As John Berryman tells it, in a Paris Review interview conducted in 1970, he was walking to a bar in Minneapolis one evening in the mid-1950s with his second wife, Anne, the two of them joking back and forth, when Berryman volunteered that he ‘hated the name Mabel more than any other female name’. Anne decided Henry was the name she found ‘unbearable’. For a long time afterwards, ‘in the most cosy and affectionate lover kind of talk … she was Mabel and I was Henry.’ Not long after that Berryman began to write his Dream Songs with a song he later ‘killed’:
The jolly old man is a silly old dumb
with a mean face, humped, who kills dead.
There is a tall who loves only him.
She has sworn ‘Blue to you forever,
Gray to the little rat, go to bed.’
I fink it’s bads all over.
Henry and Mabel ought to but can’t.
Childness let’s have us honey –
‘It set the prosodic pattern,’ Berryman told the interviewer, Peter Stitt, who had been a student of his a few years earlier. The interview was conducted in a ward in St Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis, where Berryman seemed to be comfortable. He spent quite a bit of time there during the last few years of his life. In January 1972 he jumped to his death from a nearby bridge.
That ‘prosodic pattern’ would evolve into one of the significant poetic inventions of the 20th century; it was an eccentric, syncopated mash-up of traditional measures and contemporary vernacular energy, an American motley with Elizabethan genes. The Dream Song form – three six-line stanzas, with lines of varying length and no predictable rhyme scheme – is used by Berryman as a flexible variant on the sonnet. He needs this flexibility to accommodate the continually changing registers of voice, the sudden shifts of diction, and to allow him to keep so many balls in the air. He wrote a total of 385 Dream Songs over 13 years, beginning in 1955. It was a period in which his mental and physical condition deteriorated as a result of extreme alcohol abuse and the poems are nourished by that dissolution and the despair born of it, the best of them transmuting Berryman’s condition into something lambent and ludic. Their protagonist, Henry, a shape-shifting tragicomic clown, is Berryman himself behind a set of Poundian masks. What makes the sequence such a signal achievement is that it manages to be at once representative of the poetry of its time and a radical departure from it.
For what then seemed a lengthy spell, from the late 1950s well into the 1970s, the standard-bearers of American poetry were a group of manic depressive exhibitionists working largely, if not exclusively, in traditional metre and rhyme schemes, analysands all, and with self-inflating personae that always reminded me of those giant balloons of Mickey Mouse and Pluto associated with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. They published and reviewed one another in journals like the Nation, Partisan Review, the Kenyon Review and Sewanee Review, with a good deal of auto-canonising. Robert Lowell, almost by default it seemed, was ceded pride of place, the ‘most important American poet now at work’. Lowell and Randall Jarrell, roommates at Kenyon College in the 1930s, and to a lesser extent Berryman too, were big on rating and ranking: the top three poets, the top three oyster houses or second-basemen, the three best Ibsen plays – they seemed especially to like the number three.
