Friday, February 19, 2010


12. John Berryman: The Dream Songs (1969; 77 Dream Songs, 1964; His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, 1968), American

At position number 12 in 'The 15 Books That Stayed With Me' comes a work of poetry. This position could go to Wallace Stevens’ Collected Poems almost as well. The period of reading I’m recalling, spring 1982, the last full year I’d live in Philadelphia (i.e., the bohemian phase), found me on a roll, from '81 and that reading of Norton’s Anthology that I mentioned in an earlier post, of American poets who appealed to me, primarily for their music. I arrived at Berryman via Robert Lowell who I spent a lot of time reading in '80/'81. Stevens was a bit later in my reading, spring of '83, and as such was the big modernist in verse for me, taking over from Eliot and the Williams of Paterson. Pound’s Cantos would have to wait till graduate school.

But I pick Berryman because, unlike Stevens, he produced his signature work during my lifetime, and because his influence on me was immediate. I composed a 'long poem' of 48 numbered 13-line stanzas -- an agitated mix of asides, lyric flights, and the freely associative quotations that were a staple of my personal style in those days -- that took its impetus from those packed and idiosyncratic 'songs' of Berryman’s, their compressed monologues, rife with allusions and personal navel-gazing, all the hurts and hurrahs delivered in gifted syntax, setting off a wave of verse babble. I wrote the first 24 in one night’s shift at my post in the empty Academy of Fine Art and two nights later did the second group of 24 -- lesser, I felt, because I was deliberately trying to pursue something that had simply been a spontaneous inspiration initially.

I called it 'Trials and Errors,' and lifted my epigraphs from Berryman (on Housman): 'To listen to him, you’d think that growing old / at twenty-two was horrible, and the ordinary tasks / of people didn’t exist' (# 205). I was twenty-two, newly a father, and we were being evicted from our crappy U of Penn area apartment, so it was a perfect time -- what with all the drinking with the other Academy folk, painters mostly -- to wallow in the woe-is-me but ain’t-I-charming badinage of Berryman. The other epigraph was more significant, and is one I still like to quote because it pretty much gets it right: 'Working & children & pals are the point of the thing, / for the grand sea awaits us, which will then us toss / & endlessly us undo' (#303).

In those days I was only beginning to see the truth of that part about children, though it was beguiling to find huffy Henry making room for them, though he ended by leaving them to live on, much as he himself was left by his self-deceased daddy. If that bothered me as too bleak -- suicide, I mean -- it didn’t seem to me too overdone to see how ‘sins of the fathers’ get visited unto the next generation, which ended up being one of the themes I was dancing around in my 'Trials.' Being, I’d say, not at all ready to be daddy and none too easy about whatever my relation to my own was supposed to be at that time -- first of my sibs to reproduce, and all that biz.

'Working' as my old man understood the term and as Mr. Berryman seemed to mean it were very much different, that was clear enough. And me, having run up the barricades with Rimbaud’s grand flag 'I will never do any work' flapping nimbly above me, I was just beginning to see that 'working,' in Berryman’s sense, might be a lifelong toil -- endless trials and errors -- to no clear conclusion, without even the buttressing of retirement pensions, and what have you. Or haven’t, as the case may be. But 'the ordinary tasks of people didn’t exist' for me, then.

'Pals' was still meaningful in the context of trying to grab some local glory as bar poets, small press producers, art gallery entertainment, etc., but that was starting to seem little ado about less. And yet ... who else was I writing for and why else was I reading Berryman? Because 'life, friends, is boring' (#14), and your friends, I guess, are the people who don’t find you boring, or vice versa. Though Berryman claimed to find Henry boring, I never quite did. Repetitive, maudlin (at times), cryptic, pretentious, incomprehensible, funny, mordant, trenchant, graceful, sexy, sinister, menacing, crazed, inspired, inspiring, and all the rest, but rarely boring. And why? Because of the music of it all.

In any case, the grand sea is still tossing Berryman, it’s tossing my dad too (whose life of work was whatever it was and got him wherever it got him), and will toss this dad as well, sooner or later. Last night I watched a BBC production of Richard II and liked this line: 'I wasted time and now does time waste me.' The relevance is clear enough, jumping in time from twenty-two and eager to find something to put one’s hand too, and yet, for all that, not really working, merely letting the words lead where they will, to now, when that’s still pretty much my 'ordinary task.'

I think what kept up my fascination with The Dream Songs was the fact that it was a long poem that was comprised of many individual poems. Certainly, for the reader’s sake, there could be far fewer of them then there are, but I read them all, and was struck -- and still am -- by the prospect of a continuous use of a flexible form to create an ongoing commentary on life, both as a fictional and actual aspect of the poet’s mind and his changes in time: 'It seems to be solely a matter of continuing Henry / voicing & obsessed' (#133).

And Berryman also seemed a figure not so gargantuan with an impossible gift -- as in the great generation born in the ‘70s and ‘80s of the previous century (Rilke, Proust, Stevens, Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Kafka et al.) -- but rather more erratically accessible: scholar, school-teacher, drunken ladies man on the lecture/reading circuit, showing up on TV (now YouTube) and being a boob as only men of letters can be on the Boob Tube. All the persnickety nit-picking of the life of letters was in the poems too, as it so seldom is in that previous grand generation; here were the psychic costs of trying to be King of the Cats. 'I’m Henry Pussy-cat! My whiskers fly!' (#22).

I still go back to the Songs I like best. Even read some of them as mp3s for my iPod, loving what the poems make my mouth and ear do, and how the voice of Henry (no, I don’t really care to hear Berryman read them) is ever at home in some inner chamber of my brain. 'Henry on LSD was Henry indeed' (#329). Indeed.

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