I Am Not Able To Forget

John Berryman

All poets’ wives have rotten lives, their husbands look at them like knives.

Delmore Schwartz

Dream Song 181

The Translator——-II

by John Berryman

Because I am not able to forget,
Henry is dreaming of society,
one where the gifted & hard-working
young poet is cherished, kissed as a king
to come, a prized comer.   Ah but see
them baleful ignorant

justicer & witnesses, corrupt by purity,
lacking all sense of others, lacking sense,
but liars too, pal.
I snuff the proper vomit of a State
where every tree is adjudged equal tall,
in faith without debate.

I beg to place in evidence, vicious mother:
That in the west of my land tower Douglas firs,
taller than others.
If then a judge grides to one of them ‘You are sick,
lazy: Siberia’ what gross metaphors
shall we invent for this judge?

(The sentence: forced labour for five years in a ‘distant locality.’)

 


Berryman should have had every reason to improve his disposition in the fall of 1940.  Harvard offered much of the advantages he was left wanting after his experience at Wayne State; higher pay, more gifted and dedicated students, incredibly talented counterparts and an opportunity to connect with his younger brother.  Unfortunately, Berryman always had a glass half empty mindset and quickly settled into his same bad habits of nervous exhaustion, self pity and grumbling aloofness and ill health.   The English department at Harvard in 1940 had what would prove to be some heavy weights of American poetry including, Delmore Schwartz, Wallace Stegner, Harry Levin, Mark Schrorer and of course Berryman.  Other than a strong friendship with Schwartz, Berryman carried around his every heavier life long chip on his shoulder and managed to alienate most of his colleagues.   However, Berryman was honing his skills as a professor, and by and large his students loved him and with the positive feedback of his pupils came a muted respect of his colleagues.  

Berryman was weary of the grind of teaching, the prep, the grading, the reading of students papers and providing feedback.  He worked hard it.  He felt it robbed him of his creative energy and kept him treading water as a writer.  However, during his Harvard years, he was able to muster sufficient time and energy to produce some poems that were not only published but were gaining some attention by important critics and publishers. 

Berryman and his younger brother, Robert Jefferson, had taken up residence together when he moved to Boston to teach at Harvard.   It was a rattle trap apartment, with holes in the walls, but it was an opportunity for the two of them to reconnect.   Unfortunately, Berryman interacted with his brother the same way he interacted with everyone else, which pretty much was what seemed like indifference as he went about in his own self induced haze of annoyance.   Despite it not being the reunion that Robert Jefferson had hoped, it worked well enough.  The two of them lived peaceably under one roof for better part of two years.   His brother would marry his first wife in the fall of 1941 and the three of them lived together, despite modest tensions, for the next year. 

Berryman’s own romantic pursuits were more complicated.  He was still undertaking an on again/off again letter writing romance with Beatrice, his fiance, living in England, while dating Eileen Mulligan, a friend of Jean Bennett’s, his girl friend from his college days.   Eileen was an orphan and a devout Catholic.  I mention both because the first was likely an entry into emotional bonding between the two and the latter a cause of exasperation for Berryman, who by this time was a loud and opinionated atheist.  Eileen was kind, emotional, grateful and insecure as to where her future lay when they met.  Berryman created an emotional obstacle few women would have dared to cross, still professing his love of his fiance, even though it was shear fantasy and farce by this point, neither he nor Beatrice had the will to call it off. 

Berryman’s mother took a liking to Eileen and was genuinely kind and generous towards her emotionally, encouraging the relationship.   It wasn’t until July of 1941, England in the grips of war, that Beatrice wrote him a letter and renounced her acceptance of his marriage proposal.   Within a week he proposed to Eileen and she accepted.  It wasn’t until October that Berryman got around to giving her a ring, inscribed ‘J.B. to E.M – NOW AND THEN ONE – 24, October, 1942.’  And in doing so set the date of their marriage one year hence. 

Berryman’s and Delmore’s academic and personal friendship flourished during this time, but it was almost like Berryman’s melancholy was contagious, because by winter of the next year, Schwartz had slid into a serious depression, which contributed to the break down of his marriage.  Eileen was a gentle source of encouragement and support to both.  She competently set out to plan a proper Catholic wedding and had to plan the entirety of the event because of Berryman’s feckless ways. 

During the lead up to the wedding, Berryman was desperate to both publish and find a more lucrative position.   He was in debt from back rent and owed friends money. He was angry and despondent that he could never seem to get ahead financially.  He applied to more than fifty schools and did not land a position to his suiting.   He had to take a job selling Encyclopedia Britannica that summer, tramping the streets of New York’s East Side just to make a few bucks.   Feeling hopeless and despondent he declared to Eileen that he hated life, to which she replied, “if you feel that way we shouldn’t get married.” But get married they did.  He landed a position at the Iona School in New Rochelle for the salary of 2,400 for that fall, but lasted only three weeks as he felt over worked and stressed at the expectations.  Fate would intervene, as in October, the month he would be married, he received a letter from Richard Blackmur that he had been advocating on his behalf at Princeton and had convinced the head of the English department to offer Berryman a job.  Blackmur had been introduced to Berryman’s work through Alan Tate and had become interested in the young writer.  The position at Princeton would pay $225 a month with the opportunity for additional summer income at a stipend of $500, sufficient funds that Berryman could dig himself out of debt and start married life on firmer financial ground. 


The Foggy, Foggy Blue

By Delmore Schwartz
 
When I was a young man, I loved to write poems   
         And I called a spade a spade
And the only only thing that made me sing   
         Was to lift the masks at the masquerade.   
I took them off my own face,
         I took them off others too
And the only only wrong in all my song
         Was the view that I knew what was true.
 
Now I am older and tireder too
         And the tasks with the masks are quite trying.   
I’d gladly gladly stop if I only only knew
         A better way to keep from lying,   
And not get nervous and blue
         When I said something quite untrue:   
I looked all around and all over
         To find something else to do:   
I tried to be less romantic
         I tried to be less starry-eyed too:   
But I only got mixed up and frantic
         Forgetting what was false and what was true.
 
But tonight I am going to the masked ball,
         Because it has occurred to me
That the masks are more true than the faces:
         —Perhaps this too is poetry?
I no longer yearn to be naïve and stern
         And masked balls fascinate me:
Now that I know that most falsehoods are true
         Perhaps I can join the charade?   
This is, at any rate, my new and true view:
         Let live and believe, I say.
The only only thing is to believe in everything:
         It’s more fun and safer that way!
 

God Has Many Other Surprises

Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.

To Bhain Campbell (1911 – 1940)

by John Berryman

I told a lie once in a verse.  I said
I said, I said, I said, “The heart will mend
Body will break and mend, the foam replace
For even the unconsolable, his taken friend.”
This is a lie.  I had not been there then.

