Quick Notes on John Berryman

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


John BerrymanJohn Berryman (1914 – 1972) was an American poet and a contemporary with Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, and Sylvia Plath, as well as Delmore Schwartz, whose death was very troubling to him as can be evidenced from the many initial poems of book VI of The Dream Songs. Loss is a main theme of The Dream Songs, the collection I will focus on. But The Dream Songs are neither dreams nor songs. The dreams are more like fantasies of what might have been, is, or could be, and many of the fantasies are dark and troubling. Despite the structure of the poems, which usually consist of three six-line stanzas that play off iambic rhythms and rhyme, the poems are too complicated to be sung. There are other complications, too, and these complications grow out of the Modernist poetry tradition.

What is often said of Modernist poetry (and maybe Modernism as a whole) is that it is difficult, complicated, and frustrating, and Berryman’s Dream Songs certainly frustrate. The syntax is complicated and jarring, there are varying speech idioms, and the speaker of the poems (Henry) will refer to himself in the first-person, often in the third-person, and sometimes even the second-person. I find these poems more challenging than Modernist poetry, even The Waste Land. There’s a lot to say about these poems, but I think the opening poem might provide a good gloss of the poems, as a whole.

     Huffy Henry hid     the day,
     unappeasable Henry sulked.
     I see his point, – a trying to put things over.
     It was the thought that they thought
     they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
     But he should have come out and talked.

     All the world like a woolen lover
     once did seem on Henry’s side.
     Then came a departure.
     Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
     I don’t see how Henry, pried
     open for all the world to see, survived.

     What he has now to say is a long
     wonder the world can bear & be.
     Once in a sycamore I was glad
     all at the top, and I sang.
     Hard on the land wears the strong sea
     and empty grows every bed.

The shift between first and third person is obvious here. There are sentences with interruptions or with delays between subject and predicate, such as in lines 7-8 with the unrestrictive clause “like a woolen love” interrupting “world” and its verb “seem.” Also notice how the tense has shifted from the end of the previous stanza. A similar interruption happens at the end of the stanza. These are just examples of some of the less difficult sentences to parse through. Not to mention the tension between line and syntax. This poem also introduces the big the themes of the book, which includes the tension between the reality he expects and the reality he lives in – or maybe between fantasy and reality. Henry thought happiness possible until “a departure.” Something significant is gone, and the “a” indicates that there were other departures, too, and/or maybe more to come. And here is where I want to make a point for Berryman as transitional figure between Modernism and what comes after Modernism.

When I think of Modernism, I don’t think of subjectivity. Many critics say the Modernist poet wears a mask or assumes a personae. The reader does not really get involved in the personal life of the poet. In fact, after The Waste Land, as Al Poulin Jr. would say, there are no bodies in the waste land until Ginsberg populates them. This is where Berryman comes in as a transitional figure. He, it seems, is trying to insert a real life person with actual feelings into the waste land. He is telling of his pain and despair in regards to his loss, “a departure.” However, he wears a modernist mask in the form of Henry. Most critics agree that Henry is Berryman, despite Berryman’s protestations. And the “departure” is really the death of Berryman’s father. Even though Berryman is considered a confessional poet, we don’t get to see Berryman as Berryman. We see Berryman as Henry. This is why I consider him a transitional figure. We don’t get the real life person that we might get with Ginsberg, Lowell, or Plath. Berryman is carefully surveying the waste land, before the later poets as people arrive and populate the waste land.

An alternate title for The Dream Songs could be Song of Myself as Henry. The poems are very personal and introspective, but, perhaps, the Henry figure makes them more universal, available, or public. Henry is the archetypal white depressed and dysfunctional male form into which Berryman pours his own pain and angst and sufferings and hopes.


For more on John Berryman, please read what I noted a few years ago, which I may or may not still agree with: On John Berryman’s Syntax and Other Observations.


2 Responses to “Quick Notes on John Berryman”

  1. September 20, 2015 at 7:42 pm

    Lilac Time
    for John Berryman

    Tom, your assessment of Berryman is right on. He must have been one hell of a teacher judging by his advice to W. S. Merwin. When Berryman died I was working in Better Books, a literary workshop in London along the Charing Cross Road. An American came in to buy something of Berryman now that he was dead. His death seemed to cause more of a stir than his poetry had achieved.

    I wrote this a while back for John Berryman.

    Lilac time has come and gone
    campanulas are over
    October bees work Fall flowers
    fuschia fronds on slender stems
    cascading greens and browns
    daubed with crimson
    a hummingbird at sip

    Lilac time is Berryman time
    who wrote so he would survive
    from one day to the next
    but did not survive
    cheerful projections he made
    his own demise

    where he fell
    no lilac was found in his hand

    so we who choose to combat life
    are we any less than they?
    who threw their lives away
    now that lilac time has come and gone
    campanulas are over

    he died one January day in Minnesota
    a most serious month
    three years before Microsoft was founded
    when lilacs could not be seen in winter
    even in digital dreams
    just picture books and paintings
    and color TV

    & said Mr. Bones
    don’t forget The Movies

    © Dick Russell, 2013

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