How do they rate now? It all looks a bit different fifty years on – it always does – after all the theatrics and hyperventilating, the crack-ups, ECT, Pulitzers, heart attacks, suicides, obituaries, followed hard on by biographies, critical appraisals and reappraisals, canonisation and decanonisation. This is the group sometimes known as ‘confessional’ poets or ‘mid-century’ poets: Lowell, Berryman, Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop and Theodore Roethke. The last two were more peripheral, both less overtly confessional, especially Bishop, and not so much on the scene, New York or Ivy League (though Bishop turned up briefly, and memorably, at Harvard). Their work has stood up well: Bishop’s stature is now generally acknowledged, Roethke’s, unfairly, much less so. Jarrell, a fascinating and brilliant character, is remembered nowadays for his criticism and a novel about academic life, Pictures from an Institution. Schwartz became at 25 the first true star of that generation for his 1938 collection of poetry and stories, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. He was adored by Berryman as a friend and revered by him for his poetry and intelligence from their early days as colleagues at Harvard; and by Saul Bellow, a close friend of both. Schwartz is read now, if at all, for his stories and best known for his protracted, wretched unravelling and decline, fictionally recounted by Bellow in Humboldt’s Gift. Plath, a student of Lowell’s, had the capacity for real linguistic artistry, but beyond the psychological violence and clamour – and her reign as one of the goddesses of victimhood, which brought her enormous attention – much of her poetry isn’t worth revisiting. Sexton, also a student of Lowell’s, is so calculatedly lurid and self-mutilating that the poetry very quickly bypasses mannerism and arrives at self-parody. ‘I was once known as the poet of madness, but now I am known as the poet of love,’ she said huskily of herself one evening at a literary event in Chicago. ‘You just wish they’d keep some of these things to themselves,’ Bishop, a manic depressive and alcoholic herself, told a Time magazine reporter in 1967. Indeed you did, and do. And Lowell? His prestige is much diminished (how could it not be?) and his influence – the stilted, hieratic tone and leaden gait of the early poetry; the self-mythologising, the seamy show and tell of his breakdowns and private life – has been baneful. But there can be no mistaking his enormous gift, especially in phrasing and diction (‘a savage servility/slides by on grease’), not to mention the matchless force and aptness of his descriptive language. Some of his poems are so indelibly part of the poetic voice of his era that, however much one might disapprove of him, to discount his importance is folly. His influence on Berryman and his poetry, directly and indirectly, was enormous, not least as Berryman began to catch up with Lowell in the mid-1950s and become a serious rival for what both perceived as the official culture’s mantle of top poet, a position Lowell had held unchallenged since the publication of Lord Weary’s Castle and his subsequent Pulitzer in 1947.
Hayden Carruth, born in 1921, who edited probably the finest – and certainly the most inclusive – anthology of modern American poetry in the last century, The Voice That Is Great within Us, wrote in his introduction: ‘We had been born too late, that was our trouble. The great epoch of “modern poetry” was in the past; its works, which we desperately admired, The Waste Land, Lustra, Harmonium, Spring and All, and so many others, had been written long ago and had exhausted the poetic impulse. Nothing was left for us to do.’ The Chicago poet and editor Paul Carroll, born in 1926, wrote:
To a young poet the scene in American verse in the late 1940s and early 1950s seemed much like walking down 59th Street in New York for the first time. Elegant and sturdy hotels and apartment buildings stand in the enveloping dusk, mysterious in their power, sophistication, wealth and inaccessibility. One of the most magnificent buildings houses Eliot, his heirs and their sons; other tall, graceful buildings contain e.e. cummings, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams.
Eliot cast the longest shadow on the mid-century generation, not simply because of the brilliance of the poetry and essays: he was both the model and the anti-model for the New Criticism (espoused by Lowell and Jarrell’s teachers John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate). Eliot’s work seemed to embody modernism for those who came after, and younger poets were trying desperately to find a way to get clear of him. Schwartz was the most obviously influenced by Eliot and would suffer both personally and as a poet through his inability to shake him off. In Berryman’s case, early on at least, the voices of Yeats and Auden are most prominent, but he was certainly cowed by Eliot. In 1960, while writing his Dream Songs, he railed against Eliot’s ‘intolerable and perverse theory of the impersonality of the artist’. By then, for Berryman/Henry it was very personal indeed.
Berryman’s first successful poem in his mature style comes quite late, at the end of 1947, probably the most significant year of his life. He was 33 and his first book was about to come out. The poem is called ‘The Dispossesed’. The first three of its ten stanzas read:
‘and something that … that is theirs – no longer ours’
stammered to me the Italian page. A wood
seeded & towered suddenly. I understood. –
The Leading Man’s especially, and the Juvenile Lead’s,
and the Leading Lady’s thigh that switches & warms,
and their grimaces, and their flying arms:
our arms, our story. Every seat was sold.
A crone met in a clearing sprouts a beard
and has a tirade. Not a word we heard.