Dream Song 156

by John Berryman

I give in.  I must not leave           the scene of this same death
as most of me strains to.
There all the problems to be sorted out,
the fate of the soul, what it was all about
during it’s being, and whether he was drunk
at 4 a.m. on the wrong floor too

fighting for air, tearing his sorry clothes
with his visions dying O and O I mourn
again this complex death
Almost my oldest friend should never have been born
to this terrible end, out which what grows
but an unshaven, dissheveled corpse?

The spirit & the joy, in memory
live of him on,  the young will read his young verse
for as long as such things go:
why then do I despair, miserable Henry
who knew him all so long, for better & worse
and nearly would follow him below.

 


Berryman debarked from Cambridge in fall of 1938 in debt, largely in part to having acquired a considerable library of rare books during his stay.  These had become collateral for credit for living expenses and travel, but as his finances dwindled he was ultimately forced to leave them behind.  It would be years before he was able to pay off the debt and retrieve them.  He headed by ship for New York City and moved in with his mother and step father.   Although the apartment was generous, with ample space for him to work, he felt restless and pinned in by the emotional tension of being under his mother’s roof once again.   Ultimately, his living there, did not sit well with either of them and was one more cause of his constant mental fatigue. 

He immediately reconnected with Delmore Schwartz, Alan Tate, Mark Van Doren and other friends while in New York.  He was frustrated by his both limited successes at publishing and limited employment options.  He was able to line up a modest teaching position with the help of Mark Van Doren at Colombia for that fall, but it was not a sufficient stipend to pay off his debts and prepare to assist his fiance to join him from England.  This lack of ability to become self sufficient to his wants and needs was taxing.  He began a phase that would continue throughout his life, where a combination of poor eating habits, insomnia, excessive work habits and heavy drinking would result in cycles of ever worsening states of mind and physical exhaustion to the point of nervous breakdown.   His demeanor would vacillate from self incrimination to indignation at everyone and everything around him.  He was anti-social and at the same time desperately lonely.  He was a living contradiction. He was focused on writing, trying to craft material worthy of publishing and yet indifferent to the real opportunities that existed.  He was oblivious to the fact that his writing was not going to generate sufficient income to live or marry.  He believed in his talent but also was mired in mediocrity.  In general he was a mess.   Beatrice (his fiance) came for a five month long visit and lived with him and his mother in New York.  Though they expressed their love for each other, she could see that he was in no way capable of being a life long partner.  She returned to England and though the charade of their future marriage endured for a while, Berryman’s physical and mental health went only downward as did their relationship. 

During the summer, his friend Bhain Campbell wrote to him that he had obtained a far better paying position at Wayne State University in Detroit for that fall.   He encouraged Berryman to reconsider his teaching position at Colombia and to come join him in Michigan.   Berryman got the job, in part because of a glowing recommendation from Mark Van Doren, and promptly departed for Detroit.   His rejection of Columbia’s offer however, did not sit well with the administration.  As would be often in his life, Berryman burned his bridges behind him.

Things started out wonderfully at Wayne State.  Bhain and Berryman’s friendship flourished for a bit.  They balanced and supported each other in work habits, demeanor and interests.   Bhain, his wife Florence and Berryman would all move in together into a 1 bedroom apartment to save money.   Berryman contrived to hide his attraction to Florence behind feigned contempt or indifference.  But this threesome living arrangement did not age well as the fall semester continued. 

Berryman was a good if not great teacher, but he had a tendency to overwork himself throughout his lifetime.  He would follow maniac periods of working excessively with periods where he was nearly catatonic and unable to do anything.  Things progressed to the point where both his physical and mental state so alarmed the Campbell’s that Bhain forced Berryman to see a doctor for a consultation.   He would be diagnosed with epilepsy, a way to explain his fainting spells and sometimes catatonic state.   In reading his biography there are a myriad of references to him falling down a flight of stairs or other physical accidents, some of which would result in minor fractures.  But whether he truly had epilepsy or whether this was a polite way of covering up excessive drinking is impossible to determine. 

By the end of the first semester, Berryman’s relationship with Bhain and Florence had worsened to the point that they had no choice but to move out.  Berryman was forced to take a forced leave of absence from his teaching position as physically he couldn’t continue.   He was “proscribed” by his doctor reading before bed, a meal plan for better nutrition and mental therapy.  Within a month he had improved to the point he could resume teaching.   He mended his friendship with Bhain, in part because Bhain’s cancer was moving quickly.  Despite multiple surgeries, Bhain’s health deteriorated rapidly.  Bhain and Florence moved to a cottage for the summer and following the end of the spring semester,  Berryman provided a week of care-giving to his friend so that Florence could take a much needed break for herself.  He would leave shortly after for New York to figure out the next step in his life.  Berryman would see Bhain one more time in November, when he returned to visit his friend briefly, but by December, Bhain would fall into a coma and die.

The importance of this year and his friendship with Bhain would have far reaching consequences in the success that Berryman would have later in his career.   Bhain was a committed communist who encouraged Berryman to identify the purpose behind his writing.  He pushed Berryman to wrestle with not just structure but meaning.   Up until this point,  Berryman’s writing was overly metrical and rhymed in ways that veneered the fact there was not much depth to  his poetry, beyond a pleasant postcard imagery.  Although Berryman had learned the academic rigor and dedication to be a writer, he was not yet a “poet” and that vast difference pained him.  But it was this very awareness of that gap that Bhain helped instill, combined with the confidence he bestowed on his friend’s abilities, that kept Berryman moving forward into the next chapter of his life.

 


Dream Song 168

The Old Poor

by John Berryman

and God has many other surprises, like
when the man you fear most in the world marries your mother
and chilling other.
men from far tribes armed in the dark, the dike-
hole, the sudden gash of an old friend’s betrayal,
words out that leave one pale,

milk & honey in the old house, mouth gone bad, 
the caress that felt for all the world like a blow,
screams of fear eyeless, wide-eyed loss, 
hellish vaudeville turns, promises had
& promises forgotten here below,
the final wound of the Cross.

I have a story to tell you which is the worst
story to tell that ever once I heard.
What thickens my tongue?
and has me by the throat?  I gasp accursed
even for the though of uttering that word.
I pass to the next Song:

 


The World Is Lunatic

Cambridge 1936.

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

John Berryman

Dream Song 147

by John Berryman

Henry’s mind grew blacker the more he thought.
He looked onto the world like the act of a aged whore.
Delmore, Delmore.
He flung to pieces and they hit the floor.
Nothing was true but what Marcus Aurelius taught,
‘All that is foul smell & blood in a bag.’

