Am I a Good Man?

John Berryman

He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes,
The epistemology of loss….

John Berryman

Dream Song 239

by John Berryman

Am I a bad man?  Am I a good man?
–Hard to say, Brother Bones.  Maybe you be both,
like most of we.
–The evidence is difficult to structure towards deliberate evil.
But what of the rest?  Does it was for wrath
in its infinitive complexity?

She left without a word, for Ecudor.
I would have liked to discuss more with her this thing
through the terrible nights.
She was than Henry wiser, being younger or
a woman.  She brought me Sanka and violent drugs
which were yet wholly inadequate. 

My doctor doubles them daily.  Am I a bad one–
I’m thinking of them fires & their perplexness–
or may a niche be found
in nothingness for completely exhausted Henry?
But it comes useless to canvass this alone,
out of her eyes and sound.


The connection that brought Berryman to the University of Minnesota was his long time friend Allen Tate, who had taken the position that Robert Penn Warren had held in the English department.  But the English department was not interested in Berryman, his reputation for bad behavior and emotional instability had followed him from the University of Iowa from the previous spring.  It was Ralph Ross in the Humanities department who took a liking to Berryman and saw in him a charismatic lecturer with the prestige of academic awards for his writing.  Ross had the freedom and support of the University to appoint top talent, mostly recruited from the  east coast.  It was Ross, combined with friendships through Berryman and Tate that brought Saul Bellow, Issac Rosenfeld and George Amberg to the University to teach in the Humanities department. 

Berryman cobbled together grants, awards and lectures to get through the winter of 1955 and finally landed a full time Associate Professor teaching position in the Humanities department in the spring, with a surprising salary of $8,000 a year.  As usual, Berryman couldn’t let a good thing stand, and carped continuously  on the injustices of not being considered for a position in English Department.   However, the period from fall of 1954 to 1956 were some of Berryman’s most stable and productive of the decade.   He sobered up, took to teaching again with a workman like enthusiasm, and began writing the Dream Songs.  

Berryman saw the Dream Songs as a direct off shoot of his ongoing therapy and his detailed documentation of his own dreams.   Berryman believed he had to suffer for his art.  He also believed art could create life, new life, for the artist and those that read the artist’s work.   Berryman embraced the idea that he could create a new personna, “Henry”, from which he could imbue and disembark from his own emotions.  It was a vessel to shape, reshape and renew. 

Early in his career at Minnesota, Berryman met Elizabeth Ann Levine.   She was a Harvard educated bright, beautiful graduate student in the English department. Although Berryman had no qualms about sleeping with other women while still married to Eileen, he was a nervous wreck over the steps required to achieve a proper Catholic divorce.   He was informed by his lawyer that he had to file a document with three witnesses testifying to the effect that Eileen had abandoned him.   Even Berryman felt the guilt of that untruth.  The stress of it, and the unwanted attention it brought from his mother, and the challenges of trying to become a tenured professor at the University, brought about yet another near nervous breakdown.   However, in among the emotional chaos, Berryman found the courage to propose to Ann and get a divorce from Eileen.  He wasted no time getting married to Ann in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in the fall of 1956.  

Berryman’s son Paul was born in 1957.   At first Berryman was smitten by the new baby, and beautiful young wife, but it doesn’t take long for tensions to rise.   He accepted a lecturing series that summer that takes him to India, Japan and Italy. for over two months and more importantly gets him out of Minneapolis.   When he returns he throws himself at writing and teaching.  It doesn’t take Ann long to resent his selfish attitude and lack of commitment to being a father and a husband.  Although he and Ann had cemented their friendship with Saul Bellows and his wife, during this period, it doesn’t wallpaper over the growing divisions in the Berryman household.  The wives spend the summer of 1958 taking the kids to play while their husband’s are busy writing indoors.  Berryman overworks himself to the point of exhaustion again and by 1959, Ann realizes that the marriage is not going to work.  She does not wait around and the divorce is final before the end of the year. 


Dream Song 242

by John Berryman

About that ‘me.’ After a lecture once
came up a lady asking to see me. ‘Of course.
When would you like to?’
Well now, she said.  ‘Yes, but I have a lunch-
eon–‘ Then I saw her and shifted with remorse
and said ‘Well; come on over.’

So we crossed to my office together and I sat her down
and asked, as she sat silent, ‘What is it, miss?’
‘Would you close the door?’
Now Henry was perplexed.  We don’t close doors
with students; it’s just a principle  But this
lady looked beyond frown.

So I rose from the desk & closed it and turning back
found her in tears-apologizing-‘No,
go right ahead,’ I assur-
ed her, ‘here’s a handkerchief. Cry.’ She did, I did. When she got
control, I said “What’s the matter-if you want to talk?’
‘Nothing.  Nothing’s the matter.’ So.
I am her.

Let Me Lament Alone

Eileen (Berryman) Simpson (1918 – 2002)

It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.

