Tuesday, October 28, 2008
The Dream Songs
by John Berryman
What a Sound means differs from what a Song means. Both Sound and Song interrogate and interact with sonority, but intention and focus displaces a difference. Song, for the sake of this argument, designates an organizing element - an ordered structure of measure and control. This is meter. Sound insinuates something different – an incremental instead of structural attention to the basic unit. An emphasis on Song may lead to a formal metre, while an ear for the pleasure of Sound can facilitate discursion, fantastic leaps and a deliberate and concised atonality. John Berryman’s poetry holds an interest for me, while that of peers like Robert Lowell and Delmore Schwartz do not, due to the pull on his verse of the twin satellites of Sound and Song. As much of a stringent formalist as Berryman can be, his attuned ear also accepts knotted atonality along with structure. Sound displaces narrative when its makes sonic ‘sense.’ Berryman turns his lines in thorny, unexpected directions within the framework of his so-often metered poems. Sound itself is often the subject, as well as a flowing subtext, through much of his work. Berryman speaks directly to the reader at times, indicating “these hearings endlessly, friends, word is had...I speak only of what I hear/ and I have said too much.” Berryman at his best is poetry as saying.
An archness and stubborn adherence to an Island English pervades Berryman’s early work, including his sonnets as well as the “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet.” Yeats and Frost loom over his work, they are the mentors to whom he exclaims, “I always come in prostrate…” It is also telling that the eponymous early American poet of “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” is one who, for me at least, typifies much of the stultified verse innovators like Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman needed to render obsolete in order to craft a truly American verse apart from the imperial Island English of Great Britain. Berryman never completely jettisons this archness from his diction, but by the time he composed the close to four-hundred poems in his sequence, “The Dream Songs,” the high versification that so rattles me contrasts with a deft attendance to sonics; the occasional emphasis on incremental Sound over theatricality and bombast. Towards the end of “The Dream Songs,” Berryman writes that “These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand./ They are only meant to terrify & comfort.” At its best, “The Dream Songs,” a collection of both “77 Dream Songs” and the later “His Toy, His Dream, His Rest,” functions as a nexus where confessional theatricality and traditional meter is interrogated by skepticism and unease. Strength lies within the contradiction.
I cannot imagine these poems having been written quite the same way if not for the influence of Sigmund Freud. John Berryman’s landscape of mid-century 20th century, white middle-class academia was profoundly colonized by psychoanalysis. Freud exerted a deep influence on Berryman, a man wracked with depression for the majority of life, and who tragically enough succumbed to suicide at a far too early age. Berryman dissociates self from himself in the sequence through the “hero” of the sequence, who in an introductory note to the text is described by the poet as “…an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age, sometimes in blackface.” Henry is actually not Berryman, he is Berryman’s double, an attempt to un-create himself and provide a feasible reality for survival outside cultural strictures. Compare Henry to the idea of the double as seen in 19th century literature, such as Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad, or even the postmodern concept of simulacra popularized by Jean Baudrillard. Psychoanalysis provides many of the strictures Berryman fights so vehemently against, and in “The Dream Songs” he attempts to exorcise Freud from his own process, while simultaneously internalizing such an influence.
Berryman derides Freud and makes light of psychoanalysis as he writes in jest “My psychiatrist can lick your psychiatrist…”, but the mode of inquiry and evasion utilized throughout his long sequence is indebted to Freud as well. Later, Berryman writes, in response to the endless stream of pills prescribed by “despairing doctors,” that “There seems to firm no answer…” Berryman’s poetry is a musical cycle of utterance, with the consequential of a voided response. “Perhaps God is a slob…,” he writes, “Perhaps God resembles one of the last etchings of Goya,..,” so God is not an absence in Berryman, but an unknowable grotesquery who crafts absences. This is a poetry of negation. He concludes one poem with the line “…neither below nor above,” a deliberate inversion of the Hermetic dictum, “As Above, So Below.”
