blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



“In All Them Time Henry Could Not Make Good”: Reintroducing John Berryman


“The high ones die, die. They die. You look up and who’s there?”—so writes Berryman’s alter ego, Henry, at the start of “Dream Song #36,”a poem which is ostensibly an elegy for William Faulkner. Berryman is writing in the early 1960s, when the High Ones, all the heroes of literary modernism as well as a sadly large percentage of the poets of the generations following them, were passing fast and furiously. This makes parts of Berryman’s masterwork seem less like a poem suffused with elegy than an obit page with its syntax roughened up and fashioned into six-line stanzas. Henry makes note of every death, and he has to work hard to keep up: Frost is eulogized in the Dream Song which follows, and later Williams and Eliot. And soon the bodies of Berryman’s contemporaries start to pile up: Plath, Roethke, MacNeice, and most notably his friends Delmore Schwartz and Randall Jarrell. And though they are High Ones, they tend to die pointlessly and ingloriously. Plath gets her gas jet going; Jarrell springs in front of a passing sedan; Roethke’s heart stops during a boozy dive into his neighbor’s swimming pool, and Schwartz’s in a flophouse hallway, his body unidentified for days. Die, die, die: Berryman’s repetitions not only underscore the benumbing frequency of the High Ones’ demises, but also remind us that poets are often bestowed with the dubious blessing of dying more than once, just as Henry does, several times, over the course of The Dream Songs’ 385 sections.


Crucial poets are supposed to be immortal, but we’ve known for quite some time that they’re not. Reputations ebb and flow; the patient goes into cardiac arrest, and it takes a while for the ICU staff to hustle the paddles out and administer the electrical current. Sometimes it seems that the patient will never revive. Donne was a dead horse for three hundred years, and there was a time—a fairly long time, given the relative shortness of American literary history—when Dickinson and Whitman were regarded as quaint eccentrics, by no means among the crucial poets. And on the ICU for Literary Reputations, John Berryman has languished for a couple of decades. Some of his ward-mates have already been wheeled to the morgue. Big Shots of yesteryear, ranging from Conrad Aiken to Anne Sexton and Richard Hugo, are all lying cold on the slabs downstairs. Several of Berryman’s pals are down there too, among them Schwartz and Jarrell. True, there have been some surprising recoveries—who would have thought that Amy Lowell and Edna St. Vincent Millay were anything but goners? Yet now they’re both up and about, subjects of new biographies and selections bearing the august imprint of the Library of America. Berryman, however, does not look to be leaving soon. His breathing is labored, his vitals weak.

I find myself thinking of “Dream Song #36” on a chilly January afternoon, thirty three years—almost to the day—after John Berryman, the literal John Berryman, leapt to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge on the University of Minnesota campus. A thick wet snow is falling outside my office window; and, because this is Virginia, where an inch or two of snow is a cause for a panic that seems comical to this Minnesota native, I’m reading with bemusement an email from my dean, announcing that the university where I teach will close today at three. An hour before, I’d been trying to say something about the importance of inventive syntax to one of my students, who’d come into my office for a conference about his recent poems. To illustrate my point, I’d pulled from my shelf a very tattered copy of The Dream Songs and opened it to that glorious first stanza of #29. Is there any other passage in American poetry which so acutely renders despair and weariness, and yet at the same time does so with such bedazzling panache?

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
so 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.

My student, who’d taken a British poetry survey the previous semester, immediately likens the passage to Hopkins. I add that the stylized vernacular and rhythms also owe much to the blues, an art form which Berryman deeply revered. At this point I am poised to launch into one of those monologues fueled in equal parts by rapture and pedantry that English professors can indulge in when discussing a work they dearly love, but two things stop me short. The first has to do with the student: I ask him if he’s ever read Berryman. He’s an intelligent kid, one of the better-read undergraduates I’ve worked with. But he replies by shaking his head. “Wait a second,” he adds, “didn’t Berryman shoot himself or something?” “And besides,” he tells me as he wraps himself in his scarf, “this stuff is just too weird for me to do anything with.” He leaves my office, promising to work more on his syntax. The second thing which has taken me aback has to do with the copy of The Dream Songs which I’d read to the student from. I have a number of copies of the book floating around: one at home and a couple at school, desk copies accumulated from teaching Berryman over the years. But in this copy there’s a flurry of notes on the margins of #29, and they seem to be in three distinct hands, one set in blue ink, one set in green, one in a faded pencil, and I’m puzzled for a moment because I can’t recognize the handwriting. Who has done this? Did I long ago buy a used copy of the book that someone had scribbled in? Had I loaned it to a student who had no qualms about writing all over someone else’s book?

With the student safely out of the office, I ponder these questions, and it takes me several minutes to realize that one of these mysterious hands is that of my eighteen- or nineteen-year-old self, his handwriting so different from mine that it seems a stranger’s. The second must be my—what?—thirty- or thirty-five-year-old self’s, looking equally alien but whose notes are more pedantic. I must have been preparing a class in a hurry, writing so fast that my comments are unrecognizable to me today. And the hand in the green ink, so entwined in this jumbled marginalia that it too was at first mysterious, is that of Lynda Hull, my late wife, whose poetry possessed something of Berryman’s extravagantly quirky music. They die, they die, they die. I am sifting through archaeological strata, staring at pentimento and grave goods, layered like Troy or Mycenae or Jericho: two dead poets as well as two dead selves. I begin to page through some recent anthologies, wondering how Berryman is faring these days. Although at the time of his death he was perhaps the most highly esteemed poet of his generation, eclipsing figures such as Bishop and his friend Adrienne Rich, and even giving the Heavyweight Champ of the era, Robert Lowell, some very serious competition, you wouldn’t know it today. Bishop and Rich each have close to thirty pages devoted to their work in the new Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry; Berryman has seven and a half. All but one of the selections are from The Dream Songs. The poet’s early efforts in the High Modernist vein are ignored, and so are Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and his sonnets, the key long works which prepare him for the Songs. Twentieth-Century American Poetry, a new anthology from McGraw Hill designed to compete with the Norton, allots Berryman five poems and notes how precipitously the poet’s reputation has fallen in recent years. The book gives more space to Weldon Kees, born the same year as Berryman and a figure of utter obscurity during the time of Berryman’s literary triumph. This I note with a certain ambivalence, having played a small role in Kees’ revival. Today, though, my satisfaction at seeing Kees moved off the ICU is accompanied by something akin to guilt. By championing Kees, have I been unwittingly disloyal to Berryman?