Berryman seems to have known immediately that he’d made a breakthrough, rushing the poem into the book at the last moment and making it the title poem. The reader is not quite sure where the poem started or where it’s headed but quickly catches up, regardless. If you hear Gerard Manley Hopkins in there you’re hearing correctly, with the stressed syllables at the poem’s beginning clustered together to suggest frenzy and urgency. The syntax is often described as ‘broken’ or ‘crumpled’. Dashes and ellipses indicate discontinuity of thought or sudden shifts in focus. The poem jumps here and there. Berryman too was jumpy, in body and mind. The movement is song-like, even dance-like, lyrical in an improvisational but coherent way. Lowell is never lyrical. Of the very few contemporaries to whom Berryman paid serious attention only Roethke has a similar ability to make his verse sing. The youthful Berryman was a splendid dancer – all the girls said so. That was before he began falling down with regularity and breaking bones.
‘The Dispossessed’ is one of three poems he wrote in December 1947. He had for some years been looking for an idiom for his jumpiness, a ‘nervous idiom’. The Dispossessed, the volume, includes a series of nine poems under the title ‘Nervous Songs’, each poem written in a separate voice, owing not a little to Rilke’s Die Stimmen and Yeats’s six-line stanzas. They are neither very good nor very nervous, but the scrambled diction and occasional use of dashes to indicate disjunction are already in evidence, along with the three six-line stanzas that would become the basis for the Dream Songs. Berryman was a nervous man: introverted, shy, skittish, easily rattled, neurasthenic, one who was described by others, and by himself, as ‘having no skin’. He had been a bit of a hysteric and a drama queen from early in life, given to fainting dead away when in emotional distress or faced with conflict, even having psychosomatic epileptic seizures, as often as not to subdue his ‘difficult’, possessive mother, who made him crazy but on whom he was helplessly dependent. He was also brilliant. Bellow, whom he would get to know at Princeton in the early 1950s, described him as ‘tallish, slender, nervous, and gave many signs that he was inhibiting erratic impulses’. That meeting with Bellow could not possibly have been more significant for Berryman and his mature poetry. It was Bellow who would serve as the major catalyst in the creation of the voice for the Dream Songs.
Berryman the poet was closing in on that voice, measure, form and idiom in 1947, even as Berryman the man was becoming seriously unmoored. Married, happily it would seem, for five years to Eileen Mulligan (who 35 years later, as Eileen Simpson, now a psychologist, would write Poets in Their Youth, easily the most clear-eyed, intelligent and compassionate record of what it’s like to live with and among poets), he had begun an affair, the first since his marriage, with the wife of a young colleague at Princeton. The affair generated a sequence of 115 sonnets produced at white heat over the course of the year.
There are quite a few gracefully rendered and successful 20th-century sonnets that cleave to the Italian, as in this case, or Elizabethan model, and many more that play with or deviate from that strict form in interesting ways (such as Ashbery’s 17-line ‘And Others, Vaguer Presences’). Frost, Larkin, Merrill, Heaney and others succeeded in producing modern sonnets in traditional form that feel natural in expression, as Yeats did with ‘Leda and the Swan’ – still a dazzler. But a long sonnet sequence along the lines of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella isn’t possible in the modern era. The conventions surrounding such an undertaking are no longer alive in the cultural consciousness. The form is too tidy, its strictures too inhibiting for so restless a century, in which even rhyme and metre seem to have become foreign to the general poetry reader’s ear.
Hayden Carruth, reviewing Berryman’s Sonnets in Poetry magazine, wrote that ‘the poems touch every outworn convention of the sonnet sequence.’ But he goes on to concede that ‘the stylistic root of the Dream Songs is present’ in these sonnets in their ‘archaic spelling, fantastically complex diction, tortuous syntax, formalism, a witty and ironic attitude toward prosody in general’. This is from sonnet 109:
Ménage à trois, like Tristan’s, – difficult! …
The convalescent Count; his mistress; fast
The wiry wild arthritic young fantast
In love with her, his genius occult.
