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On The Dream Songs

Robert Lowell (1964)

[Lowell’s review was important for Berryman: it appeared in the New York Review of Books and at the height of Lowell’s own achievement – For the Union Dead had just been published. Lowell was at times baffled, irritated and dismayed by the poems, and when he offered support, it was remarkably tentative.. His descriptions would set the tone for other reviewers. When eulogizing Berryman in 1972, Lowell blurted out: "77 Dream Songs are harder than most hard modern poetry, the succeeding poems in His Toy are as direct as a prose journal, as readable as poetry can be. This is a fulfillment, yet the 77 Songs may speak clearest, almost John’s whole truth. I misjudged them, and was rattled by their mannerisms."]

… [Berryman’s previous long poem,] Homage to Mistress Bradstreet is the most resourceful historical poem in our language.

Dream Songs is larger and sloppier. The scene is contemporary and crowded with references to news items, world politics, travel, low life, and Negro music. Its style is a conglomeration of high style, Berrymanisms, Negro and beat slang, and baby talk. The poem is written in sections of three six-line stanzas. There is little sequence, and sometimes a single section will explode into three or four separate parts. At first the brain aches and freezes at so much darkness, disorder and oddness. After a while, the repeated situations and their racy jabber become more and more enjoyable, although even now I wouldn’t trust myself to paraphrase accurately at least half of the sections.

The poems are much too difficult, packed, and wrenched to be sung. They are called songs out of mockerym because they are filled with snatches of Negro minstrelsy, and because one of their characters is Mr. Bones [Lowell corrected this error in a later issue: "Mr Bones is not ‘one of their characters’ but the main character, Henry."], who keeps questioning the author and talking for him. The dreams are not real dreams but a waking hallucination in which anything that might have happened to the author can be used at random. Anything he has seen, overheard, or imagined can go in. The poems are about Berryman, or rather they are about a person he calls Henry. Henry is Berryman seen as himself, as poète maudit, child and puppet. He is tossed about with a mixture of tenderness and absurdity, pathos and hilarity that would have been impossible if the author had spoken in the first person.

From Robert Lowell, "John Berryman" in Robert Giroux, Ed., Collected Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987) 107-108.

Denis Donoghue (1969)

Mr. Berryman's case is extreme. On the understanding, perhaps, that one Song of Myself is enough, he decided to hand over his entire dream world to an invented character called Henry, not to be confused with John Berryman, author and poet. "The poem then, whatever its wide cast of characters, 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. Requiescat in pace." Amen, indeed. Mr. Berryman is hard on those readers who think that Henry Pussy-cat is just a pet name for John Berryman; he is impatient. Has he not assured us that H. P. and J. B. are two,—not one? Has he not arranged to send H. P. into death before the long dream is over, so that the last dream songs are sung by a Lazarus, come back to tell all? Is not this enough? Thus far, the case is simple. When we read of Henry on LSD, we do not think of Mr. Berryman as a devotee of acid. And so on. For my own part, I have no difficulty in accepting the invented character Henry as distinct from his maker in the 77 Dream Songs. I might have confused them in the dark. But as the dreams continue in the new and last book, the identity of Henry as distinct from J. B. becomes harder to take. "Edgy Henry" begins to collapse into his poet, and the poem begins to sound like the Song of Myself.

from "Berryman's Long Dream." Art International (1969)

John Berryman (1972)

[Berryman has been asked "what structural notion" he had in mind while writing …]

… I did not begin with a full-fledged conception when I wrote the first dream song.

I don’t know what I had in mind. In Homage to Mistress Bradstreet my model was The Waste Land, and Homage to Mistress Bradstreet is as unlike The Waste Land as it is possible for me to be. I think the model in The Dream Songs was the other greatest American poem – I am very ambitious – "Song of Myself" – a very long poem, about sixty pages. It also has a hero, a personality, himself. Henry is accused of being me and I am accused of being Henry and I deny it and nobody believes me. Various other things entered into it, but that is where I started.

The narrative such as it is developed as I went along, partly out of my gropings into and around Henry and his environment and associates, partly out of my readings in theology and that sort of thing, taking place during thirteen years – awful long time – and third, out of certain partly preconceived and partly developing as I went along, sometimes rigid and sometimes plastic, structural notions.

From John Berryman, " The Art of Poetry" (an interview with Peter Stitt, originally conducted in 1972), rep. in Harry Thomas Ed. Berryman’s Understanding: Reflections on the Poetry of John Berryman (Boston: Northeastern U P, 1988), 29.

