing of this primal wound is one of the glories of The Dream Songs. If you don’t feel sorry for yourself after a trauma like that, you’re probably damaged beyond redemption. I remember reading reviews of Flannery O’Connor’s posthumously published letters, The Habit of Being (1979), in which critic after critic marveled at her complete lack of self-pity in the face of rural isolation, degenerative illness, and overwhelming household cares. My response was more like Henry’s: What was wrong with this woman? On the other hand, who was I to judge this brave, unassuming, Roman Catholic stoic who virtually re-invented the American short story? Yet the feeling remains with me still — if Flannery O’Connor had ever permitted herself an occasional howl of self-pity, she might have extended a similar sympathy to the freaks, half-wits, criminals, con artists, and fanatics she depicted with such icy detachment. However brilliant, she was also, in my opinion, the coldest and cruelest of all major American writers. What Berryman says about Wallace Stevens is Song 219 is partly right; he just applies it to the wrong writer. Substitute “O’Connor” for “Stevens” and it makes perfect sense:

He mutter spiffy. He make wonder Henry’s
wits, though, with a odd

. . . something . . . something . . . not there in his flourishing art.

“Better than us; less wide” is Berryman’s final and misapplied verdict on Stevens. John Berryman was emphatically not better than us (though he’s speaking here as a poet to a poet), and there was nothing narrow or “less wide” about his emotional devastations. I’ve got my own Henry-like traumas to deal with. “Get over it,” people tell me. I can’t; that’s one of the reasons why I read poetry. Since all of us are damaged to one degree or another, I regard the shameless exhibitionism of The Dream Songs as not only essential to their success but a public service. But note: the Songs are art, not therapeutic transcripts. In 384, the penultimate Song, Berryman/Henry returns to the primal scene, his father’s suicide by shotgun. After all those years, after all those Songs, no resolution or catharsis is to be hoped for. There is only the consolation of expression through form:

The marker slants, flowerless, day’s almost done,
I stand above my father’s grave with rage,
often, often before
I’ve made this awful pilgrimage to one
who cannot visit me, who tore his page
out: I come back for more,

I spit upon this dreadful banker’s grave
who shot his heart out in a Florida dawn
O ho alas alas
When will indifference come, I moan & rave
I’d like to scrabble till I got right down
away down under the grass

and ax the casket open ha to see
just how he’s taking it, which he sought so hard
we’ll tear apart
the mouldering grave clothes ha then Henry
will heft the ax once more, his final card,
and fell it on the start.

It’s no accident that this poem of violent rage and hatred adheres with strictest discipline to a rhyme scheme of abc/abc and a metric of 5-5-3/5-5-3. The visionary power so overwhelms that the regularity passes almost unnoticed, but without the regularity controlling the passion, the Song wouldn’t be nearly so overwhelming. To offer any explication of a poem so primal in its address would almost seem an impertinence. The only analogue I can think of is the climax of Luis Buñuel’s Mexican B-movie version of Wuthering Heights — fabulously titled Abismos de Pasión — in which Heathcliff breaks into Cathy’s crypt with an ax and is shot while holding the decomposing corpse in his arms. Out of such subterranean currents of rage and despair are our ordinary lives made.

“When will indifference come?” If it had come, Berryman wouldn’t have needed to write the Songs and especially not 29, a nightmare of guilt and horror at the furthest extremity from indifference. I surely don’t understand this one fully, though it all feels sickeningly right, down to the unexplained “little cough” of the first stanza and the tantalizing/tormenting serenity of the Giotto-like figure that looms up in the second. That little cough may emanate from an imagined victim of Henry’s murderous fantasies. I myself am not bedeviled by recurring nightmares of committing violence against women, but I know how desolation and despair feel. Like this:

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só 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 is another thing he has 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;

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 is ever missing.

The third stanza presents a mind so disturbed as to risk foreclosing the possibility of any sympathetic response. For a moment it makes me think of all those pictures of naked little girls with penises by the “outsider” artist Henry Darger; if he hadn’t been drawing little girls, he might have been raping and murdering them. But there’s a reason Berryman called them “Dream Songs.” Their flashes of nightmarish, hallucinogenic imagery light up the darker recesses of the mind. John Berryman never hurt a fly (neither did Henry Darger), and The Dream Songs do what folk art cannot — they illuminate rather than exemplify pathologies of the soul. They’re also pretty good at illuminating ordinary experience. John Berryman lived in the world we live in, and when he wasn’t drunk or in detox or suicidal (or even when he was), he could describe the world and his place in it with grace and wit. After all this Sturm und Drang, I’d like to close with a lovely little poem (not a Dream Song) occasioned by the birth of his son Paul in 1957. Berryman of course turned out to be a negligent and mostly absent father to the boy, but he did leave him with “A Sympathy, A Welcome” — which excuses nothing. Whatever his feelings about his catastrophic father, I hope Paul Berryman had a happy life and that “loverhood” swung his soul like a broken bell.

