My relationship with John Berryman’s Dream Songs, like the songs themselves, is murky, complicated, obscure in origin, and not easy to explain—not even to myself. One signpost of great art, it seems to me, is that the meaning of its greatness shifts in relation to the reader over time, and my appreciation of The Dream Songs has deepened and evolved—as I expect it will continue to for the rest of my life—in the two decades since it first came to my attention.
In my twenties I knew that Berryman was, like me, an alcoholic, and that he committed suicide in Minneapolis in 1972, and being at an age susceptible to the romantic myth of the doomed, hard-drinking mystic, the messy glamour of the dissolute—before I came to know (that is, in real terms, hard terms, blood terms) the cost of that myth—I was intrigued. I knew too that he was considered a brilliant and impenetrable poet, an impression that was confirmed by my first casual glance into an edition of 77 Dream Songs on the shelf of my boss’s office in Cambridge.
These were not like other poems: within their consistent 16-line armature they were turbulent, mad, feverish, cryptic, an unruly union of boppy jive-talk, and thorny quasi-Elizabethan diction. It was impossible to tell who was speaking, or to whom; poems ended in mid-syllable, bristled with random phrases in foreign languages, sported menacing-looking accent marks and Shakespearean contractions, were riddled with ampersands and ellipses. The whole thing was messy, hallucinatory, and impossible to resist; it was the Exile on Main Street of poetry, and I was hooked.
As the shadows over my own life lengthened, scattered phrases accrued talismanic power. “He stared at ruin. Ruin stared straight back,” begins number 45; then, “I’m too alone. I see no end” and “Lightning fell silent where the Devil knelt.” “Hell talkt my brain awake,” says Henry, the mysterious semi-protagonist, at one point, and it seemed as fit a phrase for my existence—insomniac, deeply unhappy—as any. Safely on the other side of life again at age 32, I was given for my birthday, by my parents, a very nearly mint-condition first edition of the complete cycle, the celebrated Farrar Straus hardcover from 1968, featuring Charles Skaggs’s bold white-pink-and-green typography. The interior design, which follows the template set by the brilliant Guy Fleming for the original 1964 edition of 77 Dream Songs, is austere and beautiful, with that slightly antique feel of openness and clarity that seems particular to book design of that era. (Someday I would like an expert in the history of typography to explain to me how this is so). I have it in front of me now, paging through it as I try to capture, clumsily, the strange beauty of this half-understood work, to anatomize its appeal.
The Dream Songs collectively is many things: a record of a consciousness, a song cycle, an ongoing formalist experiment, a journal of an imaginary insanity, a high-modernist word collage, and an elegy for a generation of poets. The work as a whole is death-haunted, with each successive passing of another poet or peer—Jarrell, Roethke, Schwartz, Williams—bringing a yearning elegy, grave and often touching, as the poet bends his soul towards the haven that they have found and that he will gain only through force of self-violence. As the songs pile up and the years pass the prosody becomes starker, cleaner, marginally more transparent, yet somehow purer in its despair: the world’s longest and most eloquent suicide note. There is also an engagingly quotidian quality to the work, as in a journal: occasional mentions of the outside world, of presidents, the Cold War, the Congo, Vietnam, peek through the whirling kaleidoscope of the poet / narrator’s brain, like a slideshow of the darkening sixties playing in an adjacent room. Other songs seem to hint acidly at the growing professional and academic demands of Berryman’s career. All of this is filtered through a blurry, argumentative stream of voices that is extremely difficult to decode, Berryman’s own note—Henry is “not the poet, not me”—being of limited assistance in the matter.
Better minds than mine have tried to identify a consistent schema of speakerly identification for the Songs, which seem to be narrated from a kind of shifting first-and-a-half-person, the half-person being the poet’s unseen companion, who addresses him as “Mr. Bones” in the rhythms of a not entirely convincing African-American patois, and who may be a schizophrenic counterpart of the narrator and/or Henry. What is to my mind undeniable about the poems is the sense of mystery, of the uncanny, of a shifting, fully inhabited interior consciousness, however opaque or inaccessible, that they convey. Not everyone agrees: the great postwar critic M. L. Rosenthal, for one, thought that The Dream Songs was a step backwards for Berryman, calling it “work we must forage (in) too much on our own.”
It’s an interesting word, “forage,” and apt, for to my mind, a mental “foraging” is in fact the primary experience of reading, especially work so dense and demanding as Berryman’s. And the fruits of my expeditions into the verbal thickets left behind by this brilliant, sad, unlucky, intense man, are a paradoxically heightened sense of freedom and gratitude, an attentiveness to the air and light around me, the twinkling of the city at night, a hunger for “tasting all the secret bits of life.”
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