Posts Tagged ‘allen ginsberg


Poetry Assignments: The Book (Online): Imaginary Worlds


Brian Warner's The Cave

“The Cave” by Brian Warner. Used with the permission of Brain Warner.

or 100 Jackhammers for the Poet with Writer’s Block;

or 100 Ways to Jumpstart the Engine;

or 100 Pencil Exercises;

or 100 Ways to Stimulate Your Next Wine, Cheese, & Poetry Night


Table of Contents


  1. Finding the First, Discovering the Middle, & Chasing the End
  2. Imaginary Worlds
  3. Science, the Universe, Time, & Other Evolutions
  4. Fun with Letters, Words, Language, & Languages
  5. Forms: Obscure, Updated, & Invented
  6. New School; or Double Vision; or WWI (Writing While Intoxicated) & Its Repercussions
  7. Miscellany; Trying to Relate the Unrelated; or These Gotta Go Some Place . . . So Here
  8. Stupid Money, Dumb Politicians, & Celebrating America
  9. Responses; or Calling All Poets (Dead & Alive); or Talking to Eternity
  10. It’s All About You


Imaginary Worlds

Connect the Dots; Star Gazing into Creation; or Neck Exercises

We’ve recently entered a new millennium, yet we still use our night sky’s old constellations & their stories. Your assignment is to create new images & new stories for the existing constellations, or to find your own constellations & create stories for them.

For those who choose to create more than one constellation, or for those who want this assignment to endure – create an epic story for all the constellations you have made or found. Try to weave the stories together.

Be careful not to stare too long into the night sky or else you might find yourself with a neck ache. If that happens, you will have to write a bunch of poems so your neck can bend down &, hopefully, offset the pain from bending your neck backwards.


Hey, Where’s Everybody Going?

Something strange is happening in my town. Perhaps it’s happening in your town, too. Quick! Look out the window. Are all the statues leaving as they are here? What do you think is going on? Where do you think they are going? Quickly, write it down. Follow them. Take notes. But don’t get caught. This could be monumental!


Til Death Do Us Part

This assignment is inspired by the first line in Stan Rubin’s poem “Emily Was Right,” which is in his new book Five Colors (Wordtech Communications, 2004). The first line is: “The perfect date would be with death.”

The assignment is to write about that perfect date, or just a general date with death, or even just a first date with death.

Ok. Get busy!

And if you want, you can get busy with death, too! (Read that as if Groucho Marx said it with a cigar in his mouth!)


The Sea of Galilee, or the Apocalypse

Apparently the water level in the Sea of Galilee keeps rising 0.5 cm per day. As of March 16th, it was 15 cm from capacity. I’m not exactly sure of the reasons for this. But, here’s the assignment: compose a poem of the flooding of the Sea of Galilee, or some ocean. A poem of the apocalypse.

John Isles has a great one, “Elegy for the Present Moment,” in his new book Ark (Kuhl House Poets, 2003). His, however, is about the moment the sun stopped shining.


Hey, Who Turned Out the Lights?

This assignment has a two-fold inspiration.

Last week, August 10th, 2004, or so, my wife [at the time] & I were on the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula & we went to watch the sun set. When we arrived, the sun was blocked by clouds. The sun looked liked a full moon, & the feeling was eerie & apocalyptic.

Yesterday, August 19, 2004, in Hong Kong there was so much smog that the sun was blocked out. In the absence of sunlight, there were many boat accidents, & the government warned people with heart & respiratory conditions to stay indoors.

Here’s the poetry assignment. Write a poem about the day the sun disappeared. Or if you wish the day the moon disappeared. (In the moon poem, for a real challenge, make an allusion to the old tv show, Space 1999, if anyone remembers that!)


Fluorescent Lights as Thieves; or Me & My Bones; or In the Event of Light, the Only Safe Place is Under the Desk

Where I work is good place. Good, creative people making a fine product. But I noticed something most odd the other day when I was turning the corner. You see, when I turn corners, I listen to hear if anyone is coming, I try to look through the corners (which can be done if you know how) to see if anyone is coming, & I look to the floor for shadows to see if anyone is approaching, for I don’t want to have a collision at the corner. And then I realized, after never seeing a shadow approach a corner despite hearing a person & seeing a person through corner walls that people at work don’t cast shadows. It’s strange. Some of the cubicle walls cast shadows, & there is always a shadow under my desk (or is it just dark?). But people here have no shadows. To which my friend responded, “We are the shadows.” I think it’s just the fluorescent lights . . . not the people. I mean, I’ve seen their shadows on the sidewalk outside. I’ve seen the shadows get into their owner’s (or does the shadow own the person) car. But anyhow.

Here is the assignment. Imagine a world where only inanimate objects cast shadows. Imagine how your unconscious would be symbolized. Where would your psychological baggage be carried? What of dreams? . . . Jung & Freud? What of murder mysteries & horror movies? What of fear itself? What of the song “Me and My Shadow”? Oh my.