He lookt on the world like the leavings of a hag.
Almost his love died from him, any more.
His mother & William
were vivid in the same mail Delmore died.
The world is lunatic.  This is the last ride.
Delmore, Delmore.

High in the summer branches the poet sang.
His throat ached, and he could sing no more.
All ears closed
across the heights were Delmore & Gertrude sprang
so long ago, in the goodness of which it was composed.
Delmore, Delmore!


Berryman beginnings at Cambridge were weighed down by loneliness and lack of direction.  He did not at first enjoy the academics of Cambridge and he was struggling to make friends.   He wrote to his mentor Van Doren for advice.  Van Doren wrote back that many of the previous Cambridge scholars had taken a little time to settle in and to not be alarmed.  Van Doren’s advice was spot on.   Within several months Berryman would meet or hear them speak at Cambridge a list of poets that looking back is remarkable.   Berryman would come across either by chance or through lectures at Cambridge the following: Auden, T. S. Eliott, Yeats and Dylan Thomas.   In the case of Yeats after several months at Cambridge he wrote to him, included a poem and to his surprise Yeats wrote back.   Berryman eventually worked up his courage to buy a night ferry passage to Dublin and went and visited Yeats spur of the moment.   The two spent an afternoon together at Yeat’s home where Berryman was inspired in the presence of one of the great living poets of his time.

Berryman also maintained friendships from his Columbia days with Alan Tate and Bhain Campbell.  Campbell would die at age 29 of cancer shortly after Berryman returned from Cambridge, a blow that would unbalance Berryman.   He would help to edit and publish a small volume of Campbell’s completed work early in his career.  Berryman would befriend Schwartz in New York when he returned from Cambridge. It is a remarkable circle of literary friendships that Berryman developed, many of whose own work far overshadowed his own, then and now.   However, those connections would inspire him to work harder towards his goal of eventual success as a poet.  Berryman had a vision and a literary passion that rubbed off on others who were equally passionate about poetry.

Berryman of course fell in love while he was in Cambridge.   I am not going to go into detail because if I chronicled every time he fell in love that is all I would write about.  Most of his sexual conquests were short lived and its complicated enough covering all eventual nuptials, but in reading multiple biographies I got the impression that Beatrice/Beryl was the first of his real true loves.  Even though it did not translate into a long term relationship, it set the stage for a more nuanced and tortured experience of love for the rest of his life.

Auden wrote the following poem in 1936, the same year that Berryman met him in Cambridge.   It was written as a song in a play and set to music, eventually performed in Cabaret.  The stage was set for war in Europe and Berryman was experiencing all of the build up to the conflict between Germany and England while at Cambridge.   It also was winding the tension strings of the poets he met living in Europe, heightening the sense of purpose of bringing a poetic resonance to counter the horrors that were to come. 

 

Stop All The Clocks

By W. H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

The Whole World Dreamed Of This

Mark Van Doren (1894 – 1972)

The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.

Mark Van Doren

After Long Drought

by Mark Van Doren

After long drought, commotion in the sky;
After dead silence, thunder. Then it comes,
The rain. It slashes leaves, and doubly drums
On tin and shingle; beats and bends awry
The flower heads; puddles dust, and with a sigh
Like love sinks into grasses, where it hums
As bees did once, among chrysanthemums
And asters when the summer thought to die.

The whole world dreamed of this, and has it now.
Nor was the waking easy. The dull root
Is jealous of its death; the sleepy brow
Smiles in its slumber; and a heart can fear
The very flood it longed for, roaring near.
The spirit best remembers being mute.


Dream Song 123

by John Berryman

Dapples my floor the eastern sun, my house faces north,
I have nothing to say except that it dapples my floor
and it would dapple me
if I lay on that floor, as-well-forthwith
I have done, trying well to mount a thought
not carelessly

in times forgotten, except by the New York Times
which can’t forget. There is always the morgue.
There are men in the morgue.
These men have access. Sleepless, in position,
they dream the past forever
Colossal in the dawn comes the second light

we do all die, in the floor, in the morgue
and we must die forever, c’est la mort
a heady brilliance
the ultimate gloire
post-mach, probably in underwear
as we met each other once.

Stood the Ancestors, Relaxed & Hard

John Berryman with his classmates in the fall of his senior year at South Kent School in 1931. Berryman is seated in first row far left.

Offering Dragons quarter is no good. They regrow all their parts and come on again. They have to be killed.

John Berryman

Dream Song 78

by John Berryman

Darkened his eye, his wild smile disappeared,
inapprehensible his studies grew,
nourished he less & less
his subject body with good food & rest,
something bizarre about Henry, slowly sheared
off, unlike you and & you,

smaller & smaller, till in question stood
his eyeteeth and one block of memories
These were enough for him
implying commands from upstairs & from down,
Walt’s ‘orbic flex,’ triads of Hegel would
incorporate, if you please,

into the know-how of the American bard
embarrassed Henry heard himself-a-being,
and the younger Stephen Crane
of a powerful memory, of pain,
these stood the ancestors, relaxed & hard,
whilst Henry’s parts were fleeing.

 


Within weeks of Berryman’s biological father’s death his mother and John Angus Berryman would be married.  The family of four moved to Jackson Heights, New York.  John Jr. would take Angus’ last name Berryman for the rest of his life as the first line of defense of creating separation from himself and his father.  John Angus had managed to time his exit from the Florida real estate business at the high and although he gave a significant portion to his first wife in exchange for a divorce in order to marry Martha, there was a solid stake to get the family started in their new life.  

In the summer of 1929, John Berryman applied to the South Kent School, an Episcopalian foundation whose reputation was a focus on academics and moral rigor.  It was a boarding school that kept costs low by allowing students to earn part of their tuition through work, like washing dishes, snow shoveling and other chores on the school grounds.   Despite the spartan quarters and reduced costs, the tuition proved almost too much to bear as time went along and John Angus worked less and less. 

Berryman was small for his age, eccentric, quiet and a world class clutz, the perfect target in an all boys school for bullying.  Despite no interest nor talent in sports, Berryman felt obligated by both his mother and the school culture to engage in sports.  He did so with the kind of forced and faked sincerity that I remember in my school days of boys with similar attributes that can only be explained by a kind of ruthless zeal that is intended to do only one thing, gain a modicum of respect among his peers for his tolerance of pain, pain dished out both during practice and during games.  He played right guard on the football team in the fall of 1929, lacking the athleticism for the skilled positions requiring speed or coordination.  He suffered enough injuries and humiliation to gain some respect and a respite when the injuries generated sufficient blood as to send him to the bench.  He preferred tennis in the spring and worked hard at it, as a means to satisfy the politics of the sport culture at the school and expectations of his mother.  But in the end, neither protected him from the being at the bottom of the pecking order among his classmates.   His small stature and odd looks meant he endured the worst that young men can dish out.   