Earnest Hemingway

A Dialogue Between Old England and New (An Excerpt)

by Anne Bradstreet (1612 – 1672)
 
Old England.
Art ignorant indeed of these my woes,
Or must my forced tongue these griefs disclose,
And must my self dissect my tatter’d state,
Which Amazed Christendom stands wondering at?
And thou a child, a Limb, and dost not feel
My weak’ned fainting body now to reel?
This physic-purging-potion I have taken
Will bring Consumption or an Ague quaking,
Unless some Cordial thou fetch from high,
Which present help may ease my malady.
If I decease, dost think thou shalt survive?
Or by my wasting state dost think to thrive?
Then weigh our case, if ‘t be not justly sad.
Let me lament alone, while thou art glad.
 
 

The publication of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet in 1953 in the Partisan Review is a demarcation in Berryman’s life and career.  Berryman had been appointed a prestigious position for the spring of 1952 at the University of Cincinnati.   Eileen, herself an accomplished writer and successful therapist, joined him and began working at the University hospital, while waiting to open her own practice.  Eileen published a remarkable memoir in 1982, The Lives of Young Poets, a generous account of their lives together and their friendships with the myriad of poets of their generation. 

Eileen suffered from back issues throughout their marriage, with a combination of degeneration of disks and benign tumors that required several surgeries.  She suffered from chronic pain and for periods during the final seven years of their marriage was proscribed opioids for pain management, at times nearly bed-ridden because of the condition.  Eileen’s prolonged illness created a justification in Berryman’s mind for his repeated affairs, trysts, one night stands and womanizing.  Berryman’s adultery was not a mystery to either Eileen or his friends.  More often than not, he was eventually found out by someone in his inner circle.  Several times he had close calls where he feared he had of fathered a child with one of his lovers, and may have in fact done so, but none of his lovers ever held him accountable.   In reading the multiple biographies its clear that Berryman had a high sex drive that did not align with Eileen’s.  It’s also hinted at that she in part blamed herself for his extra-marital activities. Berryman was the kind of man who both loathed and worshiped women, a chaos fueled in part by his complicated relationship with his mother.  His loathing extended to a part of himself for the force that sex held over his thoughts and actions.  His eventual regrets never seemed to stop him from taking advantage of the sexual relationships that his looks and intelligence afforded him. 

Eileen made several attempts to help her husband reform his ways.  She demanded he get help for his drinking and to start psychotherapy to see if he could put to rest some of his demons from his past.  He took to the psychotherapy, but not abstinence.  This period of critical success with his writing did help out their finances, but it was also marked by a cycle of shortage of funds.  By the time they moved to Cincinnati in spring of 1952, Berryman owed thousands of dollars to friends, landlords, his psychiatrist and banks.  Berryman and his wife never could afford to buy a house during their 10 year marriage, despite both having successful careers.  There were always medical bills and other expenses that got in their way of achieving a level of financial comfort that both desired.  Berryman suffered for his art, intellectually, financially and at times socially.  Berryman’s boat floated but rarely glided down stream with ease.

The two would spend one final summer together in 1953 in Europe.   Berryman toured and lectured following the critical success of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. Berryman’s timing of publication was fortunate.  There was still an acceptance of long form poetry among critics and publishers.  The 57 stanza 544 line poem likely would not have received as much literary acclaim if published just a few years later.  Eileen had grown tired of living with his literary “mistress” that the writing of his long poem required as well as his repeated affairs in real life.  They would separate when they returned that fall and divorce two years later in 1956. 

Berryman had already begun his magnum opus, the long process of writing the first volume of Dream Songs.  During this time he would teach one semester at the University of Iowa in 1954, only to be dismissed for intoxication, profanity and an arrest for disturbing the peace.  It didn’t phase him.  He would be recruited by the University of Minnesota to become a lecturer in the Humanities Department in 1955, where he would remain until his death in 1972. 

Although reading Homage to Mistress Bradstreet is a bit of a slog today, its clear that Berryman had already honed his writing and poetic style that is carried forward into the creation of Dream Songs.   His intellectual capacity to connect history and literature in his writing was well established.  So too was his lifelong self destructive habits that were as immovable as his drive to be a successful poet.  I have not read Eileen’s memoir, but have ordered a copy for February as a way to mentally cleanse myself as I venture further into Berryman’s demise.   I’ll share anything I find particularly compelling later in the year.   Berryman’s final lines in stanza 37 are chilling in the honesty and complexity of his struggle to find peace in his relationships with women and the destructive tendencies of his behavior on their lives. 


Homage To Mistress Bradstreet (An Excerpt)

by John Berryman

[36]

–Hard and divided heaven! creases me.  Shame
is failing.  My breath is scented, and I throw
hostile glances toward God.
Crumpling plunge of pestle, bray:
sin cross & opposite, wherein I survive
nightmares of Eden.  Reaches foul & live
he for me, this soul
to crunch, a minute tangle  of eternal flame.

[37]

I fear Hell’s hammer-wind.  But fear does wane.
Death’s blossoms  grain my hair; I cannot live.
A black joy clashes
joy, in twilight.  The Devil said
‘I will deal toward her softly, and her enchanting cries
will fool the horns of Adam.’ Father of lies,
a male great pestle smashes
small women swarming towards the mortar’s rim in vain.

