If The Dream Was Small, It Was My Dream Also

First Row, left to right, John Berryman, Mary Jarrell, Adrienne Rich, Peter Taylor. Second Row, left to right, Stanley Kunitz, Richard Eberhart, Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, John Hollander, William Meredith and Robert Penn Warren. 1966. Memorial reading at Yale University for Randall Jarrell.

These Songs are not meant to be understood, understand. They are only meant to terrify and comfort.

John Berryman

Dream Song 1

by John Berryman

Huffy Henry hid the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point,—a trying to put things over.
It was the thought that they thought
they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
But he should have come out and talked.

All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry’s side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don’t see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.

What he has now to say is a long
wonder the world can bear & be.
Once in a sycamore I was glad
all at the top, and I sang.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.

Welcome to 2023!   As has been the case in recent years, I intend to focus on a single poet for the month of January – John Berryman.   There are several reasons for this selection.   I have a direct physical connection to Berryman – the University of Minnesota, the West and East banks of the University and the bridge that connects the two over the Mississippi river.  He and I both trod that path many times, both in search of artistic inspiration and as mode of transportation, he for much longer and more successfully than I, but I can at least relate to the beautiful view we both shared, even though a decade separates us from the last time he walked upon it and the first time I did.  The second connection is Berryman spent the majority of his adult life writing highly stylized and unique versions of poems that in some ways can be viewed as an offshoot of the sonnet tradition.   Berryman appreciated brevity, the effect of rhyme and humor in his poetry.   In my opinion you can’t read Berryman’s poetry as single entities.   I view his writing as a long interconnected narrative, whether stemming from his unconscious or conscious intentions of working out his humanness on paper.  Like Lowell, he is a deeply flawed as well as deeply beautiful individual.   Most of all I respect his courage as an artist, he trusted his gifts as sufficient to support himself as a writer and as an educator doing the one thing he wanted to do from the time he was sixteen – be a poet.   

Berryman did not start his life as a Minnesotan, but he has a prominent place in this literary community.   Sadly, Berryman is not much celebrated anymore.   Mental illness, alcoholism and suicide have a tendency to erode one’s legacy.  He also suffers from old white man’s syndrome in present day literary politics.  We have a hard time looking to the writing of white men for inspiration, because as a group,  they are largely responsible for getting us into this mess.  But the inspiration I find in Berryman’s greatest gifts is he knew he was in the mess and part of the mess from the very beginning, and didn’t try and cover it up or apologize for it.  Berryman offers a  own unique testament of his life and dreams.  It’s the complexity and inconsistency of his greatest work, The Dream Songs, that tend to throw people into one of two camps; you either think he’s a nut bar or you think he is brilliant, there’s not much room between the two.  I am in the camp of brilliance and in many ways, amazed at his resiliency, for as long as it lasted.    

His life is mythic, with so many dramatic, eccentric, electric, self destructive turns along the way that it reads like a screenplay.   His connections to the literary greats of the first half of the 20th Century poets are deep and convoluted.   If there had been an over under in Vegas who would live longer in 1970, Berryman or Lowell, it would have been a tough bet, with Berryman having all the right reasons to live.   In the end, only Lowell made it to age 60, and then just barely.  Both widowed much younger partners, with small children.   Father of the year, was neither of these men.   

Whether you like Berryman or dislike him, I ask that you keep an open mind for the next month.  I’ll delve not only into his work, but share a few poems from his main literary mentors and friends during his life.   Berryman’s genius was evident from the beginning.   It may have been his greatest cross to bear, that everyone saw so much promise in him, a weight of expectations that wore upon him throughout his lifetime. 

Praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.

John Berryman

I recommend you don’t try and “understand” Berryman.  I recommend you experience him.   Push through his difficult style, his unconventional syntax, punctuation and phrasing.   Remember that I honestly believe that Berryman intended for you to have fun while reading his work.   That is part of the joke between he and the reader.  As tortured a soul as John Berryman was, the best part and worst part of his day, everyday was writing.  The collection of his poems, along with his love of his family, were truly the best of him that he left behind.  If I inspire you to experience more of Berryman, I suggest you order a used copy of The Complete Dream Songs, and read it like a novel, from beginning to end.   See what thoughts linger in your head from his legacy as man, as a writer and most important, as a human being.   Enjoy the journey this January, that is John Allyn McAlpin Berryman.

Dream Song 132: A Small Dream

by John Berryman


It was only a small dream of the Golden World,
now you trot off to bed. I’ll turn the machine off,
you’ve danced & trickt us enough.
Unintelligible whines & imprecations, hurled
from the second floor, fail to impress your mother
and I am the only other

and I say go to bed!  We’ll meet tomorrow,
acres of threats dissolve into a smile,
you’ll be the Little Baby
again, while I pursue my path of sorrow
& bodies, bodies, to be carried a mile
& dropt.  Maybe

if frozen slush will represent the soul
which is to represented in the hereafter
I ask for a decree
dooming my bitter enemies to laughter
advanced against him.  If the dream was small
it was my dream also, Henry’s. 

Published by

A Sonnet Obsession

I am a life-long Minnesotan who resides in Minneapolis. I hope you enjoy my curated selection of sonnets, short poems and nerdy ruminations. I am pleased to offer Fourteenlines as an ad and cookie free poetry resource, to allow the poetry to be presented on its own without distractions. Fourteenlines is a testament to the power of the written word, for anyone wanting a little more poetry in their life.

One thought on “If The Dream Was Small, It Was My Dream Also”

  1. “Tulips from Tates teased Henry in a mood to be a flower and desire but water, but light, but air.” Being an English major I was fortunate to not have ever come across Berryman’s poetry in school. Never tried hard to analyze it either. However, some lines such as above, have lingered long in my memory.
    The minstrel lingo never was off-putting. Never figured out who the personae were. Didn’t seem that important.
    So happy to see a month of John Berryman!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s