Contradiction propels “The Dream Songs.” Tension between meter, within Berryman’s five-line stanzas, and his variance manifests the poet’s contrary trajectories. Though “The Dream Songs” are very much a long poem of mind, Berryman is obviously distrustful of his mind, that is, of the reliability, the accountability, of the mind. More expressly, he is wary of thoughts, the verb of the mind. He writes “…it’s so broke down here, in his mind…” and “Henry’s mind grew blacker the more he thought.” Depression could be seen as thought’s functionality extenuated to non-functionality. Thought is here a mutter, unbearable matter and a dread thing. Berryman writes of being “…without a think in his head…” Here, you see, a thought is a verb twisted into a noun, a horrible thing that hounds Henry. Thought is not a rational construct; it tempts the irrational. Perhaps it is this fear of the irrational that engenders Berryman towards metrical order and formalism in his poetry. Yet Berryman is unable to completely disentangle himself from opacity, as he enjoys atonality to an extent. He insists, with winning confidence, “Now let’s have a new sound.” Elsewhere, he responds to a critic who says “You don’ make sense” with “-I don’t try to. Get with it. When’s said & done/ all that we did & said…” If only Berryman had taken this desire towards colloquialism and a primacy of sonic logic over narrative logic further! But then he would be a very different poet.
Now, I haven’t forgotten Berryman’s reputation of a “confessional” poet. I also dislike confessional poetry, but thankfully there is so much more here than to allow “The Dream Songs” to be reduced to such a dreary label. The theatrics of confession are without a doubt integral to Berryman’s art, but “The Dream Songs”s emotional expulsions have too long been stressed over the dialect in his work between Song and Sound. Look, it is when Berryman displays his more candid confessionals over women, drink or depression that he is his weakest sonically. The incorporation of a vaudevillian “black-faced dialect” in “77 Dream Songs” is ambitious and well-intentioned, but comes across, at best, as awkward. It is difficult not to grimace at lines like “Sir Bones: is stuffed,/ de world, wif feeding girls.” I am reminded of the discomfort of reading the similarly well-intentioned “Melanctha” segment of Gertrude Stein’s “Three Lives.” I understand, and applaud, Berryman’s desire to incorporate the syncopated Song of the blues into his poems. Unfortunately, I can’t help but cringe, as Berryman’s emulation of African-American dialect seems to align his personal depression with the victimization of an entire people. Berryman fails to navigate the admittedly tumultuous linguistic waters of race. It would be difficult for anyone to do so! Such a bald-faced approximations of blues utterances as “Man, I been thirsty” take on a problematic context within the cultural and racial mainframe they inevitably exist within.
Berryman’s poetry is most successful when he coerces the contradiction of verse, when he is concerned with an inquiry into “…an anti-time of God’s anti-time…” Here we see him investigating “…a definite hole…,” though Berryman desperately desires this lack to exist “…in a definite universe…structured, unlike the oblongs.” These oblongs, this ineffable question of Berryman’s work is what engages me in a way fading giants of the mainstream like Sylvia Plath, Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell do not. In the face of the melodrama of passages like “You are the hottest one for years of night/ Henry’s dazed eyes/ Have enjoyed, Brilliance,” Berryman’s ear for Sound is compromised for jilted theatricality and a heavy reliance on archaic Island English. The poem this above passage comes from, “Dream Song 4,” remains one of his most popular and anthologized. It stresses his weaknesses over the neglected strengths of Berryman’s verse, those complicated elements that rankle more formalist critics. I’m by no means saying Berryman is a poet of the Pound-Zukofsky-Stein tradition, but he may be a formalist with some wonderful things to offer poets and readers invested in that tradition. Reading Berryman assertively simply requires one to give up any bias towards him as a canonical figure
Observe the great play and power Berryman’s poetry possesses when it steers clear of the more problematic theatrics. Look at a poem like “The Translator- I.” Here we see Berryman weave meaning through Sound, connecting “mutter” (utterance) with “matter” (or thought) and mother (empirical life). We see a wonderful use of Berryman’s signature short line in “…but it is Henry’s mutter…” and then in “…& Cuban: O a bevy!” Later, we hear echoes of that first short line in “It’s Henry’s matter, after all…,” which also resonates with an unnamed and unmentioned, but still voiced mother. The poem closes with an evocation of Hart Crane, “…this young man/ who only wanted to walk besides the canals/ talking about poetry and make it.” Talking the poem reminds me here both of Frank O’Hara and David Antin. Perhaps my reading of Berryman takes me in some directions that Berryman himself would discourage, but the generous potentiality of his poetry should be recognized.