You may also imagine a world where only organic, living things cast shadows. What then of the moon & its phases? What then of sundials? What then of a mountain’s presence looming large over a small town, or are mountains organic & living? (surely living). Or imagine a place of no shadows.

Now. Go forth. Write. Imagine. Imagine your pencil not throwing a shadow on your words! 


If Dante Were Here Today

Oh boy, he’d find a lot of sinners, & he’d probably find some sinners of new sins, too. What would he do with these sinners of the new sins? He’d have to create a new circle in hell, a new circle in the Inferno, for them. Thus, it is up to you to pretend you are Dante today & create a new circle in hell for the sinners of the new sins.

Or even, perhaps, to find a secret door in one of the circles that opens into another circle, where the sinners of the new sin are. For example, I thought today, there are a lot of people destroying the environment – performing acts contrary to nature – thus, you might want a secret passage in the contrary to nature circle (the one that has the usurers) & put those people destroying nature into that secret room.

If you can do this assignment in terza rima, then all the better.

If you can create a new Inferno filled with circles for all the new sins & sinners of the new sins, then kick ass! And if you do that, then I imagine you’d have to find a new Virgil, too!

Alright, go forth & put the sinners in their place!

(9-2-06 addendum) Here’s a new sin: advertisers who use Beatles songs. I’m thinking specifically of the Chase Credit Card (usury) company that recently used “All You Need Is Love” to advertise their damn credit card. That is contrary to nature, The Beatles, and all that is beautiful in the world. The advertisers & those at Chase Credit Card who approved the commercial should be in a new circle. Or the dog-food company that used Shakespeare to pimp its product and the myriad of other advertisers and ad approvers who belittle great art and humanity.


Imitations; or Because Poems Are to Speak to All Times; or Make It New (Number 3)

But first a history lesson.

In 1570, in Roger Ascham’s The Schoolmaster, between pages 99 and 133, he has six ideas on how to translate.

There are six ways appointed by the best learned men, for the learning of tongues and increase of eloquence, as

1) Translatio linguarum.
2) Paraphrasis.
3) Metaphrasis.
4) Epitome.
5) Imitatio.
6) Declamatio.

1) Translatio linguarum. “Translation is easy in the beginning for the scholar, and brings also much learning and great judgment to the master. It is most common, and most commendable of all other exercises for youth: most common, for all your constructions in Grammar schools be nothing else but translations [. . .] they bring forth but simple and single commodity.”

2) Paraphrasis. “Paraphrasis is to take some eloquent Oration, or some notable common place in Latin, and express it with other words. [. . .] Paraphrasis, the second point, is not only to express at large with more words, but to strive and contend (as Quintilian said) to translate the best Latin authors into other Latin words, as many or thereabouts.”

3) Metaphrasis. “Metaphrasis is to take some notable place out of a good Poet, and turn the same sense into meter, or into other words in Prose.      [. . .] This kind of exercise is all one with Paraphrasis, save it is out of verse either into prose or into some other kind of meter: or else, out of prose into verse, which was Socrates’ exercise and pastime (as Plato reported) when he was in prison, to translate Æsop’s Fables into verse.”

4) Epitome. “This is a way of study belonging rather to matter, than to words: to memory, than to utterance: to those that be learned already, and has small place at all amongst young scholars in Grammar schools. [. . .] Epitome is good privately for himself that does work it.”

5) Imitatio. “Imitation is a faculty to express lively and perfectly that example: which you go about to follow. And of itself, it is large and wide: for all the works of nature in a manner be examples for art to follow. But to our purpose, all languages, both learned and mother tongues, be gotten, and gotten only by Imitation.”

6) Declamatio. [Um, he seems to have forgotten to expand on that. Um, little help please. I’m gonna fail my final. Hey, Mr. Ascham. Hey, Roger. Rog. All right then. I guess class is over.]

Then 110 years later, John Dryden comes along with three very similar terms for translation, which appear in his “Preface” to Ovid’s Epistles in 1680:

All translation I suppose may be reduced to these three heads.

First that of, metaphrase, or turning an author word for word, and line by line, from one language into another. Thus, or near this manner, was Horace’s Art of Poetry translated by Ben Jonson. The second way is that of paraphrase, or translation with latitude, where the author is kept in view by the translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly followed as his sense, and that too is admitted to be amplified, but not altered. Such is Mr. Waller’s translation of Virgil’s fourth Aeneid. The third way is that of imitation, where the translator (if now he has not lost that name) assumes the liberty, not only to vary from the words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion: and taking only some general hints from the original, to run division on the groundwork, as he pleases. Such is Mr. Cowley’s practice in turning two odes of Pindar, and one of Horace into English.