David Perkins (1987)

…. {T]he Dream Songs are comic. Henry is an antihero, feckless, vulnerable, guilt-ridden, and absurd:

Henry rested, possessed of many pills
& gin & whiskey. He put up his feet
& switched on Schubert,
His tranquility lasted five minutes.

Even the indulgent self-pity of the poems becomes acceptable as part of the comedy of our errors. The metaphors of Henry’s trapped helplessness are appalling yet amusing – "He lay in the middle of the world, and twitcht." Energy of language and exuberance of imagination add to the comic effect throughout, and there are lots of gloomy jokes:

What happen then, Mr. Bones?
I had a most marvelous     piece of luck. I died.

In other words, the mode is comic, but the substance, if abstracted, is woe. In poem after poem, Henry inventories his state and finds it awful. We hear about his desperations, death wishes, sexual hungers, griefs, drunks, boredom, follies, fractures, and so forth. The intimate disclosures of most people are depressing, but Henry’s are more so. For Henry’s are Berryman’s. (To take Henry as Berryman is naïve; not to do so would be more naïve.)

from David Perkins, "Breaking through the New Criticism," Chapter 16 in A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1987), 401-402. Copyright 1987 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Helen Vendler (1995)

Though it is tempting to characterize the two protagonists of The Dream Songs—the 'imaginary character' Henry and his nameless 'friend'—by the words of faculty psychology—'intellect' for the friend, and 'will' for the irrepressible Henry, a much better fit comes if we speak loosely of the two protagonists of The Dream Songs as Superego and Id. Yet, though the second of these two names fits the anarchic protagonist Henry reasonably well, the unnamed Friend, representing both common sense and conscience, does not exhibit the irrationality and sadism of the Freudian Superego, though he utters the reproaches proper to it. He could more properly, perhaps, be called Conscience, like something out of a medieval Christian allegory. In fact, it is the very crossing of the Christian model of the Friend with the Freudian model generating Henry that makes The Dream Songs an original book; two great schemes of Western thought, the religious and the psychoanalytic, contend for Berryman's soul in a hybrid psychomachia.

The fiction of the Dream Songs (first published as 77 Dream Songs in 1964) is that its two protagonists are 'end men' in an American minstrel show. This common form of vaudeville (seen in my childhood) presented, while the curtain was lowered between vaudeville acts, banter between two 'end men,’ one standing at stage left, one at stage right, in front of the closed curtain. The end men were white actors in exaggerated blackface, who told jokes in exaggerated Negro dialect, one acting as the taciturn 'straight man' to the buffoonery of the other. They addressed each other by nicknames such as—'Tambo' or 'Mr Bones' (the latter a name referring to dice). The unnamed Friend in The Dream Songs, acting as straight man and speaking to Henry in Negro dialect, addresses Henry as 'Mr Bones' or variants thereof. Henry, the voluble, infantile, and plaintive chief speaker, is the lyric ‘I’ of the songs; he never addresses his 'straight man' by name. Henry's own colloquial idiolect (sometimes represented in third-person free indirect discourse or second-person self-reproach) is not exclusively framed in any one dialect, but rather exhibits many dialectical influences, from slang to archaism to baby-talk.

One can see that there is no integrated Ego in The Dream Songs: there is only Conscience at one end of the stage and the Id at the other, talking to each other across a void, never able to find common ground. In the early Dream Songs, the fastidious John Berryman writing the poem never enters the verse, and never interacts with either of his split under-selves. As he wrote about his Henry, ‘Who Henry was, or is, has proved undiscoverable by the social scientists. It is . . . certain that he claimed to be a minstrel.’ Each Dream Song is (with very few exceptions) eighteen lines long, and is divided into three six-line irregularly rhyming stanzas—an isometric form one might associate, looking backward, with Berryman's debt to the meditative Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet sequences or, looking forward to the therapeutic fifty minutes, with the, inflexible and anecdotal psychiatric hour. Theoretically, anything can be said within this arbitrary limit, but one has to stop when one's time (one's rhyme) is up. Henry, the Id, has a great deal to say: he is petulant, complaining, greedy, lustful, and polymorphously perverse; he is also capable of childlike joy and disintegrative rage. Henry's life has been blasted, as he tells us, by the suicide of his father when he was a boy; he is driven by a random avidity, often sexual, which he indulges shamelessly until the unnamed Conscience reproaches him.

from The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Helen Vendler

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