Yesterday was John Berryman's birthday (10/25/1914); my most recent blog took its title from one of the better-known Dream Songs, #14, which begins:
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moveover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) 'Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.' I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Berryman was an acquired taste in my "would-be poet as a young man" days. He fit the bill nicely for that feeling of being put-upon by the simple difficulty of living a life that was never as interesting as art or poetry, try as one might to make one out of the other. What's more, Berryman amused that mordant, sardonic side of me that tends (or could) toward the morbid. Berryman is so morbid it makes most of us pale in comparison. And yet we appreciate it, we savor the pose. It's not Keats' "half in love with easeful death" -- nor is it Stevens' "death is the mother of beauty" -- it's more like death is the hottest bitch for me and when can I get at her? Berryman is literally lusting for death most of the time, teasing "her," keeping her at bay, until, well, he finally gives in and dives off a bridge -- the ghost of Hart Crane, no doubt, looking on in approval.
The mention of Crane isn't simply morbid. Together these two did more for my love of syntax than any two who wrote in modern American English (or some version thereof). But Berryman is much more demotic than Crane, much more willing to speak the variety of tongues employed in our talky land -- including slang, vaudeville mannerisms, movies and radio, spruced ever with the cadences of the greats (he loved Yeats, Hopkins, Shakespeare of course), accepting in his way that gauntlet flung down by the restless intonations and mad-cap allusive spree of Old Possum's book of going quietly to pieces, "The Waste Land." Berryman wears his "going to pieces" on his sleeve, and that can get tedious -- it's like the one-joke comedian: infinitely various at dressing-up his one joke, but each poem generally leaves us in somewhat the same place.
The Dream Songs (1955-69) interests me still though -- in grad school, I recall writing about it in terms of the "long poem" -- for it is a long poem, a growth of the poet's mind, but undertaken as an almost interminable number of discrete lyrics. An interesting solution to the problem, set us by Baudelaire, of maintaining the short lyric as the form for modern life. Berryman does that because narrative isn't really the point. The point is a progress of the mind, but a progress on any given day (or number of days, depending on how long it took him to write a particular Song), that is set in place, enumerated, giving us a day to check off, "one day closer to death." I haven't read through the entirety in many years, but I do go back often enough to the ones I remember best (and lines of Berryman's leap to my mind as much as anyone's -- with the exception of Dylan and Hamlet, though TSE's up there too). And one of the few poems I can recite flawlessly is "Dream Song" #1.
So here's to huffy Henry, unappeasable Henry, wicked & away.