I Will Love That Touch

R. P. Blackmur (1904 – 1965)

In the gloom the gold, Gather’s the light about (against) it.

Ezra Pound, R. P. Blackmur

Dream Song 173

In Mem: R. P. Blackmur

by John Berryman

Somebody once pronounced upon one Path.
What rhythm shall we use for Richard’s death,
the dearer of the dear,
my older friend of three blackt out on me
I am heartbroken-open-heart surgery-see!
but I am not full of fear.

Richard is quiet who talked on so well:
I fill with fear: I agree: all this is hell
Where will he lie?
In a tantrum of horror & blocking where will he be?
With Helen, whom he softened-see! see!  see!
But not nearby.

Which search for Richard will not soon be done.
I blow on the live coal. I would be one,
another one.
Surely the galaxy will scratch my itch
Augustinian, like the night-wind witch
and I will love that touch.


R. P. Blackmur would begin teaching English literature in 1940 at Princeton and would remain a faculty member of the department for the next 25 years.   Blackmur was an eloquent voice for the new age in criticism.  His own small body of published work well behind him, he parlayed his keen intellect, intimidating good looks, sharp tongue into a successful teaching career and eventually literary criticism.   It was he that put in a good word for Berryman and helped him obtain a position in the fall of 1943.  The period from 1943 to 1953 saw Berryman hold various positions at Princeton and saw him rise in stature as a poet among his peers.  

During this period he befriended Robert Lowell, Ezra Pound, Caroline Gordon, Jean Stafford, Randall Jarrell, Saul Bellows, R. P. Blackmur, in addition to his long standing relationships with Schwartz, Tate and others.   He won numerous awards during this period for essays, short stories, a biography of Stephen Crane and in 1953, for his long poem Homage to Miss Bradstreet.   The list of awards is note worthy, including  a Rockefeller Foundation Research fellowship (1944), Kenyon-Doubleday first place award for writing, (1945), Gurantors Prize for Poetry (1949), Shelley Memorial Award for Poetry (1949), Levinson Prize for Poetry (1950) and a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing (1952).   

These ten years mark both the rise of Berryman as an established poet and writer as well as the fall of Berryman as a man and a husband.   It is a period marked by repeated affairs, excessive womanizing and multiple betrayals of Eileen.   It is a wonder their marriage lasted ten years.  That it did,  is a testament to Eileen’s kindness and forgiveness.   Her inability to have a child was a source of both relief and agony for both during their marriage.  Berryman’s drinking and ill health as well as Eileen’s own health issues, peppered their ten year marriage with constant drama, but also mutual dependence. 

It was during this period that he had his affair with Lise in 1947, the much younger wife of a graduate student.   It was an all consuming, destructive affair.   It was also mind games, as Berryman used Lise to not only fuel his ego sexually, but also to  construct a muse for his writing of sonnets, that would chronicle the affair.  He wrote them in secret, used them to seduce her and would only publish them as a volume called Berryman’s Sonnets twenty years later.   The 130 plus sonnets were published in 1967, after publication of 77 Dream Songs in 1964. 

I mention the affair and the book for two reasons.   One, Berryman’s Sonnets was a critical and publishing flop.  The context of their writing and the inappropriateness of the relationship gives everyone the willies and they aren’t very good. The very fact that it was published on the heals of winning the Pulitzer Prize is an hangover of the establishment of white men of letters of the time, who were allowed to get away with behavior that would be condemned today.   Second, it is evidence that Berryman, who wrote an extensive biography on Shakespeare, was wrestling with the traditional sonnet form within the context of “romantic”, if you can call it that, literature.   It is from this base of extensive sonnet writing that he would move on to the more stylized form that would become the basis of the Dream Songs.  

Berryman is richly praised for his “original” creation of the Dream Song sonnet form. So it was a bit of a surprise when I stumbled across Blackmur’s poem below, published in 1933, years before Berryman wrote any of his Dream Songs.  The eighteen line poem, consisting of three six line stanzas is identical in its construction and use of rhyme for which Berryman would become renowned.   I have always felt that everything is derivative, nothing is completely original.   Every writer, either consciously or unconsciously, is influenced by writing that came before their own.  But it is striking to see an example of a close colleague, with whom he taught alongside for years,  use the form that would become associated with Berryman 30 years later. 

 


Steriles Ritournelles

by R. P. Blackmur

I saw a face rise up
made honest by the dark
shadow of its hat.
What animal out of the ark
but would continue chaste
had its opposite a face like that?

How have I seen this promise waste—
treasure of company,
complement in thought,
the cord of Unity
binding the public deed—
spent, bewildered, broken, gone to seed.

How have I seen a smile unsought
startle the mystery,
make plain how all this action ends.
From this his gestured generosity
I think him such an actor as, maybe,
might lay down a hated wife for friends.

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:

 


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. 

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.