Robert Lowell picks up Dryden’s third in Imitations (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1961). In Lowell’s introduction to this collection, he writes of his translations, imitations:

I have been reckless with literal meaning, and labored hard to get the tone. Most often this has been a tone, for the tone is something that will always more or less escape transference to another language and cultural moment. I have tried to write alive in English and to do what my authors might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America.

So we are going to do this. We are going to take a long-ago dead poet (& they can be English speaking like Anne Bradstreet, William Blake, Alexander Pope, Shakespeare, or foreign like Dante, Sappho, or the author of Gilgamesh), & have that poet write as if he or she lived today in America. Plus, we will work on tone, a tone.

And if you want to be like Lowell, do one or a few poems from one poet, & a few more from another & another until you have a book length manuscript. Or just do one poet.

Feel free to ignore Ascham. I will, as he reminds me of a teacher from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Hey, Rog, I’m still waiting. Rog. Rog. Oi.


Today’s Fertilizer, or You Make the Call

Baudelaire once had a wonderful image/symbol of a rose growing from a pile of manure. And Ezra Pound once said, “Humanity is the rich effluvium, it is the waste and the manure and the soil, and from it grows the tree of the arts.”

Today (12-6-04) they announced the invention of a cell phone that when thrown away will grow into a sunflower.

AMSTERDAM (Reuters)—Scientists said on Monday they have come up with a cell phone cover that will grow into a sunflower when thrown away.

Materials company Pvaxx Research & Development [. . .] has come up with a polymer that looks like any other plastic, but which degrades into soil when discarded.

Researchers at the University of Warwick in Britain then helped to develop a phone cover that contains a sunflower seed, which will feed on the nitrates that are formed when the polyvinylalcohol polymer cover turns to waste.

Your assignment: pretend you’re a French Symbolist & use the cell phone as a new symbol.

Here is Gérard de Nerval’s “Golden Verses” to help you a bit. (It is translated by C.F. MacIntyre.)

           Eh, what! everything is sentient!

   You, free thinker, imagine only man
   thinks in this world where life bursts from all things?
   The powers within prescribe your freedom’s wings,
   but you leave the universe your plans.

   Respect the mind that stirs in every creature:
   love’s mystery is known by metals too;
   every flower opens its soul to Nature;
   “Everything’s sentient!” and works on you.

   Beware! from the blind wall one watches you:
   even matter has a logos all its own . . .
   do not put it to some impious use.

   Often in humble life a god works, hidden;
   and like a new-born eye veiled by its lids,
   pure spirit grows beneath the surface of stones.

          “Golden Verses” from French Symbolist Poetry. 
          Used with permission by University of California Press. 

(9-16-06 addendum) You should also read Walt Whitman’s “This Compost.” Thanks for the tip, William Heyen.


Pessoa as a Time Traveler; or Variations on Rexroth as Marichiko; or Man, You Are So Far Behind the Times

What is your favorite time period of poetry that occurs before 1901? And what country provides your favorite poetry, besides America? Now with that time & place in mind, what poet should have existed that did not? That is, when you read the Romantics, for example, you may have thought, “If I were writing then, I think I would have had this voice, these ideas, these types of visions, inventions, criticisms, insights, & understandings that would epitomize, in full, Wordsworth, Coleridge, & the rest.” Or something like that.

With that in mind, you need to become an uber-Romantic poet, or an uber-poet from whatever time period & country you like best. You need to pretend you have discovered a poet from a distant time & land, but you need to write poems for that discovered poet & maybe some literary criticism, or some manifestoes, or some takes on how that poet sees poetry & its purpose.

If you wish, you can bring that poet into our times & have him/her speak to & in our times.

And while you are it . . . the next time you get a book published, use that poet to write a back cover blurb for you, or maybe even a review of your book.

My dude is: Semlohsa Moht. Poet Laureate of Gegôré. (Yeah, the country is fictional, too, which makes for more fun!!)


Jazzy Uncle Walt; or WW, he’s so smoooooth

This assignment was inspired by a CD review in the Feb. 17-23, 2005 edition of the Inlander (Spokane, WA).

The Fred Hersch Ensemble has set some of Walt Whitman’s poems to jazz music in the album: Leaves of Grass.

Your assignments then:

a: Pretend you are Walt Whitman living in the jazz age (for this assignment, anywhere from 1920-1965). What will Walt be doing? Will he be wearing dark sunglasses, blowing on a sax, & smoking unfiltered Camels?

b: Still in the jazz age, pretend you are Walt Whitman writing poems. Would his poems be the same or would they be more like:

   Out of the cradle
   endlessly bopping
   Out of the Plugged Nickel’s sway
   the jazzy shuffle
   Out of the nine-hour jam
   [. . . ]

Or would he write even more different?

c: Now pretend you are Walt Whitman & you meet Allen Ginsberg in a smoky jazz bar.

Ok, that’s it for this assignment.

