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.