Not To Forget His Name

Kate and John Berryman

Perhaps God resembles one of the last etchings of Goya & not Velasquez, never Rembrandt no.

John Berryman

Dream Song 266

by John Berryman

Dinch me, dark God, having smoked me out.
Let Henry’s ails fail, pennies on his eyes
never to open more, 
the shires are voting him out of time & place,
they’ll drop his bundle, drunkard & Boy Scout,
where he was once before:

nowhere, nowhere.  Was then the thing all planned?
I mention what I do not understand.
I mention for instance Love:
God loves his creatures when he treats them so?
Surely one grand exception here below
his presidency of

the widespread galaxies might once be made
for perishing Henry, whom let not then die. 
He can advance no claim,
save that he studied thy Word & grew afraid,
work & fear be the basis for his terrible cry
not to forget his name.

There are 36 Dream Songs with at least one references to God with a capital G published while Berryman was alive.  I counted them.  There is one little g reference to a god that is not profanity (all of which I did not include in the count).  God was not a frequent visitor but not completely absent a presence in Berryman’s writing of the Dream Songs.  God was not a no show like his father. 
Berryman  realized after he published His Toy, His Dream, His Rest in 1968, thereby releasing 385 Dream Songs into the world  that he had created a problem for himself in any future writing that he somewhat regretted.  In interviews with journalists and with friends he acknowledged that his use of black face in some of the Dream Songs now prevented him from using the Dream Songs concept, style and structure to address weightier literary issues he would like to address in language that would be more acceptable to a broader audience.  If ever John Berryman had a catholic (lower case intentionally) confession, this was it. But it was too late.  Once your brilliance is enshrined with awards by the literary community, its hard to bail the ballast of stupidity out of your dingy. 
Yet, if you read the entirety of the Dream Songs, for all the absurdity of some of it, it deals with the ideals he spent his whole life wrestling, family, fatherhood, friendship, art, God, sex, romance, drinking, kindness and evil.  Of all the Dream Songs that mention God, I feel 266 is the most direct conversation.  The final lines share the same way that I look at life after death, which is the only afterlife I will ever experience, is the love I instill in my family and friends, and the art I leave behind.  Berryman’s Dream Song 266 is his prayer to his Lord, in hope that someone, somewhere would not forget his name.
There are lots of different opinions about Berryman’s relationship to God at the end of his life.  Some friends and biographers express the sentiment that he was at peace with his spiritual self.   I don’t agree with those sentiments. I think Berryman was in moderate control of his god, (intentionally lower case g).  I get the impression spending a month with Berryman and his god, that each had the other on a mutual leash, lest the other run away.   It was not that Berryman was not incapable of a reconciliation and salvation with whatever version of the almighty he chose to engage. I think Berryman had forgiven or at least accepted his god as much as he felt god had accepted him, which was middling compared to the very real grace he had experienced in his human existence and human relationships.  Berryman believed in Kate and Kate believed in God and if that A equals B and B equals C, then A equals C theorem is true,  than Berryman comprehended that he and God mutually loved the same woman and he welcomed it. I have wondered whether the concept of confession and forgiveness, which is central to Catholicism, was one of the reasons that Berryman more often than not had longer term relationships with devout Catholic women.   Berryman knew that he was in need of a partner who could muster the courage and beauty of grace in his presence repeatedly. 
The case to be made that Berryman became more spiritual at the end of his life are two fold:   he repeatedly made attempts at sobriety in traditional AA programs requiring the addict to accept a higher power, embrace their God, Christian or Jewish or otherwise.  Second, he wrote 11 Addresses to the Lord and published it in 1971, shortly before his death.   If you are questioning Berryman’s ability as a poet, because of the messiness of the Dream Songs, read 11 Addresses to the Lord in it’s entirety.  It will erase any question on Berryman’s writing ability.  It’s a masterful rendering of art as well written of any poet of his time, and likely one of the most beautiful and most accessible poems of Berryman’s career.   But is it really about God and his relationship to God?   It is an address to his God.  It is a letter and a proclamation and a warning.  It is in some ways, his suicide note.
Whatever your end may be, accept my amazement.
May I stand until death forever at attention
for any your least instruction or enlightenment.
I even feel sure you will assist me again, Master of insight & beauty.