His weakness blazing, ugly, an insult
A salutation; in his yacht they assed
Up and down the whole coast six months … last
It couldn’t: … the pair to Paris, Chaos, result.
Though written in 1947, the sequence wasn’t published until 1966. In an author’s note at the beginning of the volume Berryman writes: ‘These sonnets, which were written many years ago, have nothing to do, of course, with my long poem in process, The Dream Songs.’ Don’t you believe it.
It was also in 1947 that Berryman began drinking heavily. Curiously, given his later long-term and profound addiction, Berryman wasn’t much of a drinker before the age of 33 (or much of a poet, for that matter). His wife, Eileen, had begun taking evening courses in psychology and wasn’t around nearly as much to look after him. He needed looking after. The drinking escalated quickly into a large problem. He also began taking Dexedrine to get going in the morning and Nembutal to get to sleep at night. He was now travelling regularly to New York to see his psychiatrist, James Shea, in an attempt to stave off his depression. Whether Shea helped him is questionable; what is certain is that Berryman emerged newly fascinated with psychiatry and his own buried psychological issues, especially the suicide of his father just before his 12th birthday, the story of which had been camouflaged by his mother. He also began to read the central texts of Freud, Fechner, Reich and others, which made a tremendous impression on him. Freud and psychoanalysis were to become major themes for Berryman, as they already were for Schwartz, and were about to be for Jarrell and Lowell. By 1953, Lowell was ‘gulping’ Freud and telling one and all that he was a ‘slavish convert’. These poets were, of course, not alone in their fascination. After the Second World War, with veterans returning en masse with psychological trauma, psychoanalysis – both the practice and the language associated with it – permeated the culture and country. Neuroses and mental illness acquired a sort of glamour, making their way into Hollywood, Time magazine and the salon conversation of intellectuals. Schwartz, Lowell, Berryman and Jarrell probably didn’t need the encouragement. Be that as it may, it was off to the races.
In the summer of 1948 Jarrell reviewed The Dispossessed in the Nation, sneering at ‘the slavishly Yeatsish grandiloquence in the early work which at its best resulted in a sort of posed, planetary melodrama, and which at its worst resulted in monumental bathos’. These poems, Jarrell wrote, were ‘statues talking like a book’. Berryman wasn’t pleased but he wasn’t surprised either: an entire generation of poets lived in terror of Jarrell’s devilishly crafted turns of phrase. At least Jarrell also suggested promising developments ahead for The Dispossessed’s author.
Earlier in 1948 Berryman had begun a long poem about the 17th-century American poet Anne Bradstreet. He finished one stanza and then let it languish for five years. In its final form Homage to Mistress Bradstreet runs to 57 stanzas of eight lines, the form modelled loosely on Yeats’s aabbcddc stanzas (used in a number of poems including ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’). In Berryman’s variant the syllable count ranges from three to 12, with the rhyme scheme mostly abcbddba.
torture me, Father, lest not I be thine!
Tribunal terrible & pure, my God,
mercy for him and me.
Faces half-fanged, Christ drives abroad,
and though the crop hopes, Jane is so slipshod
I cry. Evil dissolves, & love, like foam;
that love. Prattle of children powers me home,
my heart claps like the swan’s
under a frenzy of who love me & who shine.
Homage to Mistress Bradstreet is much admired and little read, its clotted syntax not permitting enough air to let the piece breathe. One feels the strain in its assemblage. Berryman was striving for a masterwork, something to rival Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle. The sonnets, which also suffer from strangling syntax, are livelier and more engaging, if mostly as clearer markers of where Berryman is headed in the Dream Songs.