By the way, the Inlander’s reviewer, Michael Bowen, gave the album five stars. But I have not heard it, so I can not offer an opinion on it.


This Poet’s Got Game . . . Do You?; or The World Cup of Poetry; or Fantasy Sports for Poets; or How Can I Get Season Tickets for This?

For Kat Smith, Thom Caraway, Jeff Dodd is God, Mike Dockins, & William Heyen.

This just occurred to me & keeps unfolding, so we will be discovering together.

I just now had the thought (& I’m sure this has been done before) that we need a baseball team of poets. And to create this team, you will have to find the poet who best corresponds to a specific baseball position. Who will be your pitcher (who’s got a striking fast poem, but with the ability to throw a three-foot breaking curve & hurl a knuckle-ball poem that you don’t know where it will end up), who will be the genius catcher to be able to handle all these pitches & tell the pitcher what to throw, who’s got the confidence, dexterity, & arm to play shortstop, etc. Yes, metaphorically pick a poet who possesses the talents of each position on the ball field. Oh, & we’re using American League rules – there will be a DH! (Which reminds me, you’ll need a pinch hitter, a middle reliever, & a closer.) I won’t tell you my team, but I will tell you the manager is Ezra Pound – who knows more, who can get poets to do more than they can, who could better yell at an umpire than Ol’ Ez?

Wait, there’s more.

With the World Cup going on, we now need a separate team for each of 32 different countries (or, as many countries as you can do). And still using World Cup rules, a poet can play for a country that he/she was born in, gained citizenship in, or where his/her parents were born. So, T. S. Eliot, for instance, could play for England or America. (I’ve got him playing for England, that is, if he can make the team. Maybe he will be a substitute. I’m thinking Chaucer would be manager for this team.)

More. When making this team, you must write a poem about each poet playing his/her position. Then after the team is assembled, you must imagine them actually playing a game, which is why it is good to have teams from other countries. And like baseball, there will be NO ties. Extra innings into eternity if you must.

You, of course, may use other sports. You may have basketball teams, soccer/futbol teams, football teams, hockey teams (but Bly must play goalie, ha), water polo, etc. But still, NO ties are allowed – sudden death, shootouts, if you must.

Oh, yea. Let’s not forget poet umpires, poet referees, & poet sideline judges. We need one poem where an umpire & manager (or player) stand face to face yelling at each other. (Yes, a Stevens-Frost allusion is allowed here, & maybe even required.)

Please be sure to keep track of each country’s win-loss record. Keep track of hitting trends & tendencies. Keep track of ERAs (or EMAs – Earned Metaphors Achieved). Hell, I may post results . . . if you’re game.



Quick Notes on Allen Ginsberg

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.


Allen GinsbergAllen Ginsberg (1926 – 1997) is an American poet, who is usually associated with the Beats. His major book is Howl & Other Poems (1956), and when he read the poem “Howl” at The Six Gallery Reading in San Francisco on October 7, 1955, some say the Beat Generation began.

On one of the walls at The University of Southern Mississippi’s English Department is the following quote from Ezra Pound, which I am currently looking at: “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.” With Ginsberg, in Howl & Other Poems (1955), we don’t get that. We don’t get formal poems of self-contained meanings, meters, rhetorical poetic devices, all of which is designed for close reading. We get a series of images that leap around paratactically. We get images provoking ideas and emotions. We get open form poems, often with long lines. We get long lines filled with a big breath, which seems to recall Olson’s “Projective Verse.” These long lines allow for Ginsberg to more accurately trace his mind in action. Philip Whalen says something like, “Poetry is a graph of the mind moving,” and that is how most of Ginsberg’s poems appear to operate in Howl & Other Poems. In addition, according to David Perkins:

Ginsberg absorbed [W. C.] Williams’ belief that poetry must reflect contemporary social reality, present images rather than ideas, and base its idiom on immediate speech rather than a poetic tradition. (547)

The open form also allows Ginsberg a larger space in which to confess. (I think Ginsberg is a type of Confessional poet, but whereas Lowell, Plath, and Snodgrass confess within the worlds of suburban families, Ginsberg confesses among the drug addicts, hobos, artists, outcasts, patients in mental asylums (like Carl Solomon and his mother).) With the long poetic line, he is able to confess “out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head” (“Howl” 131). He confesses his homosexuality, he confesses to being a Communist, he confesses to being a poet, and he confesses to the value of work.

Some concerns in these poems are work and value and nostalgia. For instance, “America” opens: “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing. / America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956” (146). Ginsberg is saying he’s given it his all, but despite that, despite capitalism’s promise that working hard will make one rich, Ginsberg feels nearly valueless ($2.27). This poem shows the effects of capitalism on the American worker, who is a hero in many of Ginsberg’s poems. By the end of the poem, he announces, “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel” (148). In essence, he’s announcing he’s getting back to the old ways of working. The capitalist’s “machinery is too much for” him (146). The capitalist working conditions create homogenized products and make people too serious – “Businessmen are serious. Movie producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me” (147). So like an independent smith (pre-capitalism), he’s going to put his shoulder to the wheel stone and make his own products his own way. His value will come from his self-worth, his own industry. And he will sell his poems, his “strophes $2500 apiece.” He will be able to buy supermarket food with his own “good looks” (146). He is his own worth. His genius and good looks should be more than enough to survive.