When I read the 11 Addresses what I feel is Berryman’s proclamation on life.  And what I hear in his language is an awareness that beauty, art and love,  all spring forth from something beyond our individual capacity to create alone or understand alone.  I think Berryman found art and literature holy, a manifestation of God.  In this he and I agree. This is where Berryman and I share another cross roads.  I have spent the better part of the past 10 years writing a sonnet sequence that is my statement of faith.   I have shared a couple of the sonnets on Fourteenlines, but most of them remain unpublished, not sure yet how I am going to proceed or if I ever will.  They are my prayers to that same presidency of the universes, the unknowable, the unanswerable who is guessed at in Genesis as The Word.   For a man who spent his entire life trying to put into words his art, he longed to cut that leash and let he and God be free.  He longed for freedom of the suffering he had experienced and could not write himself out of.    My prayer for him and his family is that he connected in whatever way he and they needed with their God at the end of his life and the aftermath of his death. 
Eleven Addresses to The Lord (An Excerpt)
by John Berryman
After a Stoic, a Peripatetic, a Pythagorean,
Justin Martyr studied the words of the Saviour,
finding them short, precise, terrible, & full of refreshment.
I am tickled to learn this.
Let one day desolate Sherry, fair, thin, tall,
at 29 today her life the Sahara Desert,
who has never once enjoyed a significant relation,
so find His lightning words.
               A Prayer for the Self
Who am I worthless that You spent such pains
and take may pains again?
I do not understand; but I believe.
Jonquils respond with wit to the teasing breeze.
Induct me down my secrets. Stiffen this heart
to stand their horrifying cries, O cushion
the first the second shocks, will to a halt
in mid-air there demons who would be at me.
May fade before, sweet morning on sweet morning,
I wake my dreams, my fan-mail go astray,
and do me little goods I have not thought of,
ingenious & beneficial Father.
Ease in their passing my beloved friends,
all others too I have cared for in a travelling life,
anyone anywhere indeed. Lift up
sober toward truth a scared self-estimate.
I think Berryman felt in the end that if there was a God with whom he had reconciled, it was a God that was not going to punish him.  It was a God that would have mercy, to the same extent as he had mercy on the God who sent him a father of death.   It was a God who would bless him with peace.  In my opinion, what was missing in Berryman’s psyche and what he yearned for his entire adult life was a father of life.  Religion did not meet that need entirely, it was a poor substitute for the real thing, in this very real world.  The final sentence in the excerpt above from number 7 in the Addresses is a powerful statement; “Lift up sober toward truth a scared self-estimate. ”  Not many of us are capable of such an honest and humble assessment. 
I have included a true sonnet below, published when he was writing sonnets back in the 1940’s at the beginning of his career as evidence that all the issues that Berryman wrestled with his entire life had continuity.   There is really not much left of Berryman’s reputation before or after the Dream Songs.   It’s the body of work he will forever be connected.   But it’s like being a member of a Super Bowl Champion, only to get cut from the team the next year and not invited back for the 30 year anniversary party, because you fumbled in the fourth quarter and the team won in spite of your mistake.   No one remembers the great plays you made in the first and third quarters or how your block on the winning drive was key to eventual success.  It’s your mistake and the dumbest decision you made that will often connect you to history, more so than your best in your career of life.  That is the fate we all share.  That is the lesson why Berryman is worth the effort as a reader.  Berryman’s best can stand with his peers of his generation and others.   If you want to understand the sonnet in the 20th Century, I would contend you are going to have to confront, Lowell, cummings and in my opinion Berryman.   But are they the end of the line for the sonnet form for white men?  Did the sonnet die with Berryman? Not because white men didn’t continue writing them, is it that no one cares anymore?  Dear reader, you will have to decide that fate?  None of them were perfect.   But what is the measure of any writer?  Did you leave behind one poem that inspired others?  And if the answer is yes, whether it was published or not, you are a poet, and for those who still read and remember that poem, they will not forget your name. 


Not to Live

By John Berryman

(Jamestown 1957)

It kissed us, soft, to cut our throats, this coast,
like a malice of the lazy King. I hunt,
& hunt! but find here what to kill?—nothing is blunt,
but phantoming uneases I find. Ghost
on ghost precedes of all most scared us, most
we fled. Howls fail upon this secret, far air: grunt,
shaming for food; you must. I love the King
& it was not I who strangled at the toast
but a flux of a free & dying adjutant:
God be with him. He & God be with us all,
for we are not to live, I cannot wring,
like laundry, blue my soul—indecisive thing . .
From undergrowth & over odd birds call
and who would starv’d so survive? God save the King.

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.

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