It’s indiscreet, I know, to cast all of these speculations in such personal terms. Berryman was never a mentor for me in the way he was for figures such as W.S. Merwin and Philip Levine, both of whom have written movingly about Berryman’s teaching. Though my first semester as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota coincided with Berryman’s final months of teaching, I never studied with him. More than once I’d catch a glimpse of him around the campus, however, and once or twice I snuck into one of his lectures. (Interestingly enough, he taught for the Humanities Department; English didn’t want him.) Of these lectures I remember nothing, yet I have an oddly vivid recollection of spying Berryman through the window of Gray’s Drugs, which sat on the edge of the university campus and had an old-fashioned lunch counter. There was Berryman on a stool, thin and frail beneath the leonine beard, bent over a plate of runny eggs, a trembling fork poised above them. I’m tempted to remember that egg yolk ran down the legendary beard, but that would be embroidery. I knew it was Berryman, though, and I’d read some of his poems; unfortunately, it hadn’t been the significant work, only a gathering of pretty minor fare entitled Short Poems, which his publisher had issued after the immense success of The Dream Songs. I didn’t think much of the book. If Berryman was never a mentor for me, and if my memories of him are so trivial, why then do I feel the need to talk about him in the first person, and why does my lunch-counter glimpse of him remain lodged in my mind with all the intensity of a vision? The answer lies not in what is, strictly speaking, an encounter with Berryman, but in a coincidence, a coincidence that came to be of significant importance in the baffling and circuitous process that turns someone into a poet.

But how could my utterly unremarkable eighteen-year-old self ever become a poet? I was all tabula rasa and acne, my life revolving around the classes I sleepwalked through at the university, the pot I smoked each morning and the Grateful Dead records I listened to each night. I use “sleepwalking” in a more or less literal sense, as I also had a job, a job ideally suited for a hippie slacker. I worked as a night watchman in a large medical building, nothing much to do but read and walk the hallways a couple of times a night checking to see if the office doors were locked. I’d punch out at six in the morning and ride the bus from St. Paul to campus, where my sleepless nights and the weed would catch up to me, I’d snooze through the lectures I attended. That was me at the start of January, 1972. The winter quarter had just begun, and as uneventfully as the fall quarter had.

The bearded poet’s winter quarter could not be said to have begun so uneventfully. Berryman, who seems to have lived his adult life in a perpetual state of crisis, is undergoing yet another period of deep depression and emotional agony. He’s labored mightily these past two years to stay sober, but now he’s slipped. His third marriage is failing, with Berryman’s much younger wife at long last rebelling against her role as caretaker. He’s finished a new book of poetry which his friends regard as inferior and have counseled him not to publish, and he has abandoned a novel about his struggle with alcoholism. He has come to question as well the religious conversion that figures so strongly in his final two collections of verse. On January 5, he considers checking into a hotel where he will stab himself to death, but he reconsiders and later that day writes his last attempt at verse. It hews to the stanzaic arrangement of The Dream Songs, a form he could never quite get out of his system. It begins,

I didn’t. And I didn’t. Sharp the Spanish blade
to gash my throat after I’d climbed across
the high railing of the bridge
to tilt out, with the knife in my right hand . . . [1]

It’s not an entirely hopeless missive though it’s surely pathetic; Berryman then speculates that perhaps his wife won’t let him out of the house, thus allowing him to avoid the terrible fate he’s planned. And maybe the university police will see him on his way to this grisly rendezvous and “clap . . . him in for observation.” Despair, debasement, the stagger from Yeatsian music to blunt abjection: all the elements of Berryman’s mature style are there, but the charm, erudition, and wry genius which could bring these improbable ingredients together into memorable verse are absent. And by this point Berryman’s detractors are saying that his peculiar genius left him some time ago. He crumples the poem and tosses it into his wastebasket, where it will be found on the day of his death. On January 7, a Friday, Berryman leaves his home for school. He walks to the Washington Avenue Bridge, which spans the Mississippi, and divides the University into east and west bank campuses. He stands for a moment on the railing before he leaps. Witnesses will later report that he waved. It is 9 in the morning. At 9:10 or 9:15 I start across the bridge myself, having slept through a psychology lecture that began at 8, on my way to a Spanish class. The Washington Avenue Bridge is an ugly piece of work; there are lanes for cars on its lower tier; pedestrians can cross on the top. On a bone-chilling day like this one, you wouldn’t want to walk along the railings as Berryman had; you’d instead choose the enclosed walkway, and it’s through this I would have ambled that morning, picking up a copy of the student newspaper from a kiosk or greeting the girl who sat in the row before me during the psych lecture. Below me, the police cruisers would have already gathered on the west bank shore, where Berryman had landed, having first hit one of the bridge pilings, missing the iced-over river entirely. And as I yammered my pathetically Midwestern-accented Spanish or choked my quiz on irregular verbs, the cops would by now have identified the body as Berryman’s. He’d carried no wallet, but in his pocket was a blank check, and his name was engraved inside the rim of his glasses, which, though shattered, had remained on his face through the fall. [2]