Berryman regarded himself as a poet-scholar in the tradition of A.E. Housman. He was first and foremost a Shakespeare scholar. He had caught the bug while studying at Columbia in the 1930s with Mark Van Doren, who took the rather troubled young man under his wing and excited him about literature, Shakespeare especially. When Lowell and his then wife, Jean Stafford, invited the Berrymans to their summer home in Maine in 1946, everyone got on famously, and a visit meant to last a weekend went on for two weeks. Berryman hadn’t enjoyed talking to another poet so much since his days at Harvard with Schwartz. Lowell remembered Berryman on that visit as ‘all ease and light’ as they sat by the mill pond talking about poetry, reciting ‘Lycidas’, comparing the virtues of Browning, Tennyson, Hopkins, Arnold, Swift, Dunbar, Henryson, Chatterton, Chaucer and Gray. Lowell noted the value of Berryman’s hard work on Shakespeare, listening to him ‘quote with vibrance to all lengths, even prose, even late Shakespeare, to show what could be done with disrupted and mended syntax’. Later on, Lowell would remember Berryman’s fascination with syntax and recognise that it was ‘the start of his real style’. Berryman thought of the visit as the ‘last summer of his innocence’. Lowell’s life was about to change too: the break-up of his marriage to Stafford, the Pulitzer for Lord Weary’s Castle and the first in a series of manic-depressive breakdowns requiring hospitalisation.
Berryman was at Princeton on and off between 1946 and 1953 thanks to various fellowships and low-level teaching jobs. It was an intellectually exciting place to be: R.P. Blackmur, Allen Tate, the European émigrés at the Institute for Advanced Study – Thomas Mann, Hermann Broch, Erich Kahler, Erwin Panofsky, the mathematicians Hermann Weyl and John von Neumann, the physicists Albert Einstein and Wolfgang Pauli – and there were frequent visits from distinguished speakers such as Eliot. Berryman, in spite of himself, was thoroughly charmed by Eliot. Other poets who made appearances included Yvor Winters, Lowell, Jarrell, Schwartz and Roethke, who punched a psychiatrist at a cocktail party because he thought the doctor was there to take him away to a psychiatric facility. There were lots of parties. This was really the first generation of university poets, poets employed as scholars and lecturers instead of as physicians, farmers, bankers or insurance surety lawyers.
At the beginning of 1953, Berryman took a walk around Lake Carnegie in Princeton with Monroe Engel and Saul Bellow, whom he’d met before several times but always in the presence of others. He quickly took to Bellow’s sense of humour. A few days later he came home with a typescript of The Adventures of Augie March and took the weekend off to read it, finishing it in one big gulp at 4 a.m. on the Sunday morning. It had a dramatic effect on him. After reading it he went back to his Bradstreet poem, which he had been stuck on since 1948, but now he began roaring along, finishing it on 15 March. Edmund Wilson called it ‘the most distinguished long poem by an American since The Waste Land’. Lowell was hardly less enthusiastic.
When Bishop read 77 Dream Songs in 1964, the year Lowell’s For the Union Dead and Roethke’s The Far Field came out, the Berryman poems confused her. ‘I’m pretty much at sea about that book,’ she wrote to Lowell. ‘Some pages I find wonderful, some baffle me completely. I am sure he is saying something important – perhaps sometimes too personally.’ In a later letter to Anne Stevenson, after she had got her bearings, she wrote that Berryman echoed
‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, Stevens, Cummings, Lowell, a bit, Pound, etc, etc – but it is quite an extraordinary performance, although I think I really understand probably barely half of it. If I were a critic and had a good brain I think I’d like to write a study of ‘The School of Anguish’ – Lowell (by far the best), Roethke and Berryman and their descendants like Anne Sexton and Seidel, more and more anguish and less and less poetry. Surely never in all the ages has poetry been so personal and confessional – and I don’t think it is what I like, really – though I certainly admire Lowell’s.