We can even see some of this in the closing poem “In back of the real” (113), where the “hay flower” acts allegorically as the working person. This flower – with a “brittle black stem,” “dirty spikes” (though appearing crown-like and one of three crowns in Howl & Other Poems (one is the skyscrapers in “Howl” and one is in the flower in “Sunflower Sutra”)), and as worn down as an old hair brush “that’s been lying under / the garage for a year” – is the “flower of industry.” It is an “ugly flower” in appearance having grown in the environment of industry by a tank factory and railway station and tracks, but within it is the “great yellow / Rose in your brain! / This is the flower of the World.” This might be the underlying theme of the whole book – no matter who you are, how beaten down you’ve been, how much electroshock therapy you’ve had, there’s beauty in you and your madness.

Ginsberg poems are very accessible and in a simple language, but prompting complicated issues of economics, religion, sexuality, politics, drugs, and war. Some have claimed that Howl was the second most influential poem of the 20th century, with The Waste Land being the most influential.


Works Cited

Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems: 1947-1980. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1984. Print.

Perkins, David. “Allen Ginsberg.” A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987. Print.


Here’s where you can find the poems in Howl & Other Poems as they appear in the Collected Poems: 1947-1980.

Howl, 126-133

Footnote to Howl, 134

A Supermarket in California, 136-37

Transcription of Organ Music, 140-41

Sunflower Sutra, 138-39

America, 146-48

In the Baggage Room at Greyhound, 153-54

An Asphodel, 88

Song, 111-12

Wild Orphan, 78-79

In the back of the real, 113



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.



Swinburne, Four Syllables, and Learning to Listen to Write

The prompt for this essay was to write a 10-15 page paper about poems, stories, or novels that influenced my writing. Below is my response.


Algernon Charles Swinburne

“Algernon Charles Swinburne” by painting George Frederic Watts 1867.

As I thought about what poems changed my work or writing, I had to ask myself in what capacity. In the capacity of expressing myself? in the capacity of using images? being concrete and clear? in the capacity of using the line? in using etymologies? in sounds? etc. Many poems of course came to mind, such as John Donne’s Holy Sonnet #10, Edmund Spenser’s “One day I wrote her name upon the strand,” Gerard Manley Hopkins “The Windhover,” W. S. Merwin’s “The Mountain,” “The Unwritten,” “For the Anniversary of My Death,” and “The Last One.” Two essays also came to mind: Ezra Pound’s “A Retrospect,” which was really the start of everything for me, and Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse.” There were so many choices, but the more I thought about it the more I kept dwelling on Algernon Charles Swinburne and one of his poems. In fact, it was really just four syllables in this poem that I kept turning to for ten years during the 1990s. I believe these four syllables changed my writing more than any other poem. As a result, I will show how this happened and what I learned. In essence, I will show the growth of how my ears learned to listen. As a result, much of what follows will probably be common knowledge to anyone who’s been writing poems for some time, but it is still a sketch of how I learned prosody, or invented my own prosody.

I was introduced to Swinburne by way of Ezra Pound’s “Swinburne and His Biographers.” In this essay, Pound says:

Swinburne recognized poetry as an art, and as an art of verbal music. [. . .] No man who cares for his art can be deaf to the rhythms of Swinburne, deaf to their splendor, deaf also to their bathos. [. . . ] The rhythm-building faculty was in Swinburne, and was perhaps the chief part of his genius. (292-93)

Before I found my way to that essay and to Swinburne, I had been living in and practicing Pound’s advice in “A Retrospect.” You are probably familiar with the three principles (“Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective;” “To use no word that does not contribute to the presentation;” and “to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome”) as well as the motto “Go in fear of abstractions.” In the “Rhythm and Rhyme” section of the essay, Pound also points out:

Let him dissect the lyrics of Goethe coldly into their component sound values, syllables long and short, stressed and unstressed, into vowels and consonants.

It is not necessary that a poem should rely on its music, but if it does rely on its music that music must be such as will delight the expert. (5)

As a young writer, I of course wanted to “delight the expert,” as well as everybody else. However, I didn’t know how. Nor did I know what long and short syllables were. I only knew stressed and unstressed syllables, and not very well. And then, as I mentioned, I met Swinburne, and he, and especially one of his poems, drastically informed and changed how I wrote poems during the 1990s.