By his third year, the constant bullying weighed on him to the point that he became estranged from his classmates, depressed and truly suicidal.  There was a dramatic attempts at suicide, where in front of classmates, following a fight near the rail road tracks, he threw himself in front of an on-coming train, forcing the very tormentors who had been beating him moments earlier to drag him to safety.   This reckless disregard for his life scared his classmates enough to realize Berryman was serious about his own self destruction.  They understood the consequences if Berryman killed himself as a result of their bullying was beyond their intentions and it gave him a little breathing room but also a reputation for being seriously unhinged.  

Berryman thrived academically to a point at South Kent.   He excelled in some areas and rebelled in others.   He never completely fit in, but he was pushed by his own intelligence and his mother’s expectations to set himself apart in preparation for the next step in his academics.   

He spent 5 years at South Kent and was confident his application to Columbia College in spring of 1932 would be accepted.  By this time the economic fallout of the depression had eaten away at the families financial resources.   His step-father had been laid off at his stock exchange position and his mother was now supporting the family on 1/4 of what his father had been making just two years prior.  Berryman earned a scholarship to Columbia to cover most of his tuition and lived at home his freshman year to save money.  Berryman did not thrive his first year at Columbia and through laziness or his reoccurring challenges with mental illness, he briefly lost his scholarship and dropped out.  However he identified a talent in his freshman year that would that would provide an entry into a new world of women and self respect.  It turns out, despite his otherwise lack of physicality, he was an excellent dancer.   From that point on he embraced the social opportunities that college life provided, attending several dances a week and with them the opportunity to carouse and flirt with girls and drink with his friends afterwards.   

Berryman was forced to reapply for his scholarship in the summer between his first and second year at Colombia.   It caused him to reassess his goals.  He approached Mark Van Doren for support and improved his study habits.  He got involved in journalism at the college, expanded his network with other literature students and writers and generally began to thrive academically.   He would build over the next three years an impressive body of work, with success at publishing poems, critical analysis and literary criticism.  His intelligence and drive stood out.   However his constant late nights, smoking and tendency for self abuse, took its tool and by mid way through his senior year it resulted in exhaustion nearly to the point of collapse.  Although he had become the star pupil in the literature department at Columbia and was under consideration for a fellowship to Cambridge, the effort took a toll on his mental and physical well being.  But. in what would become a reoccurring theme for the rest of his life, he endured,  graduating Phi Beta Kappa in the spring of 1936, primed to study abroad that fall on a prestigious scholarship at Cambridge that he had been awarded. 

 


Dream Song 93

by John Berryman

General Fatigue stalked in, & a Major-General,
Captain Fatigue, and at the base of all
pale Corporal Fatigue,
and curious microbes came, came viruses:
and the Court conferred on Henry, and conferred on Henry
the rare Order of the Weak.

-How come dims one these wholesome elsers oh?
Old polymaths, old trackers, far from home,
say how thro’ auburn hair     titbits of youth’s grey climb.
I have heard of rose-cheekt but the rose is here!
I bell: when pops her phiz in      a good crow,
My beauty is off duty!-

Henry relives a lady, how down vain,
spruce in her succinct parts, spruce everywhere.
They fed like muscles and lunched
after, between, before.  He tracks her, hunched
(propped on red table elbows) at her telephone,
white rear bare in the air. 

Tasting All The Secret Bits of Life

John Berryman

I am the little man who smokes and smokes….

John Berryman

Dream Song 74

by John Berryman

Henry hates the world.  What the world to Henry
did will not bear thought.
Feeling no pain,
Henry stabbed his arm and wrote a letter
explaining how bad it had been
in this world. 

Old yellow, in a gown
might have made a difference, ‘these lower beauties’,
and chartreuse could have mattered

“Kyoto, Toledo,
Benares- the holy cities-
and Cambridge shimmering do not make up
for, well, the horror of unlove,
nor south from Paris driving in the Spring
to Siena and on . . . “

Pulling together Henry, somber Henry
woofed at things.
Spry disappointments of men
and vicing adorable children
miserable women, Henry mastered, Henry
tasting all the secret bits of life.

There is an inherent problem with Berryman’s Dream Songs that hangs like a bad odor over his work, the use of language and phrasing that we would now call “blackface”.   Berryman was awarded some of Poetry’s top awards, something that is a bit troubling then and is even more troubling now.  I say this as someone who enjoys reading The Dream Songs, but it creates some odd tension between my ears.  Given Berryman is directly descended from a family of white supremacists, its more than a little awkward to just brush it aside as eccentric or claim it as a metaphor.  The question is why did Berryman do it?  Why did Berryman appropriate African American dialect, idioms and language and incorporate it into the structure and theme of his poems?   And does it inform, tarnish or condemn his legacy?

Berryman was always evasive as to whether The Dream Songs were confessional poetry.   I don’t think he was fooling anyone then or now.  Its a form of confessional poetry and if it is then why appropriate language that clouds the purpose?  He hid behind his difficult persona when confronted by critics of his day that it detracted from his broader meaning.   Berryman rarely addressed this criticism head on, but alluded to the idea that his poetic vision was apolitical.  I think that flies in the face of the overtly paranoid language of his protagonists throughout his poems and the constant references to politics, wars and social conflicts.   In my opinion, every writer is political because eventually their writing will be interpreted and reinterpreted through the politics of the times.

I highly doubt any publisher would touch Berryman’s Dream Songs today.  It is too big of a mess, too dark, and regardless of his intentions, would be viewed as tone deaf, if not racist.   The reader must decide if every poem a poet writes has to align with their beliefs to find anything of value or if we learn from both the best and worst of the role models around us?   Which informs our decisions more as adults, the best of our parents and siblings or their worst?   I do not give Berryman a pass on this issue,  I think this component of his poetry erodes some of the validity of his legacy.   The language makes some of The Dream Songs unprintable on Fourteenlines because I find it so distracting.   But as I have said before, a poem sometimes has an impact on me because of the connection that I feel with just one line. And many of Berryman’s Dream Songs grab my attention because of specific lines. 

I hold all artists to a standard that at their core, to create art, they cannot have evil intent.  I believe that Berryman felt he was sharing an inner dialogue that used language in ways to explore ideas that transcended race.   But even with that generous assessment, Berryman puts the reader in a very problematic position, because nothing Berryman did was haphazard.  Berryman demands a lot of his readers, demands they interpret his writing, try and unlock what his writing speaks to them.  In today’s renewed focus on equity, and its challenge of doing better, being better,  its impossible to avoid the discomfort his blackface tropes create in the pit of my stomach.