Bishop is pretty sharp so far as the influences go. I don’t see much of Stevens, though Berryman read and admired him a great deal (‘better than us; less wide’, he wrote in a eulogy for Stevens, ‘Dream Song 219’). Certainly Pound, whom Berryman not only admired but was in frequent touch with. I’d suggest there’s a fair bit of Roethke in the mix, perhaps as much or more than Lowell, and, among others, another Elizabethan, Thomas Nashe, whom Berryman regarded as ‘one of the masters of English prose’, noting in particular among his techniques the ‘inversion or rearrangement for rhythm, emphasis, and simulation of the (improved) colloquial’.
So what happened between 1948 and 1955 to turn an able scholar and mildly interesting poet into the author of one of the liveliest poem sequences in the modern era? This is late in any poet’s career, though not unique: Stevens was 35 when his first serious poems appeared in Poetry magazine in 1914 and 44 when Harmonium was published. Here is the swirl of circumstances: Berryman’s behaviour was getting more extreme by the week, his marriage in tatters. He finished a highly psychologised critical biography of Stephen Crane. He replaced Roethke for a term at the University of Washington in Seattle; lectured briefly at the University of Vermont; met Jarrell, without any fur flying. In 1952 he spent the spring term at the University of Cincinnati, a generally successful visit; he finished Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, which was published the following year in the Partisan Review; he separated from Eileen and moved to New York City. In 1954 he taught creative writing at the Iowa Workshop, then summer school at Harvard; he returned to Iowa in the autumn and was forced to resign after a drunken incident. Allen Tate brought him to Minneapolis, where he began a long period of dream analysis and the following autumn started teaching at the University of Minnesota. On 12 August 1955, using 650 pages of dream analyses he had collected over the previous nine months, he began a poem in six-line irregularly rhyming stanzas that makes use of baby talk, blackface speech, religious allegory and dream-like slips of the tongue. On 21 August, picnicking on the Apple River in Wisconsin with a few colleagues and their wives, Berryman first conceived of a title for the new sequence: Dream Songs. He pressed a little piece of paper with a poem written on it into the hand of his colleague Ray West, ‘a small poem about a clown, as I recall’, West said, ‘a poem about a jolly old man’.
Berryman said that the model for The Dream Songs was Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’, ‘the other greatest American poem’, he told the Paris Review. (‘It also has a hero, a personality, himself.’) Berryman developed his narrative, he said,
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 13 years – awful long time – and third, out of certain preconceived and partly developing as I went along, sometimes rigid and sometimes plastic, structural notions. That is why the book is divided into seven books, each book of which is rather well unified, as a matter of fact. Finally, I left the poem open to the circumstances of my personal life.
I would take the ‘structural notions’ and ‘seven books, each book of which is rather well unified’ with a barrel of salt. Berryman was certainly reading ‘Song of Myself’, though I can’t find any clear echoes of it in The Dream Songs. Let me suggest one or two other forces at play: the Dream Songs are all about voice, or voices. In them, for the first time, Berryman achieves a convincing speech-like voice. Augie March had principally revealed to him the possibilities of voice passing through a variety of registers – from smart street talk to high falutin intellectual discourse – and the possibilities of humour, especially mixed with disappointment, suffering or hardship. There’s not a lot of that in Lowell, Jarrell, Plath et al. Berryman would have been drawn to the immediacy and candour of Bellow’s narrator, his almost autobiographical rendering of the quick succession of personal encounters and events in the novel. And he would have been exhilarated by the vitality of the writing. In 1963 he told Bellow that he would ‘be dreaming out an agrarian existence’ were it not for ‘the adrenaline heaved me by your raving masterworks’, The Adventures of Augie March and Henderson the Rain King, which he pored over in manuscript and at proof stages. The first collection of songs, 77 Dream Songs, is dedicated to Bellow and to Berryman’s third wife, Kate.