Feel for your bad fall how could I fail,
poor Paul, who had it so good.
I can offer you only: this world like a knife.
Yet you’ll get to know your mother
and humourless as you do look you will laugh
and all the others
will NOT be fierce to you, and loverhood
will swing your soul like a broken bell
deep in a forsaken wood, poor Paul,
whose wild bad father loves you well.

is the author of the memoirs College and Library. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, The Rumpus, and Open Letters Monthly. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.


  1. Wow. This was fantastic. The epigraph from my forthcoming novel is Berryman’s Anne Bradstreet- on giving birth. I love the whole “don’t read it all at once” advice. I sure didn’t. That said, I totally disagree with you on Flannery. The Habit of Being shows a compassion, true pity, that I can- or anyone can- hope to achieve. The correspondence with the truly irritating and more likely, borderline personality “A”, is fascinating and show’s O’Connor’s Christian (Catholic really) values of love. That collection of letters nearly changed my life. I say nearly, because- well, to be a little less hysterical. And in regard to all her freaks and so forth in her stories- you can’t group them all together and I disagree that she was cold toward them. I think she tried to show how the world is a cold place, without the grace of God. And grace is a pure mystery. I recently reread parts of Mystery and Manners for an essay I wrote. So, judge Flannery differently. But I absolutely love your take on Berryman.

  2. I really like that first sentence. And you’re right: without humor or at least our ability to hope for humor in this work, it would be intolerable.

  3. The Millions,

    You should be ashamed to have published this.

    ‘Nevertheless, the adulterous, alcoholic, sexist, self-involved male poet did write primarily about his own consciousness . . .’

    Why? Why attack Berryman like this?

    The readings don’t justify it.

    I’m glad Stephen Akey has read most of Berryman. I have, too.

    His snipes and spite are easily forgotten.

    But your judgement in publishing nonsense like this, well, you should have a hard think.

    I am yours,

    Erik Kennedy

  4. I agree with Erik on the nature of this piece. Mr. Akey’s constant potshots at Berryman give the impression that he despises the man, and undermine this piece to the point of almost making it unreadable. I am not one to defend Berryman’s character–God knows he was unfaithful, and given to pettiness, but he’s surely not in exclusive company there when it comes to the writers of his day (and ours); however, he was a lonely, broken man towards the end of his life who lost so many of his friends to suicide and alcoholism. The fact that he himself succumbed, to me, lends a humanity to lines like “I’m a scared a lonely” that Mr. Akey does not seem to pick up on. At best Akey is uncharitable, and at worst, this essay smacks of self-righteousness.

  5. I just can’t agree with Knapp’s idea that Akey didn’t show compassion. I read so much compassion- even love- in his assessment of Berryman.Compassion doesn’t mean you don’t point out their faults. Knapp’s comment bewildered me.

  6. Paula, for example: “Yet this petulance frames an elegy for a man whose sufferings easily surpassed Henry’s (or Berryman’s),” or perhaps, “Why should any of us struggle with 400 pages of fractured, nonlinear verse describing one mid-20th-century white academic’s private torments, not excluding details of a hemorrhage in his left ear and much grousing about the weather?” I could pull more from the piece.

    It’s Akey’s attitude of superiority that bothers me. How does he think he can measure Schwartz’s suffering over Berryman’s? It’s not that I don’t think Akey enjoys Berryman’s work, he clearly does; it’s just that he seems to think the man merely a petty, pathetic person who wrote petty–though witty–self-involved verse.

  7. I found Akey’s assessment of Berryman (the man) incredibly compassionate, empathetic, forgiving–even to a fault. Akey’s factual statements regarding Berryman’s behavior alongside his clearly tongue in cheek statements (quoted by Knapp) hardly serve as a take-down of Berryman; nor are they meant to serve as such. They are a nod to Berryman’s critics, an ironic wink to his detractors. Akey is a fan, yes, also a sympathizer–which is not to say an apologist. Personally, I was slightly uneasy with the amount of sympathy shown, but that’s me bringing my own slant to this, which is irrelevant.

  8. I have been interested in Berryman for some time, and not quite in the way in which one is interested in a car wreck or an obnoxiously drunken, obstreperously self-centered, lyrically confessional flasher.

    The final dream song, left-foot, right-foot, is moving beyond words.

    This essay whetted the appetite for more of his work. Beautifully, sensitively written too. I wouldn’t say that Berryman was as good a poet as he seems to think, or as reprehensible a man as he might. There was a thing on Henry’s heart…

  9. I agree, this is hardly an attack on Berryman so much as a strong and unpretentious appreciation.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.