The only reasonable explanation that helps redeem the entirety of The Dream Songs is that Berryman intended it is an indictment of himself.   If you view The Dream Songs as Berryman’s confession, based in part by his Catholic faith, it raises the question whether it was also a condemnation of the nation’s impoverished civil rights record at the time of their publication.   Berryman was a tortured soul.  Berryman put to paper the unvarnished truth of his failures as a man, a husband and father.  But if Berryman was trying to wrestle with the legacy of his family as a metaphor for civil rights, I think he would have been more outspoken about that intent during his lifetime.   Berryman chose to be mysterious.  He chose to let the reader decide.   And by doing so, its absolutely fair to decide for or against him. 


Dream Song 76

Henry’s Confession

by John Berryman

Nothin very bad happen to me lately.
How you explain that? -I explain that, Mr Bones,
terms o’ your bafflin odd sobriety.
Sober as a man can get, no girls, no telephones,
what could happen bad to a Mr Bones?
-If life is a handkerchief sandwich, 

in a modesty of death I join my father
who dared so long agone leave me.
A bullet on a concrete stoop
close by a smothering southern seas
spreadeagled on an island, by my knee.
-You is from hunger, Mr Bones,

I offers you this handkerchief, now set
your left foot by my right foot,
shoulder to shoulder, all that jazz,
arm in arm, by the beautiful seas,
hum a little, Mr Bones.
-I saw nobody coming, so I went instead.

Lashed and Languished, Anguished

Martha Little Berryman with her maternal grandfather, Colonel Robert Glenn Shaver of the Confederate Army.

Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no // Inner Resources” 

John Berryman, Dream Song 14, quoting his Mother Martha.

Dream Song 58

by John Berryman

Industrious, affable, having brain on fire,
Henry perplexed himself; others gave up;
good girls gave in;
geography was hard on friendship, Sire;
marriages lashed and languished, anguished; dearth of group
and what else had been;

the splendour & the lose grew all the same,
Sire. His heart stiffened, and he failed to smile,catching (enfint) on.
The law: we must, owing to chiefly shame
lacing our pride, down what we did.  A mile,
a mile to Avalon.

Stuffy & lazy, shaky, making roar
overseas presses, he quit wondering:
the mystery is full.
Sire, damp me down.  Me feudal O, me yore
(male Muse) serf, if anyfing;
which rank I pull.


Martha Little was born on July 8, 1894.  Born a “Yankee”, in Du Quoin, Illinois, because of poor timing by her mother in planning a trip from St. Louis to  visit friends, Martha would spend the rest of her life overcompensating to insure there was no mistaking her southern upbringing.  Martha was a single child of a moderately well to do couple, until her father abandoned her and her mother when she was five.   Her mother never recovered, socially, emotionally or financially.   She raised Martha as a single mother, overly cautious, dower, not allowing her a normal childhood.  Martha was taught by a tutor, not allowed to attend primary grades or have friends her age.  Mrs. Little did what she was required in raising her daughter, but did not imbue her role as mother with a  loving nature,  literally poisoned by the circumstances that her ex-husband had left her.

Both women of course focused on her side of the family in creating their identity. Martha and her mother basked in the attention of Mrs. Little’s father, Robert Glenn Shaver of the Confederate army.    It was through his financial assistance that they were able to maintain a middle class lifestyle. But before you look too kindly upon the bearded gentleman,  it should be noted, that Martha’s fondness for her grandfather does not take into account he was a notorious founder of the KKK in Arkansas and accused of murder.  He was a racist, violent man, educated and wealthy enough to get away with it.  He knew his way around the law as a lawyer and after losing the civil war, as a Sheriff in Arkansas.

Mrs. Little, Martha’s mother, always felt she was being judged for being a single mother, as much by her family as in her community.  Martha absorbed that bitterness into a feeling she was being looked down upon for being a “bastard child”, her words, of a broken marriage.  Martha grew up in St. Louis, Missouri.   It wasn’t until she was 12 that they moved to McAlester, Oklahoma, where for the first time Martha was allowed to attend school, and in some ways literally allowed into the light.

Martha was intelligent, hard working and because of her prior tutoring, years ahead of other students her age.  At fifteen she entered a Christian Junior College for Young Women in Columbia, Missouri.  She graduated as valedictorian two years later in 1911.   She began her teaching career at age 17, teaching grades 4 through 6, but lasted only until Thanksgiving.  A bit overwhelmed and rudderless, she returned to the boarding house her Mother now owned and ran in Sasakwa, Oklahoma.

The relationship between Martha and her mother was not close.  Martha wrote repeatedly in her letters to her son her mother did not love her, did not have confidence in her and was endlessly disappointed that her only child was not a son.  This combination of being abandoned by her father and emotionally frozen out by her mother, made Martha all the more zealous when she became a mother, to focus emotionally almost exclusively on her relationships with her children.  It is not surprising, that Martha did not have a good impression of men, nor that she struggled in her three marriages.

When John Allyn Smith began showing interest in Martha, she claims she was an innocent in all things related to sex and in relationships with men in general.  Given the strained relationship with her mother she likely was looking for a way out from underneath her mother’s roof and possibly thought a young banker might be a way to start her life.  Or if her accounts later in life are true, that he forced himself upon her and she felt she had no choice but to marry him.  Either way, the odds of success were stacked against them. Combine that with Martha always wanting to be one step above her current financial and social situation, it would have been impossible for John Sr. to meet the standards of social climbing that Martha (and her mother) expected based on their somewhat snooty self image based on being the heirs of a noted Confederate Colonel.  Martha always claimed her Grandfather was only kind and loving.  But as it relates to shaping her personality and the subsequent impact on her poet son, it only added another layer of grandiose expectations and dysfunction that would both torment and inspire him for the entirety of his life.

Martha “Jill” Little Berryman was a powerful personality.  She would become a successful business woman in New York, become the primary financial supporter of her two sons and husband as JB attended high school and then college, but most importantly, she would weave an unwavering belief in John that he was destined to be a great writer.  From the age of 16 on, she kept every letter he wrote, even retyping many of them out to preserve them from his at times near illegible scrawl, so that they would be available for posterity one day, anticipating, foretelling, his eventual rise to recognition as a Pulitzer worthy poet.

I have a bit of insight into what happens to a family when a father abandons his wife and children.  My Mother’s grandfather did exactly the same thing at about the exact same point in time.   He walked away from his life, following a fire in the warehouse district of Minneapolis around 1905, leaving his wife and three small children to believe he perished in the flames of his workplace as a printer.   He left them to fend for themselves, and to wonder what had become of him once it was determined he wasn’t dead but mysteriously vanished.   His mother was so horrified by what he had done, she moved into their home and worked herself to an early grave by doing what ever she could to support her daughter in law and grandchildren.   The impact of that abandonment reverberated emotionally into the next generation and the next, and if I am honest, to the next.   It is still ringing at a decibel not able to be heard by anyone but his descendants today.