It took me a couple of days to hear of Berryman’s death. And, of course, because I was eighteen and knew less than nothing, I greeted the news with a grotesque mixture of emotions. Suicide, from a bridge of all things: now there was a career move. And remember, the sixties were scarcely over; these were the waning days of existentialism, of live-fast-and-die-young, when suicide and early death possessed a cachet that they hadn’t had since the days of the Romantics. Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, James Dean and Plath: they were the new Chattertons and Young Werthers. Self-destruction was hip, and it even had its protocols, not as elaborate as those for hari-kiri, but nearly as ritualized. Anne Sexton, who would end her own life shortly after Berryman, reacted to the death of Plath with a horrifying competitiveness. As Sexton biographer Diane Middlebrook writes,

Sexton was frank about her anger with Plath for having “stolen” the finale Sexton planned for her own career. “That death was mine!” Sexton told her doctor. Suicide was a glamorous death, for an artist; the world would now pay more serious attention to Plath’s poetry than was otherwise conceivable. . . . More, Sexton knew that her own suicide, whenever it occurred, would seem like a copycat act. This seemed unfair to Sexton, since she was older than Plath. [3]

If someone as smart as Sexton—who, despite her mental anguish, should have known better—could endorse such idiocy, then surely a callous eighteen-year-old from Mahtomedi, Minnesota, could easily have been duped into thinking Berryman’s death was somehow classy. Berryman may not have been beautiful and young like Jimi or Janis, but in my dumbfuck adolescent brain I’d conflated Berryman’s hundred-foot fall into a slab of cement with Hendrix torching his guitar during Monterey Pop. And so, like those kids in my poetry writing classes of today with black eye shadow and pale makeup, who’ve just made the not-very-long leap from Goth Rock singers to the poems of Ariel, from Nine Inch Nails to Lady Lazarus, I’d found my Suicide Hero. Not only that, but I was right there in the audience when the flames licked the Stratocaster—or almost there. Five minutes earlier, I thought, and I could have been the one he waved to, Henry’s final benediction mine alone.


And thus began my apprenticeship to John Berryman. A few days later I purchased The Dream Songs, and all that winter and spring I read and reread its poems. They were utterly entrancing. Yes, they were difficult, never friendly in the manner of the Brautigan and Snyder poems I favored, but instead were militantly obtuse and allusive, recalling the Stevens and Eliot poems I’d dipped into and never much liked. Yet they were at once much funnier and much sadder, and there was a quality in the mixture of voices and emotions and dictions which seemed to me even more intimate, somehow, than the Zen-Lite clarities of Snyder. I reveled in Henry’s picaresque bluster, and I loved the poems’ breakneck shifts in person, their manic antiphonal slither. I even found that I could put up with the blackface dialect that ensued when Henry’s unnamed companion entered, making his fruitless effort to console or admonish this improbable hero. Berryman seemed almost as good to me as the other great bard who’d passed through Minneapolis, Bob Dylan. And though I knew even then that Dream Songs went on too long, that its self-important division into seven books couldn’t mask the fact that the collection was cobbled together and cohered in only the vaguest of ways, the book never left my bedside. And Henry, Berryman’s supreme creation, part Falstaff and part Hamlet, agonized and cornball by turns, mostly Berryman but also the loose and bobbing mask that allows this brooding Achilles to leave his tent and wearily lampoon himself, was simply the most astonishing literary creation I knew of save for the lyrics of Highway 61 Revisited. I cherished the book, and knew that to understand it better I needed to also school myself in its allusions and influences, and so through it I learned a good deal of what I know about literature, albeit in an ass-backward sort of fashion. Because Berryman was a Shakespeare scholar, and I knew in an inchoate way that Shakespearean allusions abounded in the poem, I enrolled in Shakespeare classes. Because Berryman loved Yeats and Hopkins, I studied Yeats and Hopkins. Because of Berryman’s Schwartz and Jarrell elegies, I went to their work. Like all obsessions, certain of its effects were comic. I read two biographies of Adlai Stevenson, simply because, in a minor Dream Song, Henry expresses admiration for him. I listened over and over again to Bessie Smith, since “Dream Song #1” references her “Empty Bed Blues.” And I remember staying up until two a.m. one night, waiting excitedly to watch a crummy B-movie on The Late ShowThe Prisoner of Shark Island, starring Paul Muni, alluded to in “Dream Song #7.” I even became something of a stalker, should such a thing be possible when the prey is already deceased. I’d walk every couple of weeks past 33 Arthur Avenue SE, Berryman’s home, and more than once drove my VW microbus out to Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights to visit Berryman’s grave. More inane pilgrimages followed: I found out where Berryman’s campus office had been, and was a bit enraged that the university hadn’t set a plaque or a marker there. Around this time Minnesota lowered the drinking age to eighteen, and my bar of choice became the one where Berryman hung out, though I could never see the point of the martinis Berryman favored. But what a thrill it was to down a Pabst beneath a framed photo of Berryman, knowing these were the booths where he’d composed several Dream Songs—on cocktail napkins, no less. How mighty Berryman seemed, and how puny was I. When, at nineteen, I was able to grow a beard for the first time, my girlfriend told me I looked like Kenny Loggins, paying me what she thought was a terrific compliment. I was crushed when she hadn’t recognized my real model. Hadn’t I read her all those Dream Songs by candlelight?