Swinburne’s poems will force anyone to hear stressed and unstressed syllables. One really can’t “be deaf to the rhythms of Swinburne.” It’s unavoidable. It’s with him my decade-long research into meters (qualitative and quantitative) and forms began. Swinburne wrote in so many meters and forms, I felt required to do the same. I especially loved Sapphic meters, and he has two Sapphic-metered poems, but they are done with qualitative meters instead of quantitative meters. However, I didn’t know this yet. All I knew was to listen.

And so I listened to Swinburne and other poets and my own poems. It was a long training process, but the poem that may have taught me more about meter and rhythm and influenced my own writing is one of the chorus sections from his Greek-like play in verse Atalanta in Calydon. The chorus opens:

Before the Beginning of Years

And it continues for 46 more lines in a bouncy rhythm. The backbeat of the poem is iamb, anapest, and anapest, which Swinburne will play off of throughout the poem. However, there’s much more going on than that. Here’s a typical scansion of the opening line:

Before the Beginning of Years - Simple Scan

In this scansion, I use “u” to indicate an unstressed syllable and “/” to indicate a stressed syllable. That scansion is absolutely correct, or is it? There’s something more complicated going on in that first syllable. I didn’t realize it the first few times I read it, but eventually, sometime later, I heard it different.

I read the opening line over and over again. I read it loud, soft, fast, and slow to try and figure out what was happening with that first syllable. While the “be” in “before” is unstressed, it certainly has more stress than “the.” “How can that be?” I asked myself. I discovered a number of reasons for this.

Edmund SpenserThe first reason was breath. “Be” is the first syllable of the poem, as a result it receives the first exhale from the speaker’s mouth. It receives initial breath, which is more powerful than subsequent breaths in a poem, at least when it pertains to unstressed syllables. When reading a poem aloud, one can’t help but to burst into the poem on the opening syllable, even if it’s just a small burst. The breathing takes time to regulate, usually a syllable or two or three. What I learned from this is that the opening syllable to a poem can’t really be unstressed. Actually, where I first realized that the opening breath adds stress to an unstressed syllable was in the opening line of Edmund Spenser’s “Sonnet 75,” which begins, “One day I wrote her name upon the strand.” The “one,” while correctly scanned as an unstressed syllable, is more of a semi-stressed syllable. I read Spenser’s poem again and again, I compared “One” to “u” in “upon” and to “the,” which are obviously unstressed syllables, I thought about it, and then applied what I learned to Swinburne’s chorus. It held true there. It held true with many other poems, too. It held true with the poems I wrote. What I learned is that the opening syllable will almost always have a little more stress than the same syllable later in the poem, unless there is a deliberate metrical play being facilitated by the poet. This semi-stressed syllable realization while important was still not fully developed, especially in me and my poetry.

The idea that there was the special syllable intrigued me. I had assumed there were either stressed or unstressed syllables and nothing else. This is all I ever read in books or was taught. Even in the dictionary, there are only stressed and unstressed syllables, and the “Be” in “Before” is unstressed. But here’s a third syllable that is neither. “Is it just an aberration? Is it only true of opening syllables?” I asked myself. I eventually found two answers. The first was realizing that stressed and unstressed syllables are not absolute. They are relational, as hinted at before with the “u” in “upon” and the “the” in Spenser’s poem. While “be” in “before” will usually be unstressed, its unstress comes in relation to the other syllables around it. Since the “be” in “before” is always surrounded by the stressed “fore,” it will almost always sound unstressed. Still, it is more stressed than the “the” later in the Swinburne line. In fact, articles are almost always unstressed, especially when it follows the stressed “fore.” The next unstressed syllable that follows the unstressed “the” is also “be,” but this time in the word “beginning.” This “be” is also considered an unstressed syllable because of where it is in relation to the stressed “gin.” But when I listened closely, I heard it being more stressed than the preceding “the.” I didn’t hear the “be” in “beginning” as stressed or unstressed. It was in between. This time, however, it wasn’t because of initial expulsion of air. It was something else.

When I listened to the lines in this chorus, I heard rising rhythms. Of course, the rhythm will rise naturally with iambs and anapests, but there was more nuance in the rising in Swinburne’s chorus, and it occurs in the second syllable of the anapests. It turns out Swinburne wasn’t using a two-scored scansion system of syllables. He was using a three-scored scansion system. Here’s a different scansion of the opening line:

Before the Beginning of Years - Three Tier

In this scansion, I use “u” and “/” as I used them above, but here I use “u/” to indicate a semi-stressed syllable. When I scanned it by hand with a pencil in the 90s, I used a “u” with a slanted line through it. I was inventing my own scansion and scansion markings, and I would invent more. But back to this line. The rising rhythm is nuanced. It’s smooth. It glides up into each foot’s stressed syllable – unstressed to semi-stressed to stressed. But there’s even more to this rising.