Dream Song 64

by John Berryman

Supreme my holdings, greater yet my need,
thoughtless I go out.       Dawn.     Have I my cig’s,
my flaskie O,
O crystal cock, -my kneel has gone to seed, –
any anybody’s blessing?  (Blast the MIGs
for making fumble so

my tardy readying.) Yes, utter’ that.
Anybody’s blessing?  -Mr Bones,
you makes too much
demand. I might be ‘fording you a hat:
it gonna rain.  -I knew a one of groans
& greed & spite, of a crutch,

who thought he had, a vile night, been-well-blest.
He see someone run off.  Why not Henry,
with his grasp of desire?
-Hear matters hard to manage at de best,
Mr Bones.  Tween what we see, what be,
is blinds.  Them blinds on fire.

I Am She. I Am He

The only people that are happy are those that don’t write long poems.

John Berryman

Dream Song 29

by John Berryman

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;
thinking.

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.


I do not believe in fate, but the concept of fate is popular among poets. Particularly poets who believe that to discover one’s poetic voice you must experience suffering so that you can express it and balance it with joy in a genuine way.  I do believe in genetics.   I believe that depression, mania and a tendency towards mental illness are in part hard wired as a gift in our DNA.   Whether you want to interpret that as fate is up to you.

John Berryman was borne John Allyn Smith, Jr.   Having Junior hung around your neck is difficult for many men.  I can’t imagine what it would be like given how in one instant, your entire childhood and identity were erased or at least shrouded in a permanent fog from violence.  Berryman would spend the rest of his life pursuing therapy,  dream analysis, drugs, what we would call today sex addiction, work addiction, alcohol and sobriety, yet nothing balanced his serotonin levels to the point that he didn’t crave the next high or his next low.   Berryman was an incredible intellect, who also worked as hard as any poet in the 20th century to become a poet. The published work of Berryman is a small percentage of his output over his lifetime.  The Dream Songs may read like they are rickety in their construction, slap dash if you pick at them one at a time.  But if you sit down and read the entirety of them, including the one’s published after his death, there is a stealthy, mindful consistency that does not come by chance, it comes from incredibly hard work as a writer. 

Addiction is a disease, not a failing of morale character, nor an inclination towards laziness.   Addiction in of itself, is hard work.  It carries none of the idolatry or support that defines our societies focus on cancer. John Berryman carried his addictions successfully in forging a career as a professor and poet.  Success and addiction are not mutually exclusive realities for many.  It all depends on how one defines success.   

Before I explore the primary relationship in Berryman’s life,  the relationship with his mother, I think a bit more context around his father’s life is warranted. John Allyn Smith was borne into a middle class family in Stillwater, Minnesota.  Born on March 21, 1887, the last of 10 children, born in 2 year intervals to Jefferson and Mary Smith.  There is no record of John Smith’s childhood.  The first written record of his life is in 1905 when he attended business courses at Globe College of Business in St. Paul, an institution that still survives today.   John Smith would as a young man work in the lumber industry in Stillwater, Minnesota.   Ready to make a stake for himself after working blue collar jobs, he decided to follow an older brother to Oklahoma during the oil boom. His much older brother had been financially successful and owned a small bank, but died shortly before Smith arrived.  However, Smith was able to follow in his brother’s footsteps and became branch manager of a small bank in Sasakwa, Oklahoma.  Sasakwa is about 100 miles southeast of Oklahoma city, a small town that has only gotten smaller in the past 100 years ,with 150 residents as of the last census.  There was not much to do in Sasakwa.   He took a room in a boarding house owned by Martha Little’s mother and with it an interest in Martha. However it came to pass, the two were married in July of 1912, John Allyn Smith was 25 and Martha was 18.  

After a short honeymoon, the newlyweds settled in McAlester, a city about 60 miles due east, where John Smith continued his banking career.  John Allyn Smith Junior was born in October of 1914. Sufficient time had elapsed from the wedding that Martha feared she might not have children. 

Martha shaped the narrative of her first husband after his death, and little of it was positive.   However, records suggest something else.  Accounts of friends and colleagues suggest he was honest, trustworthy, amicable.   He could play a good hand of bridge, like to fish and hunt, play baseball and was a regular Joe and contributing citizen in the towns he lived and worked.  He handled difficult issues like foreclosures and bankruptcies with professionalism and care for the people involved while weighing the interests of the banks that he was employed.  From 1912 until 1920, John Smith provided a stable middle class life for his family and had a solid if unremarkable banking career.  Smith worked for several banks during this period and left all of them on good terms and parlayed his experience into better positions.  The couple had a second son, Robert Jefferson Smith in September of 1919.   

Berryman had few memories of this time in his life, but he did not have unhappy memories of this time in his life either.  In 1920 the family, moved to Andarko, a much smaller city than McAlester, where Smith became Vice President and loan officer for the First State Bank.   The move proved prosperous, finances and the Smith family moved into a bigger house and retained the services of a maid.   Smith was in complete control of the bank and under his leadership the bank floated along for the next several years.  However, John Smith Sr was restless, he was bored.  He stepped down from his position at the bank in March of 1924 in search of a new beginning.  Martha would later shape the accounting that he was fired, but a written endorsement by one of the trustees suggests he left on good terms, praising him for his 15 years of service in the banking industry.   It looks more like John Sr simply wanted to try something new.  Within days of resigning from the bank he was appointed to a position of assistant game and fish warden for the State of Oklahoma, a position that aligned with his personal interests of hunting and fishing.  The speed with which it occurred suggests he had lined up the position before he left the bank. Smith would join the Oklahoma National Guard that summer.   The change in positions provided temporary relief from his mid-life crisis and a diversion from his stale marriage, but the career change was not as financially lucrative.  As savings began to dwindle, and Martha began to complain that her grasp on the brass ring that she desperately wanted to climb in society was at risk, fractures began to be more evident in their marriage.  Smith began to rapidly try and figure out the next stage in his career. His mother-in-law had purchased some land in Florida from years before.  The model T had suddenly made the beaches of Florida accessible and the Florida land boom was on.  Smith schemed with Martha’s mother to throw their lot in together in business and see if he could turn his knowledge of banking into a successful real estate and insurance business in Florida, using her land as collateral to get started.   John, his mother-in-law and Martha set out in the fall of 1925 for Florida to scout out the possibilities.  John Jr (age 11) and his brother (age 6) were placed in a boarding school, where both were severely bullied and both were miserable.   Word made its way to their mother and she promptly returned to Oklahoma, removed them from the school and drove them back to Florida to enroll them in public school. 