The odd thing about this phase was that my obsession with Berryman never prompted me to try to write like him. Clumsy tyro versifying was coming out of me all the time, but perhaps my student was right in his claim that Berryman, at least the Berryman of The Dream Songs, is just too weird to get anything from. You can’t write in the form of The Dream Songs or begin to imitate the lurching shifts in diction and tone, with their wrenched syntax and jarring neologisms, without coming up with something that sounds like pastiche or parody. It’s an idiom that more than one critic has likened to Esperanto, but that metaphor is imprecise. If Esperanto (along with Shakespeare, Milton, and Whitman, among others) is a universal language, then Berryman-speak is a kind of pidgin, the Creole spoken by a tribe of one on an isolated island; he’s half a world away from where the mother tongue is spoken, but he has access to a good library, a decent record collection, and plenty of time to mull over every one of his life’s mistakes, indiscretions, traumas, and humiliations. (Onanism figures in this mix as well, in the form of Henry’s endlessly lascivious and stereotypical sexual fantasies—but as an eighteen-year-old, I could relate to that.) When this Crusoe creates a Friday, he fashions a kind of dialect within a dialect, for the speech of Henry’s imaginary companion, “who addresses him as Mr. Bones and variants thereof,” derives from the stylized vernacular of blackface minstrelsy. Is it possible to imagine a more oddball or unlikely means to great poetry? For poetic models, I stuck to James Wright—the middle-period Wright, not the considerably more complex figure of the late poetry—and Robert Bly, whose crimped surrealist epiphanies in cornfields were far less difficult to imitate. They were metaphor-driven poets in a way that Berryman was not, and it required little training to concoct the sort of pseudo-profound and atavistic similes that abound in Silence in the Snowy Fields. From Wright and Bly I learned of Neruda, who was exceedingly easy to parrot. I cared for these writers in part because I learned how to steal from them, to make the more facile elements of their method part of my young poet’s toolkit. But Berryman, in his vast eccentricity, remained a figure of awe. And to some degree he remains this way for me today. True, I once was able to write a reasonably credible poem in the form and style of The Dream Songs, but I only could do so within the context of a much longer sequence of poems, and only by casting the poem as a monologue spoken by Berryman/Henry.

The point of all this is that Berryman has left almost no heirs, and surely this has something to do with the decline in his reputation. Compare this situation to that of Bishop and Lowell, Berryman’s most important generational peers. Bishop impersonations have for twenty-some years been a graduate workshop staple, and the influence of Lowell’s Life Studies, despite the hits Lowell’s reputation has taken in recent decades, remains considerable enough to enable poets who’ve never even read Lowell to adopt many of his strategies. Bishop and Lowell are still fashioning the lingua franca. But Berryman? The charter flights aren’t even stopping on his island anymore.


Yet on the very January afternoon during which I watched my student leave Berryman prostrate, abandoning Henry to yet another of his many demises, I found evidence that something of a Berryman revival may be in the works. This isn’t a triumphant return. Lazarus is not rising easily or grandly; as in the Giotto fresco, his time underground has left him quite a bit worse for the wear. He rises in the way in which Henry rises in “Dream Song #91”, in the last of a series of self-elegies entitled “Opus Posthumous”:

Noises from underground made gibber some
others collected & dug Henry up
saying “You are a sight.”
Chilly, he muttered for a double rum
waving the mikes away, putting a stop
to rumors, pushing his fright

off with now the accumulated taxes
accustomed in his way to solitude
and no bills.
Wives came forward, claiming a new Axis,
fearful for their insurance, though, now, glued
to disencumbered Henry’s many ills.

Those who have gathered to exhume Henry are the Library of America and poet Kevin Young, editor of John Berryman: Selected Poems, a review copy of which I discovered in my office mailbox, before I made my way home in that dusting of snow that had so paralyzed the drivers of Richmond. Although the Library’s imprint suggests that Berryman remains canonical, there are some strings attached here. The Berryman volume is issued not as one of those Big Tomes In Glossy Black Jackets where the Library features the likes of Stevens, Frost, and Pound (and even Francis Parkman), but in a newer series called “The American Poets Project,” designed to provide “a compact national library of American poetry.” It’s a pocket-sized book, not much bigger than a wallet or an iPod, its dust jacket printed in mauve and yellow, a color scheme that doesn’t exactly suit the author of The Dream Songs. The good news is that Berryman’s held his place in the canon; the bad news is that he’s now relegated to one of the farm clubs of Parnassus, the double-A leagues of minor-major figures; his teammates also include Whittier, Poe, “The American Wits,” Edna St. Vincent Millay, Amy Lowell, and (I kid you not) Yvor Winters and Kenneth Fearing, all of whom are represented in the compact series. Berryman is not, however, the only Major-Major Figure sent down to the Minor-Majors: Doctor Williams is also on the farm club team, as are two once-formidable presences from Berryman’s own generation, Theodore Roethke and Muriel Rukeyser, both uneven writers whose claims to importance are strengthened thanks to the judicious selections required by the compact format. And it must be said that Berryman profits from this format, too.


