My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I have been meaning to read John Berryman for years, even before his 2014 centennial with its rush of reissued and new collections, going back to the period in my life, from 2008 to 2010, when hardly a day passed that I did not have to walk across the bridge from which Berryman leapt to his death in 1972. Someday I will perhaps read all of the Dream Songs, though most critics I have consulted gently suggest that the common reader can probably stop after this, Berryman’s Pulitzer-winning landmark book of 1964, 77 Dream Songs.
As the overall title for the sequence suggests, the poems are intended as a dream diary for a protagonist—sometimes speaker, sometimes third-person subject or second-person object of other speakers’ addresses—named Henry, loosely an authorial stand-in: a middle-aged poet in the middle of the American century, ravaged by drink, desire, and despair. The poems have a regular pattern: each contains three stanzas of six lines each. Meter and rhyme are largely free, however; this means, as it means in Whitman and Eliot, that the occasional fall into regular measure (“There is an eye, there was a slit”) or rhyme scheme (see #40) is all the more thrilling. Berryman was a lover and scholar of Shakespeare; like Melville before him (and like his friend and contemporary, Saul Bellow), he adopts the bard’s great magic trick of playing the English language in every register, as well as twisting syntax out of shape. Here, from #44, is a representative sample:
Tell it to the forest fire, tell it to the moon,
mention it in general to the moon
on the way down,
he’s about to have his lady, permanent;
and this is the worst of all came ever sent
writhing Henry’s way.
The meaning of this could perhaps be unraveled, maybe some critic has even done it, with reference to Berryman’s personal life or items in the news of the day, but more important than whatever this might mean is the poet’s willingness to present the ostensibly meaningless, and not only at the level of content but of language itself, as with the dueling verbs in line five or the ambiguity of what “writhing” modifies in line six. Also representative is the contrast between lines of crystalline clarity or vividness, like “Tell it to the forest fire, tell it to the moon,” with a confusing chaos of sometimes rebarbative verbal noise. While I referenced Melville and Bellow above, the Dream Songs often sound more like the end of “Oxen of the Sun” than like Moby-Dick, more like Naked Lunch than like Herzog:
The jane is zoned! no nightspot here, no bar
there, no sweet freeway, and no premises
for business purposes…
In the introduction to this 2014 reprint of 77 Dream Songs, Henri Cole quotes Elizabeth Bishop: “Some pages I find wonderful, some baffle me completely. I am sure he is saying something important—perhaps sometimes too personally.” If such a judgment is good enough for Elizabeth Bishop, it’s good enough for me. Cole also quotes Robert Lowell comparing Berryman’s difficulty to that of Hart Crane, another Elizabethan ranter adrift in the chaos of the 20th century, speaking a seemingly private idiom in tortured syntax.
I go in fear of philistinism, but even so, I have to wonder if the bafflement is necessary except as a foil to make the more conventionally beautiful verses shine more brightly. The Dream Songs that people quote—Cole helpfully lists the good ones in his intro: #1, #4, #5, #14, #21, #26, #29, #37, #45, #46, #53, #76, #77—are the clearest ones, the poems that use a mingled syntax to create a mingled affect of sorrowing gallows humor. Self-pity is fine in a lyric poem; in fact, it’s practically what the form was invented for. But Berryman is on a perhaps literally therapeutic mission to cut his self-importance with self-parody:
…literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,
who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
The overall mode of the Dream Songs is mock-heroic. But the heroism is real—a heroism of enduring the roiling self in a roiling world, all shot through with misleading desires and bad news. From #53:
—I seldom go to films. They are too exciting,
said the Honourable Possum.
—It takes me so long to read the ‘paper,
said to me one day a novelist hot as a firecracker,
because I have to identify myself with everyone in it,
including the corpses, pal.’
Kierkegaard wanted a society, to refuse to read ‘papers,
and that was not, friends, his worst idea.
Tiny Hardy, toward the end, refused to say anything,
a programme adopted early on by long Housman,
and Gottfried Benn
said:—We are using our own skins for wallpaper and we cannot win.
This voice from 1964, then, is a very contemporary voice: it holds the tone of every “this is fine” quip on social media posted over some catastrophic link. Such a tone is probably inescapable for anyone in Berryman’s position, anyone crossing Berryman’s bridge, but I have never been comfortable with hearing it come out of my own mouth, and I am trying to think of a better name for it than “learned helplessness.” Another famous line, from #45: “He stared at ruin. Ruin stared straight back.” Berryman was fond of electing himself Whitman’s poetic legatee; I remember what Whitman’s own intellectual tutor had to say about gazing on ruins:
The ruin or the blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opake. The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself.
Too severe? I doubt I could live up to it myself, and Berryman anticipates the critique in any case by semi-seriously declaring himself bored with great literature. But a literary period of which 77 Dream Songs is a major masterwork, a period still our own, should maybe think again about so lavishly indulging in nervous laughter and soppy-drunk tears amid the ruins. Whoever rebuilds in our place will assuredly be bored of us. I think I already am.
 A controversial aspect of Berryman’s language is his frequent recourse to what appears to be African-American vernacular. Such rhetoric, as in #40’s miming blues lyric—
Wishin was dyin but I gotta make
it all this way to that bed on these feet
where peoples said to meet.
Maybe but even if I see my son
forever never, get back on the take,
free, black & forty-one.
—can make for uncomfortable reading, yet it is important to contextualize this choice. For one thing, the sociolect Berryman here mimics is, as Helen Vendler and August Kleinzahler via Kevin Young point out, that of the minstrel show—in other words, Berryman parodies and travesties not black speech but white men’s prior travesty of black speech. Another important point is the function of the minstrel voice in the Dream Songs; like all the voices in the poem, it represents a part of Henry’s own consciousness, bantering with or taunting or arraigning him. Berryman thus makes the twofold claim that white American consciousness is constituted in some way by black American culture (cf. Ralph Ellison, another of Berryman’s friends and contemporaries) and that the white man’s idea of black culture may be only a distorted and self-serving mirror, a projection. All of this is in service to the marking of Henry not as universal subject, master of all he surveys, but with sociological precision as the white educated American middle-class male. Because such marking, such refusal of an elite class’s spurious catholicity, is precisely the ideological work that critical theory calls for, I fail to see how Berryman’s poetry (never mind the man) can be judged racist unless one is absolutely committed to the type of criticism Howard Hampton once so memorably labeled “holier-than-Mao.”
 This is Emerson, from Nature (1836). In this passage he is reproving the not-un-Berryman-like Coleridge for having written in his “Dejection: An Ode” that he gazed at the sky “with how blank an eye!”