Although the family unit was restored, the change of scenery did not improve the families circumstances.  The Smith’s arrived too late in the Florida real estate boom and despite all of John Sr’s best attempts his businesses floundered.  The three had purchased a restaurant in the Tampa area.  All three worked in some fashion at the venture, while John Smith also tried his hand at real estate.  Neither worked out and as it became apparent that the restaurant business was not for them, selling it just months later for less than half what they purchased it, the already strained relationship between he and his wife and his mother-in-law became combative emotionally and by her accounts after his death, physically as well.   By early 1926, their financial resources declining fast, the family were forced to move into a boarding house, owned by John Angus Berryman.   By late June 26 of that year John Allyn Smith would lay dead, on the back stairs of the boarding house, a single gun shot to the heart.  In less than 6 months the entire course of John Berryman’s life would be forever altered and with it, any vestige of  happiness in John Jr’s childhood was obliterated. 


Diving Into The Wreck (An Excerpt)

by Adrienne Rich

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

It’s Not a Good Position I Am In

I am so wise I had my mouth sewn shut.

John Berryman

Dream Song 28 (Snow Line)

by John Berryman

It was wet & white & swift and where I am
we don’t know.  It was dark and then
it isn’t.
I wish the barker would come.  There seems to be to eat
nothing. I am unusually tired.
I’m alone too.

If only the strange one with so few legs would come,
I’d say my prayers out of my mouth, as usual.
Where are his notes I loved?
There may be horribles; its hard to tell.
The barker nips me but somehow I feel
he too is on my side.

I’m too alone.  I see no end.  If we could all
run, even that would be better.  I am hungry.
The sun is not hot.
It’s not a good position I am in.
If I had to do the whole thing over again
I wouldn’t.


I have purposely not read much literary criticism on Berryman.   I don’t want to be influenced by other’s far more educated take on things.  I like to eat Berryman without whipped cream, even if that means I can’t always discern all the inside literary jokes contained within The Dream Songs.  I feel like Berryman and Robert Lowell had a lifelong contest to see which one could out do the other with the most intelligent literary references in their writing.   Lowell’s in my opinion is more cogent, while Berryman uses these references almost like adjectives or verbs.

When I read Berryman I hear a language that is distinctly male.  By that I don’t mean that women don’t read and enjoy Berryman or that a woman couldn’t write in that style.  I mean it sounds like how men talk to a greater extent than how women do.  It particularly sounds like how men talk in bars, after they have had one too much.  It’s a voice that becomes tad more arrogant, dismissive, more belligerent, but also more self-effacing, more humorous, as the liquor comes quicker.  I am not suggesting that Berryman always wrote under the influence but given his lifetime as an alcoholic I can confidently assume he edited under the influence.

There is a thread of self-destructiveness that runs through Berryman’s writing and life that is painful to observe without judging.   For those who believe they are above self-destruction, here’s a pro-tip – it can be a low in the emotional cycle that fuels productivity.  I am not suggesting that he was bi-polar.  I mean that by experience I know that by testing just how far down you can take yourself and recover, can result in a sense of relief like euphoria that Berryman refers to above.  Taking your life, your physical, professional, personal life, right to the very brink and pulling it back, can be the reset button that some people need, for in that moment of relief, there is a calmness that propels them forward.

An early first example of this is when at 16, attending South Kent boarding school, although doing fine in his required essays and tests in literature, Berryman arrogantly admitted to the headmaster that he had not read all the required books.  The school temporarily expelled him.  Realizing the gravity of the situation that he had not expected, he not only promptly read all the required reading, but he set about to exceed the academic requirements at the school from that point forward, not wanting to ever jeopardize his standing again.  Berryman’s tendency for touching the third rail and surviving happens at an astonishing rate throughout his lifetime.  Whether it was picking fights with boys physically bigger than him to create a reputation that would protect him, only to be beaten even more savagely later by the gang the bully would eventually assemble to resume control or whether it was crossing lines of professional and personal boundaries that could only lead to trouble, Berryman was seemingly drawn to difficulties as if they were inevitable and satisfying.

I have debated how to explain the critical event that shaped Berryman’s entire adult life – namely his father’s death at age 11.   In reading both Haffenden’s and Mariani’s biographies of Berryman, the vast majority of the information is nearly identical, coming from the same sources.   However, only Haffenden suggests that John Allyn Smith’s death may not have been a suicide, that something more ominous may have occurred.  A short trial by the coroner concluded swiftly that the evidence pointed to Smith taking his own life with a single gunshot to the chest, but the lack of powder burns raised no suspicions in anyone’s minds at the time, given how frequent suicides were during the boom/bust cycle of Florida real estate in which he was involved.   However, the circumstances surrounding his death would certainly raise more pointed questions today than were raised then, given the physical evidence.

Berryman wrote several Dream Songs that deal with his father’s death – number 145 and 384 are specific examples.   Berryman spent a lifetime trying to forgive and also exorcise his anger at his father.  I fear he achieved neither, despite good intentions.  The opening stanza of 145 reads;

Also, I love him; he’s done me no wrong
for going on forty years – forgiveness time –
I touch now his despair,
he felt as bad as Whitman on his tower
but he did not swim out with me or his brother
as he threatened –

Whether Berryman was always able to maintain this magnanimous view is questionable. There are some issues raised by those that have scrutinized the letters between Martha and Berryman, as well as other documents, as to the accuracy of sequence of events that Berryman’s mother provided authorities at the time and then her carefully crafted versions over the years to tell her sons. There is no question that she was having an affair with their landlord, and that this was more the cause of the failure of their marriage than John Smith’s own affair.   There is a question of what came first, but regardless, the pending divorce and humiliation of being bested by a man much older than himself, was a major source of mental illness and depression for Berryman’s father.  His wife’s affair that was quite out in the open at the time of his death with a man that she would marry just weeks following her husband’ death, a death that occurred on the day their divorce was to be finalized raised no suspicions at the time yet had a long echo for the rest of Berryman’s life.  There is a cold bloodlessness with which Martha moved forward with her life following his death that suggests there were not much of an emotional bond that required grieving or that Martha was incapable of feelings toward him.  She later claimed she married him only under duress after he raped her.  That John Smith black mailed her into accepting his marriage proposal because her mother would only blame her for the rape.  Whether that was true or not cannot be determined, but there are elements of truth in Martha’s recounting of events around her marriage to John Smith that it can’t be ruled out.  There is no question that Martha did what she felt she needed to do to create the life she felt she deserved for her and her sons both before and after Berryman’s father’s death.

