The Last Poems I Loved: John Berryman’s Dream Songs #265 and #279


I have a tendency to read difficult books when my life is difficult. Halfway through college, I decided to read Anna Karenina while beginning my first literary theory course. The summer I worked at the nearby Wal-Mart because there were no other jobs, I read Infinite Jest and Homer, both for the first time, while on my lunch breaks. I don’t know why I do this, but I tend to do it in other areas of my life as well. When I have a term paper due, I sign up to write a review. When I have 200 pages to read for a class, I start the poem or essay that’s been knocking around in my head. Sometimes, the results are great, and the juxtaposition of ideas creates something really fruitful. Other times not so much.

Before leaving for graduate school in Montana, I took a break from packing up most of what had aggregated at my parents’ house in Michigan to stop in the local Barnes and Noble. I walked over to the poetry section and decided to treat myself to something new, something I could read during the downtime in my new home in the mountains. I picked John Berryman’s The Dream Songs.

I’m not sure what I had expected, but the tone and all-over-ness of reading through a couple randomly chosen poems there by the in-house Starbucks struck me as something different than whatever I had thought they were going to be. They were not “classic” feeling. They were not anthologizable, or at least not easily. But the rhythms were there, tongue-catching with bits that were gorgeous.

I bought it. Then I moved.

Then graduate school began, and I had no free time.

Well, kind of. As I started in on the slog of reading and writing and self-doubt that came with graduate school, I found myself reaching out for things to anchor myself by, and one of them became poetry, the writing and reading of it. I began leaving Berryman’s book by my bed to read a few before falling asleep every night, reading through the ones I couldn’t understand at all until there was at least a line or an image or a rhythm that hung there in my brain just a while longer than the rest. I understood very little of that first pass through the first 50 or so poems, but then the rhythm of their structure snuck its way into me and stayed with me. The rest of the collection came much more easily as I relaxed into letting the surrealism find its way to me however Berryman’s words and rhythms chose. I read the book slowly over the couple years in school, finishing it just a few weeks before graduation, and I’ve kept returning to it since.

In March, in the midst of thesis writing and revising and reading new things and writing more, I read #265: “I don’t know one damned butterfly from another” he begins, “my ignorance of the stars is formidable, / also of dogs & ferns”. I thought to myself, “yes, exactly.” From Thoreau’s musings on nature to the complicated social meanderings of Baudelaire and to the taking on of the killer’s psyche in Poe, Berryman writes of reading, just what I was doing so much of in those months. But he begins the poem with what I had been confronted with so many times: my ignorance is formidable.

Berryman continues stating that he’ll read seemingly anything: “but I love too the spare, the hit-or-miss, / the mad, I sometimes can’t always tell them apart”. As his own understanding begins to break, he confronts us with a question: “As we fall apart, will you let me hear?” In this line, Berryman begins to head toward the end of his poem with a nod to Yeats, one of his favorite poets, and a writer who influenced him immensely in his early years. In the face of Yeats’ famous line (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;”), Berryman asks the question, childlike in its simplicity, that I’ve felt so many times when looking for solace or grounding or companionship in poems: “will you let me hear? / That would be good. That would be halfway to bliss / You said will you answer back? I cross my heart / & hope to die but not this year.”

We all, at least originally, turned to poetry because it spoke to us in some way, said words we’d always wanted to hear outside our own heads, or illuminated some question we’d never quite understood how to ask. The rhythm of the lines caught our attention, or the beauty of the image, and we were hooked. In these last lines, I was continuously reminded throughout my last months in graduate school to go back to that childlike appreciation after bringing criticism, philosophy, and their questions to a text. Yes, these questions are important, but where’s the line, where’s the rhythm, where’s the heart? How often do we ask the text, “will you let me hear?… will you answer back?”

In the months since graduation, I’ve found myself reading and writing more than I ever have. I work a good job with good people, and I’m lucky to have a part-time job that pays me a living wage (even if I bite my nails when the student loan bill comes every month). But this question of asking the text if it will let me hear, asking the page if it will answer back has stayed with me—it hasn’t let me go quite yet, and I’m thankful for that.

There’s another poem of Berryman’s that has stuck with me that concerned reading: #279. This time, after either retreating or journeying to Ireland (maybe both) in the mid-century break between so many wars, Berryman’s speaker, Henry, tells us he’s only brought five books: Whitman, Purgatorio, a dictionary, a Bible, and a new book. The new book goes untitled, but I think that’s important. With the classics and tools in one part of the bag he carries with him around the world and skirting wars, Henry also takes with him a new book, looking for something that he doesn’t quite yet know.

When I graduated, turned in my thesis, and suddenly found myself just working and continuing on, I felt lost. I hadn’t applied for programs or jobs elsewhere; I hadn’t moved on to something bigger and better in a new place—I was staying in Montana to get to know this place better, to work a job I liked, to write and figure out what came next. I had enjoyed telling people this in a calm voice before graduating, but when faced with emptier days I froze up, not knowing what would push me forward. I felt stuck.

“& one other new book-O.” That “O” is both a muse and a point of pain, at least for me. There is a new world spread out before me and yet a tie to the present moment and all its complexity. There is an openness to the new, and a recognition of the pressures and costs we encounter daily. The book has no name, but maybe only to allow other books and names to be put in its place.

In that moment, after reacting and invoking the new book, Henry turns to his own writing of poetry, and in the process gave me something to hope and hold onto in graduate school and in the uncertain months since:

If ever he had crafted in the past—
but only if—he swore now to craft better
which lay in the Hands above.
He said: I’ll work on slow, O slow & fast,
if a letter comes I will answer that letter
& my whole year will be tense with love.

Uncertainty, yes. But in that uncertainty, that vulnerability, a kind of mantra for my writing, to work on whether slow or fast, to call for the attention of the slow and the fast. A resolution of communication and kinship, of answering letters. And, perhaps most importantly, a kind of looking forward: may each new year, with all it brings, be tense with love.

Jeremy Reed currently lives in Missoula, Montana and has published work in Camas: The Nature of the West, The Cresset, and Cutbank Online. More from this author →