It’s hard to believe that 2014 is John Berryman’s centenary, in part because his best work is of such consummate strangeness that it seems to exist outside the confines of any period or style, and almost outside literary and historical time altogether.
We think of Berryman’s fellow Middle Generation poets—Robert Lowell, Robert Hayden, Elizabeth Bishop, and Randall Jarrell, among others, all born between 1910 and 1920—as very much products of their era, who all, in various ways, forged poetic styles that seemed especially reflective of the culture, politics, and vernacular of mid-twentieth century America. Lowell and Hayden were above all poets of personal and public memory, witnesses to the turbulence of their times who were canny in their ability to intermingle the topical with the historical. Bishop and Jarrell strove to perfect a limpid version of the American idiom—what Marianne Moore famously called a plain American English that cats and dogs can understand—that was at the same time memorable, exacting in its prosody, and imbued with heartbreak. Indebted though they were to the poetics of their modernist forebears, the poets of the Middle Generation eventually came to reject what they saw as the grandiosity of modernists such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens. But Berryman’s career follows a different trajectory, one that continues rather than rejects the tradition of modernist complexity, allusiveness, and dissonance. Although Berryman (who took his own life) shared all the psychological traumas that troubled his generational peers—like Bishop and Lowell, he was afflicted with alcoholism and mental instability—and wrote about these sufferings with unsettling candor, it does a disservice to Berryman’s legacy to see him largely as an autobiographical or Confessional poet. Yet readers and critics have saddled Berryman with this reductive label for more than half a century.
Perhaps the Berryman centenary—which Berryman’s publisher has commemorated with a judiciously chosen new selection of his poetry, edited by Daniel Swift, as well as reissues of both The Dream Songs and Berryman’s nervy but uneven early sonnet sequence—will help readers to see a different sort of Berryman, a writer more in keeping with the way Berryman himself wished to be seen. And Berryman above all aspired to be a kind of grandly dramatic poet in the mode of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, or the Eliot of “The Waste Land,” a poet of multiple voices, intricately layered dialogue, and a keen awareness of how the comic and the tragic can commingle. With the creation of Henry Pussycat, the protagonist of his masterwork, The Dream Songs, Berryman came very close to achieving his goal. True, Henry is Berryman’s alter ego in countless ways. But readers owe Berryman the courtesy of seeing Henry as Berryman himself intended him to be seen. In his prefatory note to The Dream Songs, Berryman scrupulously set forth his aims for the poem. It is “essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr Bones and variants thereof.” For generations, readers have blithely regarded this statement as disingenuous, although the suicide of Berryman’s father, the “irreversible loss” that haunts the poem, is a subject whose importance no one can underestimate. Still, if we step back and take Berryman’s disclaimer at its word, we can see with much greater clarity just how artful, nervy, tragicomic, and inventive Berryman’s great poem can be. And make no mistake, The Dream Songs is a great poem, its flaws and infelicities notwithstanding.
Admittedly, appreciating The Dream Songs—at least those sections besides anthology chestnuts such as sections 14 and 29—requires some training and forbearance. Henry’s diction can wildly careen from Elizabethanisms and wacko syntactical inversions to outmoded slang and disarmingly bald abjection. His relentless shifts in person can bewilder us. His fidelity to the three rhyming sestets that comprise the individual sections of the poem is often indifferent: sometimes Berryman abandons the rhymes completely, while at other times he invents oddball neologisms in order to blunderingly offer up a rhyming mate. We can sometimes tire of Henry’s despair, and sometimes the ways in which alcohol and libido seem to write the poem can grow numbing. Furthermore, Berryman’s appropriation of blackface and the minstrelsy tradition has always been problematic for readers. Yet Berryman loves and respects that tradition, just as he loves the elegant pentameters of the Jacobeans and the blues recordings he also references in the poem. Most importantly, the fact remains that the eccentricities of The Dream Songs arise not from artistic failure or indiscretion but from design. Unremittingly—and I would go as far as to say courageously—Henry entreats the reader to share in his unease. As Kevin Young sagely notes in his introduction to his 2004 Library of America edition of Berryman, we are “coerced into collusion with the poetry, laughing uneasily with Berryman at death or fate or desires that had always seemed unspeakable.”
I can think of no better example of this strategy than one of the lesser-known sections of the book, "Dream Song #46." Berryman’s characteristic hodgepodge of allusion and diction are abundantly on display in the poem. One commentator claims that the opening line alludes to a passage in Sadism and Masochism by the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel, but I suspect Berryman instead had in mind a passage in one of Hopkins’s “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.” Henry starts the song, as he does so many others in the poem, 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. Yet the words seem at the same time to evoke the liturgy: “This is my body that is given to you.” Then again, “to do” someone is a synonym for “fuck.” A cheap translingual punch line? Definitely. But also something far more 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 the book’s first volume, 77 Dream Songs, which 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 volume. “All is risk and variety here. This great Pierrot’s universe is more tearful and funny than we can easily bear.”
Berryman has always found avid readers, but too frequently he has found them for the wrong reasons. His centenary offers us an opportunity to both reappraise his work and reaffirm his importance. In The Dream Songs, Berryman forged a style quite nearly as original and as impassioned as that of his great poetic ancestors, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. This is a risky claim to make, I know, but if you read his great poem seriously, it is quite possible that you will reach a similar conclusion.
Listen to John Berryman reading from The Dream Songs at an event sponsored by the Academy of American Poets held at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City on October 31, 1963.