In reading the biographies I came away thinking that Martha may never have loved either of her husbands.   However, there is no question, that the relationship between Berryman and his mother defined each of their lives from the moments leading up to his father’s death and forever onward in ways that were both supportive and dismally dysfunctional. 


Dream Song 36

by John Berryman

The high ones die, die.  They die. You look up and who’s there?
-Easy, easy, Mr. Bones. I is on your side.
I smell your grief.
-I sent my grief away. I cannot care
forever. With them all again & again I died
and cried, and I have to live.

-Now there you exaggerate, Sah. We hafta die.
That is our pointed task.  Love & die.
-Yes, that makes sense.
But what make sense between, then? What if I
roiling and babbling & braining, brood on why and
just sat on the fence?

-I doubts you did or do.  De choice is lost.
-It’s fools gold.  But I go in for that.
The boy and the bear
looked at each other. Man is all tossed
& lost with groin-wounds by the grand bulls, cat.
William Fulkner’s where?

(Frost still being around.)

You Strikes Me Ornery

Dream Song 13

by John Berryman

God bless Henry.  He lived like a rat,
with a thatch of hair on his head
in the beginning.
Henry was not a coward. Much.
He never deserted anything; instead
he stuck, when things like pity were thinning.

So may be Henry was a human being
Let’s investigate that
….. We did; okay.
He is a human American man.
That’s true.  My lass is braking.
My brass is aching.  Come % diminish me, & map my way.

God’s Henry’s enemy.  We’re in business . . . Why,
what business must be clear.
A cornering.
I couldn’t feel more like it. – Mr Bones,
as I look on the saffron sky,
you strikes me ornery.


There are other connections between Berryman and myself.  When Berryman first moved to Minnesota in 1954 he moved to 2509 Humbolt Avenue South, an area in Minneapolis called Uptown.  The house is still there and looks much the same as as it did nearly 70 years ago.  He made it a daily routine to walk around Lake of the Isles, an approximately 3 mile walk that is only 2 blocks from both his apartment and the condo I own 4 blocks away.   It is a neighborhood that has and hasn’t changed much in the intervening years.   It still meets the criteria, then and now, that you can walk to almost anything you would ever need; a grocery store, a liquor store, a hardware store, a movie theater, a library, clothing and used furniture stores, restaurants, bars and coffee shops, synagogues and churches, book stores, ice cream store, all the staples of a good life.  When I walk around Lake of the Isles I sometimes wonder what Berryman would think of how Uptown looks today?  Would he think it gentrified or run down compared to his first months in Minneapolis? 

Spending time in The Dream Songs raises all kinds of questions in my mind. 

  1. Who is Henry?
  2. Who is Mr. Bones?
  3. Who is the narrator?
  4. Are these carefully crafted poems or the product of an afternoon’s work, tossed off under the influence of alcohol?
  5. Why are they structured the way the are? What purpose does their structure serve?

This is a simple list of questions that immediately come to mind.   I wish I could travel back in time and take one of his classes or buy him a drink at Stub and Herb’s at seven corners and ask him.   Let’s start with who is Henry?

It’s too easy to say Henry is John Berryman.   Nothing Berryman did was by chance.  Berryman earned his education through a combination of good fortune, good luck and sheer force of will.  His intelligence earned him multiple scholarships along the way of a formal boarding prep school, then his time at Columbia University and Cambridge.  Each stop of his academic career immersed him among some of the finest literary minds of the first half of the 20th century, both professors and students.  Berryman wrote in the classical sonnet structure years before he began writing The Dream Songs and years before he published The Berryman Sonnets.  He viewed the sonnets he published as autobiographical, writing in the first person and using the form to create a literary and personal ending to relationships and travails early in his life.  But The Dream Songs are different than his sonnets.   I would argue that none of his three main re-occurring characters are Berryman directly.   Each has a different literary purpose to which Berryman assigns a role in the pursuit of his creative expression.

Berryman wrote about The Dream Songs; “whatever its cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age…” Henry I believe is a character that Berryman could observe, like a god from above, and write the things that Berryman the man could not bear to write about himself.  Henry is that strange being that exists in poetry, that is neither the poet, nor the man, nor the muse, but a tether to which the ideas of the poetry can be attached to give it greater weight.  Henry freed Berryman to write in the style he so desperately wanted to write.   Free of the expectations of  the formal structure of a sonnet, Berryman put his own stamp on a form that served his purposes.

The Dream Songs – The more than 400 that have been published and the more than double that number which were not, follow roughly the same structure.   I believe structure was important to Berryman, if for no other reason in that it allowed his brain a break.  In most cases the structure is made up of 18 lines,  3 separate 6 line stanzas, that often, but not always, have some rhyming contained within, but there is no strict rules by which the rhymes appear.   Unlike traditional sonnets, there is no strict meter or rhyming conclusions, no sense of finality.   The Dream Songs are open often ended, as if you are waking from a dream in which the conscious mind, wonders where the dream would have led had sleep not been interrupted.

Dream Song 13 is the first time Mr. Bones is introduced into the cast of characters. Mr. Bones is neither Henry or Berryman’s alter ego, but rather more the fool, who is afforded truths, like Homer Simpson, in ways that we all can too well relate, but would rather not acknowledge.   Mr Bones is Henry’s wing man, a spirited companion to debate the meaning of life and death.  At times Mr Bones provides some comic relief, and at others he is an observer to Henry’s most tortured innermost thoughts.   Mr. Bones is both drinking buddy and priest to Henry or Berryman.

I believe the structure gave purpose to Berryman, a process and a canvas on which to write, while not limiting him.   They are by design not an imitation of the classical poetry that Berryman had studied and written prior to publishing of The Dream Songs.   I also think that 18 lines was all that Berryman could manage most days, before turning his mind to something else.  It was a way to be productive, feel productive, when longer forms of writing, like novels, screen plays or long form poetry eluded him.   The Dream Songs structure were created out of necessity.  And it is this very limitation of Berryman the man and the poet, that gives The Dream Songs their beauty.


Dream Song – 25

by John Berryman

Henry, edged, decidedly, made up stories
lighting the past of Henry, of his glorious
present, and his hoaries, 
all the bight heals he tamped –  – Euphoria,
Mr. Bones, euphoria.  Fate clobber all.
-Hand me back my crawl, 

condign Heavens. Tighten into a ball
elongate & valved Henry.  Tuck him peace.
Remember him sightless,
or ruin at high rate his crampon focus, 
wipe out his need. Reduce him to the rest of us.
-But, Bones, you is that. 

-I cannot remember.  I am going away.
There was something in my dream about a Cat,
which fought and sang. 
Something about a lyre, an Island.  Unstrung. 
Linked to the land at low tide.  Cables fray,
Thank you for everything.