John Berryman, 1914-1972

Posted by on Saturday, January 21st, 2006

Originally posted by Rachel

And now, as they say, for something completely different.

John Berryman. The first time I read one of The Dream Songs, (#14, “Life Friends, is boring”) it was like walking out my front door one morning and discovering I was in Bora Bora. I had never read anything like it before or since, and ever since that day I have worshiped the man named John Berryman with a fierceness with which I had not worshiped another poet since my high school days of Plath-worship. (What does it say that I have a passionate love for suicides? Let’s not discuss.)

But this post is to give you some background on the poet and his work, not to profess my undying love of a suicidal alcoholic.


Writing out his mini-bio would be boring (I tried for a minute), and pointless, really, since there’s a pretty good one here:

So go read that, please. I’ll wait.

Okay? Wonderful.

The Dream Songs, considered Berryman’s magnum opus, were borne out of a period in which he was seeing an analyst and keeping track of his dreams. The Dream Songs are, in effect, a dream journal of sorts, making wild leaps of logic, using unusual syntax, even switching back and forth between dialects and point-of-view, though the narrator, Henry, remains largely constant throughout (sometimes he talks about himself in the third person, sometimes even in the second person).  He also frequently addresses a companion, a black face performer, who calls Henry “Mr. Bones.” They are mostly 18 line poems broken into three stanzas, a form developed in a work that was to be the springboard for The Dream Songs, similarly titled, “The Nervous Songs,” a series of nine persona poems collected in his 1948 book, The Dispossessed. While the poems can obviously be read individually and even out of order, Berryman has always considered The Dream Songs to be one long poem held together by Henry’s personality. They were originally published as 77 Dream Songs in 1964, but Berryman continued to write them even after this publication, later adding a second volume more than double in length, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, bringing the total number of Dream Songs to 385.

An incredible amount of criticism on The Dream Songs has focused on how similar Henry may or may not be to Berryman in real life. Certainly, there are many similarities, but as Berryman says,  “I think I’ll leave that one to the critics. Henry does resemble me, and I resemble Henry; but on the other hand I am not Henry. You know, I pay income tax; Henry pays no income tax. And bats come over and they stall in my hair—and fuck them, I’m not Henry; Henry doesn’t have any bats. ” Did I mention how much I fuckin’ love John Berryman?

And regarding the use of black face and dialect in The Dream Songs. Yes, I know, terribly, terribly un-PC. Yep. I know. I know. But it was, in fact, a different time, for one thing, and looking at the words of Berryman, I don’t think it was intended badly:

INTERVIEWER: What about the influence of blues and minstrel shows on The Dream Songs ?

Heavy. I have been interested in the language of the blues and Negro dialects all my life, always been. Especially Bessie. I picked all of it up from records, although while I was at Columbia the Apollo on 125th Street used to have blues singers. It was a completely coony house, and I used to go there sometimes; but mostly from records. For example, I never heard Bessie herself—she died.

INTERVIEWER: Why did you choose to employ the Negro dialect in The Dream Songs ?

Well, that’s a tough question. I’ll tell you, I wrote a story once called “The Imaginary Jew.” I was in Union Square in New York, waiting to see my girl, and I was taken for a Jew (I had a beard at the time ). There was a tough Irishman who wanted to beat me up, and I got into the conversation, and I couldn’t convince them that I wasn’t a Jew. Well, the Negro business—the black face—is related to that. That is, I feel extremely lucky to be white, let me put it that way, so that I don’t have that problem. Friends of mine—Ralph Ellison, for example, in my opinion one of the best writers in the country—he has the problem. He’s black, and he and Fanny, wherever they go, they are black…

(from “An Interview with John Berryman” conducted by John Plotz of the Harvard Advocate on Oct. 27, 1968. In Berryman’s Understanding: Reflections on the Poetry of John Berryman. Ed. Harry Thomas. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1988. Copyright © Harvard Advocate)


Okay, well, yes, he used the word coony. Not a word you hear much anymore. But, you know,  the times and all that.  And really, he was living in Harlem during the height of the popularity of these kinds of shows (or the Columbia University side of Harlem, anyway). So there’s that, too. Anyway, I think they bring an interesting dimension to the poems, something about identity and masks, and well, I’m sure we’ll talk about more of that sort of stuff later.


Okay, boys and girls, it’s link time! (Or if our dearth of comments is any indication, I should rephrase that to, “Okay, girl…!”) The Modern American Poetry website has lots of great stuff, from the bio I linked to above, to snippets of critical works, to pieces of interviews. I strongly urge you to read the interview segments, since Berryman has a great sense of humor. (I mean, come on, you read the taxes and bats quote!)

This page here has all kinds of Berryman links of varying interest: If you can get the Paris Review interview link to work, definitely read it, but I have had no such luck. It should be the complete Peter Stitt interview which is excerpted on the Modern Poetry web page linked above. I have a copy of the book, Berryman’s Understanding, which includes the entire text of both interviews excerpted there.

As far as books on Berryman go, I’ve read the Paul Mariani biography, Dream Song, and it’s quite good. The book mentioned above, Berryman’s Understanding, is very sadly out-of-print, but used copies are out there, and worth it–it includes all kinds of interesting articles in addition to the interviews already mentioned. And lastly, a new book that covers Berryman and five other poets–including none other than Lady Lazarus herself–in the context of confessionalism: The Wounded Surgeon, by Adam Kirsch. This is all, of course, in case anyone out there becomes as obsessive about him as me. As far as Berryman’s other poetry, well, the truth comes out. I am not a fan. I’ve never really made it through a significant chunk of his other work. The Dream Songs is a stand-out piece of genius, and I don’t think less of him for not turning out anything else as interesting. The Dream Songs were enough for me. It’s just too bad, with his suicide in 1972, that they weren’t enough for him.

Dream Song #76: Henry’s Confession

Nothin very bad happen to me lately.
How you explain that? —I explain that, Mr Bones,
terms o’ your bafflin odd sobriety.
Sober as man can get, no girls, no telephones,
what could happen bad to Mr Bones?
—If life is a handkerchief sandwich,

in a modesty of death I join my father
who dared so long agone leave me.
A bullet on a concrete stoop
close by a smothering southern sea
spreadeagled on an island, by my knee.
—You is from hunger, Mr Bones,

I offers you this handkerchief, now set
your left foot by my right foot,
shoulder to shoulder, all that jazz,
arm in arm, by the beautiful sea,
hum a little, Mr Bones.
—I saw nobody coming, so I went instead.

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