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
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
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.