Again, after reading this poem many more times, as well as reading other poems and writing my own poems that tried to imitate meters and rhythms, I heard this chorus’s opening line differently. This time I heard how the last syllable “years” is more stressed than the other syllables in the line. Here’s how I scanned it:

Before the Beginning of Years - Four Tier

Here I use “x” to indicate what I call a strong stress. My ear now heard four levels of stress and I had built my scansion system to include one more scansion symbol. My poet’s ears were really coming alive. Hearing the sounds wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to know why it happened and how I could do it. While figuring it out, I reread Swinburne’s poem “Sapphics.” I liked the way the poem moved, but I didn’t know why it was called Sapphics. At the time, I had a little 4 ½” x 3 ¼” inch Collins Gem Latin Dictionary. (I still have it.) In it, in the prefatory materials, there is a seven-page “Metres” section about Latin meters and poetic forms. One of those was called “Sapphics,” after the poetic form Sappho used, which may have been created by Alcaeus of Mytilen (Sappho’s contemporary). But when the dictionary laid out the meter and format of the poem and gave a brief description of it, it didn’t use stressed and unstressed syllables. It used long and short syllables to represent the three hendecasyllabic lines (or “lesser Sapphics”) and the one adonic. I then remembered Pound mentioning “syllables long and short.” I realized some syllables have a longer pronunciation duration than other syllables. For instance, the “e” in the word “he” is longer than the “e” in the word “the.” I listened to that opening line again.

Before the Beginning of Years - Quantitative

The “–” below the line indicates a long syllable and the “u” below the line indicates a short syllable. My scansion system continued to grow as did my scansion markings as did my poet’s ears. The quantitative scansion system, I would later realize, is also relational, but the relationship has a wider scale. It works mainly with the whole line rather than what is nearby, as in qualitative scansion.

At this point you may be asking, “Why is the ‘Be’ in ‘Before’ longer than the ‘be’ in ‘beginning’?” That’s a good question. Outside of this poem, or if “before” and “beginning” are spoken as independent words, both “be”s would be the same length. In this opening line, however, I hear the “e” in “Be” in “Before” as a long “e.” It is as if the poem begins with a running start or as if the speaker is tuning his/her voice with the commencement of the poem. It might also be because of that initial expulsion of air. Nonetheless, pronouncing it as a short “e,” as in “beginning,” just doesn’t sound right. It’s seems out of key and out of tone, especially with the mood of the poem. One could argue that it is in fact a short syllable, and that is fine, as scansions can be debated. However, I heard and still hear it as a long syllable. The more important observation is the long syllable “years.”

I’m sure Swinburne was aware of long and short syllables, but he didn’t seem to consciously implement them. Even in his poem “Sapphics,” he translates the Greek quantitative meter into an Anglo qualitative meter. Pound will later write at least two Sapphic poems (“Apparuit” and “The Return,” though he disguises the form) where he plays quantitative meter against qualitative meter, and even later on, James Wright will Americanize Sapphics in “Erinna to Sappho,” using three iambic tetrameter lines and an iambic dimeter line. That, however, is another lesson. Back to Swinburne. No matter what Swinburne’s intentions were or were not, “years” is long and stressed. I thought this is how he made the syllable have more stress than a typically stressed syllable. I would later learn that a long syllable, and sometimes just a long vowel, can not only make a stressed syllable more stressed, but it can add stress to an unstressed syllable. In the opening to the chorus, the length of the syllable may also contribute to “Be” in “Before” being a semi-stressed word.

So what I had learned so far and practiced in writing by way of Swinburne? While there are stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry and they can be used as a backbeat to build a poem on, there’s more nuance to those syllables. There are at least four levels of stresses and they can be impacted by the length of the syllable. I learned that I can play stress and length off each other to create certain auditory effects. I would later learn that there’s even a fifth stress. It is more stressed than the strong stress I represented with an “x” in the above scansion. I picked this up from Robert Duncan, who somewhere wrote something like, “in each poem, there is one syllable that is more stressed than all the other syllables.” I found and find this to be often true. Though sometimes there are two syllables that are more stressed than all of the other syllables and sometimes there aren’t any outstandingly stressed syllables. I also learned that stresses are relational as well as the length of the syllable being relational. In addition, this chorus from Swinburne also aided me in realizing that rhythms can rise and fall, rhythms have their effects and can be used to create effects to please a listener’s ear and “delight the expert,” and they can also be used to affect meanings.

Writing in quantitative meters in English, however, is more a difficult endeavor and much more complicated than the four levels of stress. In the Romance languages, as I understand it, the lengths are more certain, just like our Anglo-American stresses. In Anglo-American, however, there are so many variable lengths of syllables it’s too difficult to scan effectively, but knowing when to use a long or short syllable is still useful in composing a music that “will delight the expert.” Further complications in quantitative syllables are compounded with schwas and diphthongs. How many syllables are in a diphthong? For instance, is “fire” one or two syllables? Or is it even more syllables as Robert Pinsky once pointed out when he was in the south and saw a woman running from her burning house yelling “fire” as a five-syllable word. This also became a learned lesson: context can dictate how a syllable is pronounced.