Curiously, a comprehensive selection of Berryman’s poetry has never been available in this country before; Berryman’s misleadingly titled Collected Poems contains all the short lyrics, as well as the sonnets and Mistress Bradstreet, but nothing from The Dream Songs, which Berryman’s publisher has always issued as a separate volume, and always in its entirety. This makes for some obvious problems: the second-rate Dream Songs, especially those from His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, the longer but weaker second volume of the sequence, tend to distract the reader from the most innovative songs, most of which appear in the volume’s first installment, which was published in 1964 as 77 Dream Songs. In the Collected, the poetry of his unusually long apprenticeship, burdened with its Yeats affectations and haughty modernist detachment, threatens to distort the significance of Berryman’s far more engaging sonnets and the Bradstreet sequence. Yet these latter two works are themselves problematic, marred for differing reasons by a kind of self-indulgence which Berryman overcame (though precariously) in The Dream Songs. Sadly, the self-indulgence returns as a kind of tsunami in Berryman’s final two books, Love & Fame and Delusions Etc., where Berryman strips off the Henry mask and speaks in a guilelessly direct autobiographical poetry that is usually flat and uninteresting, or indulges in devotional verse that is for the most part banal. Finally, to make the messiness of this very messy oeuvre just a bit more turbid, there are the hundreds of unpublished Dream Songs that exist in Berryman’s literary remains, some of which were gathered by his biographer John Haffenden in a long-unavailable volume entitled Henry’s Fate. Yet a small number of these poems (not the efforts that were famously composed on cocktail napkins after a couple of stiff ones), are of the first order. Berryman himself seemed in the end to have realized what the sprawling unevenness of his poetry could have done to his legacy; one of the last projects he completed was a selection of his poems, including the best of The Dream Songs, which he compiled for his British publisher, Faber and Faber, and which was issued there not long after his death. Although Berryman’s muse may have been lost, sloshed, or badly hungover during his final years, his discernment as a critic of his own work seems in this case not to have failed him: it’s an impeccable selection of 170 pages; most of the essential Berryman can be found in the book, and I’ve always wondered why the volume never was reprinted in the States. Had this book been the introduction to Berryman that American readers encountered during the decades since his death, I doubt if his reputation would still be languishing on the ICU. Kevin Young appears to use the Faber book as his starting place, but he also makes a discerning selection from Berryman’s flawed last books, showcases the sonnets in a more convincing way than Berryman himself did, and even brings to the table some early work that does not appear in the Collected; in the context of a volume which aims to show Berryman’s evolution rather than simply to be comprehensive, this work too looks surprisingly interesting. Berryman once entitled a poem “The Poet’s Final Instructions,” and with Young’s selection it might be said that Berryman’s will has finally been executed.

Young is well-suited for this task, being one of the few contemporary poets of consequence who can be said to have been influenced by Berryman. He favors long poetic sequences that carry something of the flavor of The Dream Songs; they make use of a Henryesque mixture of high culture references with pop culture subjects, and they are characterized by the same nervy willingness to over-indulge that is both the bane and the glory of Berryman’s writing. In his introduction, Young praises a variety of modernist and post-modernist long poems which he characterizes as “over-reaching, under planned, unruly, wonderful messes that do not aspire to formal perfection but which delight in their sense of surprise, of personality.” [4] It’s a characterization which echoes the qualities which Berryman glorified in a seminal essay on Whitman, whose example, more than any other, allowed the poet to make a definitive break with the cult of impersonality promulgated by the modernists and New Critics who were his early models. (It’s worth noting that the arid symmetries of these writers have been unwittingly revived in certain strains of post-modernism, most notably in Language writing, methods which Young, in his turn, has also rebelled against.) Furthermore, Young is a writer of color, and his guardedly sympathetic reading of the minstrelsy and dialect motifs of The Dream Songs finally sets this can of worms to rest. Young notes that “for Berryman, as for many white rock and roll artists, black dialect (however imaginary), provides a gateway to a wider sense of American language, not a sign of cultural decay but of cultural vitality. The fearlessness through which Berryman breaks through the polite diction of academic poetry into a liberating variety of idioms is a major part of his legacy.” [5] For aficionados of Henry, there will be something a bit sorrowful about Young’s very sensible desire to reintroduce Berryman, to state the claims for his place in American poetry, and to defend his excesses and infelicities, but you can’t quibble with the judgments of Young’s introduction. It is now possible for the first time to get a clear picture of Berryman’s very curious development and to ascertain at long last how the best of Berryman will endure.

The conventional wisdom that the early work is weak is still borne out in Young’s selection, but in it we read the early poems with a new understanding of just how radical was the shift from the dutiful modernism of the apprentice work to the weird mastery of The Dream Songs. It’s mostly the voice of Yeats we hear, but all the Usual Suspects among the modernists haunt the work, so much so that an individual poem can partake of several of their voices at once: an elegy for Crane starts in the manner of White Buildings, but shifts to undigested Audenisms (“Impermanence in place, he will not walk/Again the swift contemporary sky”). But there are glimmers of the work to come even here: a series of monologues entitled “The Nervous Songs” prefigures the staccato dictional shifts and emotional extremity of The Dream Songs, and in them he even arrives at the form of the later poem.