Though psychoanalysis didn’t help Berryman’s alcoholism or state of mind, it did serve to open him up to his inner self, and it was amid the rubble of that excavation that he found his alter-ego: messy Henry, destructive Henry, hateful Henry, devious Henry, pathetic, sozzled, recidivist Henry, self-loathing Henry, song and dance Henry, peccant Henry, grab-ass Henry, stricken-with-guilt Henry, Henry the enduring ruin. This old trickster was the spectacularly dysfunctional and desperate character Berryman had been describing to psychiatrists and his fellow patients in group therapy for years, trying and failing to defuse and repair him. This is ‘Dream Song 4’:
Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken páprika, she glanced at me twice.
Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the fact of her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her
or falling at her little feet and crying
‘You are the hottest one for years of night
Henry’s dazed eyes
have enjoyed, Brilliance.’ I advanced upon
(despairing) my spumoni. – Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls.
– Black hair, complexion Latin, jewelled eyes
Downcast … The slob beside her feasts … What wonders is
she sitting on, over there?
The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars.
Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.
– Mr Bones: there is.
‘Henry does resemble me,’ Berryman told an interviewer, ‘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 stall in my hair – and fuck them, I’m not Henry; Henry doesn’t have any bats.’
This is the first stanza of ‘Dream Song 28’:
It was wet & white & swift and where I am
we don’t know. It was dark and then
I wish the barker would come. There seems to be to eat
Nothing. I am unusually tired.
I’m alone too.
And this is the first stanza of ‘Dream Song 29’:
There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.
In the introduction to the 1969 edition of his second collection of Dream Songs, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, Berryman writes:
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.
Because of blackface Henry – who slips now and then into an old-fashioned minstrel show black speech – it’s unlikely that The Dream Songs would find a publisher today, much less stand as one of the last century’s most significant and admired poetic sequences. Berryman was interested in African-American speech in the way he was interested in Thomas Nashe. It provided syntactic and verbal possibilities and a particular, subversive energy. Kevin Young, an African-American poet who edited a Selected Poems of Berryman for the Library of America, had this to say on the subject:
The fearlessness with which Berryman breaks through the polite diction of academic poetry into a liberating variety of idioms is a major part of his legacy. If Henry is a ‘monoglot of English/(American Version)’, then Henry’s blackface Mr Bones persona – a mask upon a mask – allows him to speak in dialect to reflect on his condition: ‘He stared at ruin. Ruin stared straight back./He thought they was old friends.’
The instalment published in 1964 under the title 77 Dream Songs contains nearly all the first-rate songs. There is a sharp falling off in His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, which contains a further 308 songs. The Henry mask begins to erode and with it the capacity for play and burlesque that manages to keep the poems buoyant instead of sinking into the self-indulgence typical of most of the ‘confessional’ poetry from the era. The later Dream Songs are reduced to grim reportage from the front – often as not, a hospital bed in a ward for alcoholics. There is a lot of death; Berryman’s friends die off one by one in the later poems. The effects of his long-term alcohol abuse became ever more evident and the hospitalisations increased. Schwartz’s death, just after he completed 77 Dream Songs, seemed to hit him hardest:
This world is gradually becoming a place
where I do not care to be any more. Can Delmore die?
I don’t suppose
in all them years a day went ever by
without a loving thought for him. Welladay.
In the brightness of his promise,
unstained, I saw him thro’ the mist of the actual
blazing with insight, warm with gossip
thro’ all our Harvard years
when both of us were just becoming known
I got him out of a police station once, in Washington, the world is tref
and grief too astray for tears.
I imagine you have heard the terrible news,
that Delmore Schwartz is dead, miserably & alone,
in New York: he sang me a song
‘I am the Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz
Harms & the child I sing, two parents’ torts’
when he was young & gift-strong.
Henry is gone. No buffer. It’s down to ‘I’ now, the poet himself, alone. It is not one of Berryman’s better songs and there’s relatively little art to it, but its plainness renders grief more poignantly than the mirror and mask might have done. There would be more grieving ahead for Berryman. The title of Eileen Simpson’s moving book about her marriage to Berryman, Poets in Their Youth, comes from Wordsworth: ‘We poets in our youth begin in gladness;/But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.’