The first poems which suggest that Berryman could ever be a poet of the stature of his friends Jarrell, Lowell, and Schwartz come in the form of the hundred and seventeen sonnets Berryman wrote in a kind of frenzy in 1947 but didn’t publish until twenty years later. Chronicling an extramarital affair with a woman the poet calls “Chris” and taking place during Berryman’s stint of teaching at Princeton, they are a wacko mixture of Elizabethan contrivance, heaped-on literary allusion and bald self-disclosure, erudite and horny by turns. The sequence has little to offer by way of plot: the couple has a secretive few trysts, in places such as parked cars; the beloved leaves town on vacation and the speaker pines for her. Eventually they part. The final lines of the sequence are telling: “Presently the sun/yellowed the pines & my lady came not/in blue jeans & a sweater. I sat down and wrote.” As Adam Kirsch witheringly observes, “it is hard to say which Berryman found more desirable, Chris herself or the poems she inspired.” [6] Yet in the sequence we see the first inklings of Berryman’s originality. William Meredith refers to the sonnets as a “puppyish tour de force,” and for the first time in Berryman’s career he seems capable of a tour de force. [7] His stance toward his influences has changed; he no longer seems a dutiful graduate student aspiring to Shakespeare scholarship nor a slavish disciple of Yeats, Eliot, and Auden. Now Berryman has arrived at something of the passive-aggressive stance toward the tradition which figures so strongly in The Dream Songs. He appropriates his masters while at the same time doing violence toward them. He likens Chris to Petrarch’s Laura, but only to contrast Petrarch’s chaste devotion to his muse with the speaker’s own erotic ardor; he revels in the illicitness of the affair while at the same time infusing it with buffoonery: “a month we writhed, in sudden love like a scrimmage,” he writes in “Sonnet #71.” Again and again, he sets himself against the rarefied allusive vocabulary, impersonality, and formal precision of modernism: sonnets these may be, but they’re improvisational and frequently sloppy, the rhymes often seem calculatingly bad, designed to provoke us. Thus we have “softest crotch” paired with “Morning-after botch,” and “kibitzer’s mouth” with “curiosity’s truth.” And while the invariable references to Dido and Aeneas, Lancelot and Guinevere, and Tristan and Isolde appear in the sequence, so does Groucho Marx. Combine this mixture with the poems’ local color and journalistic specifics—Princeton streets and watering holes get mentioned, along with the poet’s quotidian tasks—and you might as well be reading a heterosexual version of O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. Young reprints a far greater number of the sonnets than Berryman himself did in his Faber selection, and while many of these efforts are excruciating, Young allows us to see the arc of the collection, to view it, as Berryman seems to have when he allowed the book to at last be published, as a kind of roman á clef.

Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, Berryman’s other large project prior to The Dream Songs, garnered him the praise of his contemporaries which he seems to have so deeply craved. It is Berryman’s submission to the Big Modernist Long Poem sweepstakes, and it has all the requisite bells and whistles: an immensely difficult style comprised of inverted syntax and archaisms, an appropriately literary subject in its examination the life of the early American poet Anne Bradstreet, and a quirky, elliptical structure along the lines of The Wasteland or The Bridge. The poem was received ecstatically when it first appeared in Partisan Review in 1953 and yet again when it appeared in book form a few years later. Bradstreet still has its admirers, though I am not one of them. Like Lowell’s The Mills of the Kavanaghs, published not long before it, the poem is notable largely for its dubious ability to take the baroque and mannerist strains of modernism to their most bizarre extremes. (Stanley Kunitz, in a review of the book, allows that he has read the poem six times and still doesn’t understand it—the implication being that if the poem is that obscure, it’s got to be a kind of masterwork.) [8] But, as with Lowell in Kavanaghs, Bradstreet was a book Berryman seems to have needed to get off his chest before his real work could begin. And, as with his sonnets, Bradstreet employs some devices Berryman will use to greater success in The Dream Songs, most notably in the passages of imaginary dialogue between the poet-narrator of the poem and Bradstreet—who speaks sometimes in monologue, but sometimes is evoked in the third person. These shifts in diction and person prefigure the quirky eclogue form that we’ll later see in the exchanges between Henry and his blackface companion. Young reprints Homage to Mistress Bradstreet in its entirety, as he should, despite the poem’s flaws.

So now we arrive at The Dream Songs. After slogging through its six thousand, one hundred and sixty lines, and after hearing the many anecdotes of Berryman’s facility at writing the later songs, readers tend to draw the mistaken assumption that the book came easily. In fact, as we know from the Haffenden and Mariani biographies, the book evolved in slow and costly fashion; the first volume, begun in 1955, took Berryman eight years to complete, and it arose above all from a combination of personal crises and intense self-assessment. He made his initial plans for the book shortly after his arrival in Minneapolis, his formerly bright teaching career in a shambles. He’d just been fired from a position in Iowa because of his drinking, and his friends Allen Tate and Saul Bellow had to pull a good many strings to convince the administration at Minnesota to hire him. His first marriage had ended, and he spent much of his first year in Minnesota undertaking a preposterously obsessive project of dream analysis, apparently because he is too broke to afford a shrink. He is “busy and literally out of the world,” he reports to his mother, “dealing solely with dreams.” [9] Painful memories haunt this project, revolving most significantly around the suicide of Berryman’s father when the poet was twelve. At the same time, he commences an agonizing exchange of letters with his mother, in which he queries her about the father’s death. (The circumstances of the father’s suicide are cloudy, and there has always been speculation that he was murdered by the poet’s mother and future stepfather.) This is the “irreversible loss” which Berryman alludes to in his prefatory note to the poem, the “departure” mentioned in “Dream Song #1.” When Berryman finally snaps out of the trance of his self-analysis, he begins to plan a new work, longer and more ambitious than anything he has composed before. Mariani does a masterful job of summing up Berryman’s design for the poem.

In a note written late in [1955] he considered the form of the new poems. Like his earlier Nervous Songs, the Dream Songs would use the three 6-line rhyming stanzas, though he wanted them to be “much ‘rougher’ and more ‘brilliant’” than anything he’d yet done; he wanted a coarse demotic language to fit into the music of the poem without calling too much attention to itself. And he wanted the poem to deal with the human condition, but channeled through the life of one man. Each poem would have at least “one stroke of some damned serious humor.” He wanted a “gravity of matter,” but he wanted it wedded to a “gaiety of manner.” He would avoid sentimentality at all costs, letting the poems arise naturally out of the situations in the poems themselves . . . He would also mean to get all the sexual longing and lust into his poems he could. . . . He would begin the sequence with memories of his childhood and end with a poem about his daughter, when that event should finally happen. He would use the old iambic norm, but jazz it up and make it freer, mixing it with “rocking meter, anapests, spondees, iambs, trochees, dactyls” until he drove the prosodists “right out of their heads” with his weird riffs and sweet new music. He would rely on Christian symbols to gird the sequence, though he meant Henry to be closer to the picaresque hero in Apuleius’ Golden Ass than to Christ. He would leave the door ajar on the off-chance that some change of heart might yet someday visit Henry.” [10]

Within a few years Berryman was able to gain some momentum for this outlandish project, and need it be added that it resembles nothing else in American poetry? Yet the poem at its best is far more than the sum of its vastly idiosyncratic parts. True, the poem has little of the austere and sobering introspection that haunts Lowell’s Life Studies, which was begun at the same time. Nor is Berryman interested in the sorts of visionary spiritual reckonings which preoccupy Bishop in many of the poems of her North and South, much of which was also written in the late 1950s. When compared to Bishop and Lowell, the Berryman of The Dream Songs seems all performance and bluster. But I wonder if this contrast has more to do with choices of strategy than with depth. Lowell arrives at the new candor of Life Studies through modeling his poems on memoir and realist fiction—The Education of Henry Adams was his favorite book. [11] Bishop’s most enduring models are the lyrics of Herbert and Hopkins. In differing ways, Lowell and Bishop seek a classicizing purity and economy in their mature styles. Berryman, by contrast, devises The Dream Songs as a dramatic poem, a performance piece. Although Henry is its only real character, he is rendered through stagecraft, in monologues and dialogue which ultimately derive from the Marlowe and Shakespeare plays which Berryman knew quite nearly by heart. His method allows for a vastly greater variety of tone and diction than anything which Bishop and Lowell would permit themselves, and although this tonal and dramatic complexity withers into mere diary notes in the later Dream Songs, the first 91 sections—everything up to the end of its “Opus Posthumous” series—are remarkably accomplished, all of them good, and about a dozen of them unquestionably great. Young would probably not completely agree with my claim, as he reprints less than half of 77 Dream Songs, and perhaps too many of the efforts of His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, where—as Lewis Hyde pointed out a number of years ago in a controversial essay—Berryman seems to have written a large percentage of the poems while completely sloshed.

Reading the new collection, I find myself also wondering whether the decline in Berryman’s reputation has something to do with the fundamental laziness and conformity of anthologists, who seem to have conspired to make #’s 4, 14, and 29 just about all readers know of Berryman. #29 may indeed be the most characteristic poem in the series, but #14 strikes me as mostly shtick; its tone merely antic, showing little evidence of the tragicomic sensibility that inhabits the best of the songs. #4 is a bit more striking, thanks to the chilling irony of its closing, but it is by no means the sequence’s best or most representative effort. Young of course prints this trio, but his selection also showcases poems which have largely been ignored by anthologists, and many of them are overlooked gems, not just because they are fresher than the anthology fare, but because they are better. Here, for example, is #51:

Our wounds to time, from all the other times,
sea-times slow, the time of galaxies
fleeing, the dwarfs’ dead time,
lessen so little that if here in his crude rhymes
Henry them mentions, do not hold it, please,
for a putting of man down.

Ol’ Marster, being bound you do your best
versus we coons, spare now a cagey John
a whilom bits that whip:
who’ll tell your fortune, when you have confessed
whose & whose woundings—against the innocent stars
& remorseless seas—

—Are you radioactive, pal?—Pal, radioactive.
—Has you the night sweats & the day sweats, pal?
—Pal, I do.
—Did your gal leave you?—What do you think, pal?
—Is that thing in front of your head what it seems to be, pal?
—Yes, pal.

What a strange radio is Henry, set—as he so often is—on some curious scan-mode that straddles centuries and cultures, picking up everything from Campion to Charley Patton. One moment he’s Prometheus bound; the next he’s Amos ‘N’ Andy; the effect is at once mellifluous and cacophonous. As I type the poem out, my spell-as-you-go function goes into overdrive when faced with the neologisms and archaisms, red-lining madly. There is “whilom,” an outmoded term for “formerly”; there is “Marster” and “woundings” and of course the problematic “we coons.” There are lines of utterly strict pentameter interlaced with Hopkinsian concoctions made entirely of trochees and spondees. And, as in so many of The Dream Songs, some passages continue to baffle, even after repeated readings. The “we coons” chorus of stanza two—if it is them and not Henry speaking—appears to be comparing Henry’s plight to their own condition of servitude, but we can’t exactly be sure. Stanza two may be murky and egregious, but one and three are astounding. Take away the nebulae and white dwarfs, and the poem’s opening stanza could be a lost speech by Hamlet. Yet the final stanza seems a combination of blues lament and dialogue from a Beckett play. But for all the authority and range of reference in the poem, it, like “Dream Song #14,” avoids pretension in part because it questions the very ability of “valiant art” to offer solace: don’t hold Henry’s “crude rhymes” against him, Berryman begs. They do not help to make us any less insignificant as we stand under the night sky or on the shores of the “remorseless seas.” Henry’s only means of consoling us and himself is to bemoan his sorrow, to build his own version of Rilke’s “lament heaven.” (Never mind that one of the Dream Songs insists that “Rilke was a jerk.”) The bluesy keening of the poem’s final stanza is not merely Henry weeping because his “gal” left him; it is deeper than that. It is the gut-wrenching chiliastic dread of Robert Johnson’s “Stones in my Passway,” or St. Louis Jimmy’s “Goin’ Down Slow.” And though the dialogue of the concluding stanza veers toward slapstick, “that thing in front” of Henry’s head is unmistakably the same .32 caliber automatic pistol used by Berryman’s father—as “Dream Song #384” grimly puts it—to shoot “his heart out in a Florida dawn.” Berryman favored the New Testament over the Old, but as I read him I am reminded of the terrible conundrum which concludes the opening chapter of Ecclesiastes: “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

The author of Ecclesiastes, in his brutally dithyrambic nihilism, seems echoed by Berryman in a final Dream Song I’d like to discuss. Anthologists and critics have largely ignored the theological strain in Berryman’s writing, but he seems to me one of the most absorbing and convincing religious poets of our time. The case for this claim can’t be made, however, in the poems of frigid piety that followed his religious conversion during the writing of Love & Fame. Young includes portions of the two most ambitious efforts from this phase, Fame’s “11 Addresses to the Lord” and “Opus Dei,” which appeared in the posthumously published Delusions Etc. In them, Berryman is trying to be a good Catholic and a good 12-Stepper, and although we wish him well in these efforts, the result is a tepid poetry. The “searching and fearless personal inventory,” which AA asks of its practitioners becomes his goal here, but it infuses the poems with a cloying tone of regret and remorse. As Douglas Dunn writes, “his religious poems in Love & Fame are intended to ‘criticize backwards’ [the book’s] earlier, scandalous sections; and, presumably, the carnality, comedy, and religious doubts of The Dream Songs.” [12] But it is in the pugnacious agnosticism of The Dream Songs where Berryman’s concerns as a religious poet are most memorably expressed, through an irreverence that never overshadows their longing. “I was always a religious bitch” said Billie Holiday, in a quote Berryman might well have known. So it is with Henry as well. Witness “Dream Song #46”:

I am, outside. Incredible panic rules.
People are blowing and beating each other without mercy.
Drinks are boiling. Iced
drinks are boiling. The worse anyone feels, the worse
treated he is. Fools elect fools.
A harmless man at an intersection said, under his breath: “Christ!”

That word, so spoken, affected the vision
of, when they trod to work next day, shopkeepers
who went & were fitted with glasses.
Enjoyed they then an appearance of love & law.
Millenia whift & waft—one, one—er, er . . .
Their glasses were taken from them, & they saw.

Man has undertaken the top job of all,
son fin. Good luck.
I myself walked at the funeral of tenderness.
Followed other deaths. Among the last,
like the memory of a lovely fuck,
was: Do, ut des.

There’s of course the familiar hodgepodge of allusion and diction. One commentator has claimed that the opening line alludes to a passage in Sadism and Masochism by the German psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel, but I suspect Berryman instead had in mind a passage in one of Hopkins’ “terrible” sonnets, in which the melancholy Jesuit bemoans an exile both physical and spiritual: “I am in Ireland now; now I am at a third/Remove. Not but in all removes I can/Kind love both give and get.” [13] Henry starts the poem, as he does so many others, in the outer dark, the “third remove,” of isolation and alienation, brought on not just by himself but also by the ruthlessness of mankind—whose folly seems to grow greater as the poem goes on. We have a street person becoming a Christ figure, and shopkeepers who seem to be enacting a perverse version of the Supper at Emmaus—but these disciples do not recognize their god. And when Henry notes that “man has undertaken the top job of all,” he seems no more happy about the ascendancy of secular humanism than is the Christian right. But the poem isn’t entirely pessimistic. “The funeral of tenderness” may have taken place, but the closing of the poem may be (may be, for the ending is finally ambiguous) cautiously hopeful. Charity may persist, though in an imperiled state, lingering “like the memory of a lovely fuck.” And it is a classic Berryman gesture to juxtapose the earthiness of the f-word with a high-sounding passage in Latin—Do, ut des: “I give, that you might give,” a term deriving from Roman law, and describing the principle of reciprocity, an ancient equivalent to the golden rule. [14] Yet the words seem at the same time to evoke the liturgy—“this is my body that is given to you.” But then again, “to do” someone is a synonym for fuck. A cheap translingual punch line? Definitely. But also something more far profound than that, which is the Berryman m.o. Has any other American poet had the chutzpah (or hubris) to attempt to play Lear as well as his Fool—both together, in the same performance? Lowell, his friend and most ruthless competitor, wrote a review of 77 Dream Songs that seems to have tested their friendship. To the hypersensitive Berryman, Lowell’s listing of the book’s shortcomings in an otherwise awestruck appraisal—Lowell spoke of “the threat of mannerism, and worse—disintegration”—had damned the book with faint praise. But the end of the review suggests that even Lowell had been humbled by the invention and pathos of the collection. “All is risk and variety here. This great Pierrot’s universe is more tearful and funny than we can easily bear.” [15]


On that January morning, it must have started to snow. This was Minnesota, after all. I would have ridden the Lake Street bus toward the commune I shared with a shifting cast of some dozen others. Nondescript commercial Lake Street. “Lake Street where the used cars live,” as Berryman had it in a poem. Berryman, whose body by this point was cooling in a cubicle at the Hennepin County morgue, a place at least as chilly as the river he had missed in his leap. I’d been up all night, at school all day. The mercury would likely have been dropping, and after I walked into the house I must have smoked a joint with my roommates and listened attentively with them to something that today would make me cringe, Led Zep or Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath or T Rex. By then I could sleep, waking at midnight, perhaps, to a clear sharp sky outside my window, for now it was too cold to snow. Did I fall asleep a green untutored child, but waken as a writer? Hardly. This is a vain poetry—that day exists as a few stray neurons burnt down to embers, a bundle of synapses barely connecting; it lives through guesswork, reconstruction, speculation. I knew nothing then of who I was, and of who I was then I still know next to nothing. But there is one thing I am sure of: on that day one of the High Ones died.  

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