Additionally, after figuring out how a long syllable became a long syllable, which often occurs with a long vowel sound, I learned that vowels, especially long vowels, carry emotions. I thought the long vowel’s emotional effect had to do with duration and pitch. I learned some of this from Robert Bly, who I had thought had a tin ear, but would later realize he was using long vowels to create tones, which was his music. In “Educating the Rider and the Horse,” he briefly discusses it effects:

[The third type of sound a poem with a “wild animal” form is] the conscious intensity – not sequence – of pitches. Syllables that rose high, very high, in the Old Norse line the poets called “lifters.” We can hear them in Beowulf. Sometimes the lifters resemble the peak of a roof, sometimes the dragon prow of a Viking ship that rises and falls. Sounds pronounced naturally in the roof of the mouth, such as “ee,” drive the sound up; conviction drives it up; the beat as it arrives helps drive it up. This is mysterious, unquantifiable. (294)

Allen Ginsberg would do something similar as Bly, but his music came from the ups and downs of pitch. His poems, the lines in his poems (at least the ones I liked and read and studied) would often rise and fall in pitch. Bly would rely on a field of pitch (or a small range of pitches) for tonal effect, whereas Ginsberg would rely on mountains and valleys of pitch for movement and for physical effects. I eventually made up a hypothesis that in poetry the vowels in a word carry the emotions and the consonants carry the meaning, which I think is even more true the further back in English poetry history one listens.

During the 1990s, as mentioned, pretty much all I did was to write in as many meters (quantitative and qualitative) and forms as I could find, including free verse and projective verse. Olson’s “Projective Verse” essay was a major influence on how I wrote poetry. It taught me about breath and breathing, and informed, as a result, though indirectly, my understanding of long and short syllables. I would quote some of the poems I wrote, but I burned them all (all two boxes of them) in a bonfire fifteen years ago on July 3, 1999. It might be for the better because I couldn’t master aligning sound and sense, and to quote them would be embarrassing. Nonetheless, I could write meters very easily. And I could write a line or two that were clear, but writing a whole poem, especially with the complications I added (which I will note below), was more difficult than I could expect it to be. The poems I wrote had intricate meters and sounds, but the meaning of the poems were held together only in my head. They wouldn’t make much sense to other readers. Or the poems would be too abstract. Meters, I discovered, lend themselves to polysyllabic abstract words. At least that is true for me and even Swinburne. Swinburne in his later years fell into polysyllabic music, too. Still I kept at writing in meters and forms. I even tried to train myself to speak in sonnets, but I drift off topic.

Swinburne was not only an inspiration, but he also became a testing ground. If I discovered something in another poem, I would test it out in his poems, as I briefly illustrated above. I would also test it out in my own writings. I began with writing syllabics and used Swinburne’s poem “Syllabics” as a guide, as well as other poets. Once I got syllabics down, I moved on to iambs and then trochees and then to forms with those meters. Then I returned to syllabics and tried to incorporate other musically devices into it, like assonance, alliteration, and consonance. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Campion, Wallace Stevens, and Linda Bierds were vital in this musical development to “delight the expert.” Having figured out how to make those sounds, I then tried laying those sounds on top of iambs, and then atop other meters, and then into forms. This process restarted again with syllabics and then trying to incorporate etymologies into syllabic poems. I learned how to do this from Hopkins and Wallace Stevens. For instance, in one of Hopkins sonnets (I think it is the one that begins “Thou are indeed just, Lord, if I contend”), most of the words in the poem have etymological roots in feudal law, especially concerning lord and vassals, which I learned after half an afternoon with a dictionary in the Paddy Hill Library in Greece, NY. The poem was rooted by way of etymologies. Stevens did something similar, at times, especially with “Crispin” and “clipped” in “The Comedian as the Letter C.” I would even invent a school of poetry called “Skeatsism,” based on Rev. Walter W. Skeat’s An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language and my findings with Hopkins and Stevens. My writing/discovery process continued with the iambs, other meters, forms, and harmonies, etc. Swinburne was then also a motivator to go learn more. While Swinburne can teach a lot, he can’t teach everything, like long and short syllables, the emotions of vowels, and etymological rotisserie. Still there is one last lesson he had for me.

Besides not being able to write successful poems in meter and form, I also couldn’t master what call the ghost syllable. A ghost syllable is a syllable that has no representation in words or sounds. It is a syllable that is felt. It is a syllable that lingers like a ghost lingers after someone passes away. For example, I will return to the Swinburne chorus I’ve been writing about. Here are the opening four lines again, with scansion:

First Four Lines - Simple Scan

You can see and hear how Swinburne varies the rising rhythms in lines 3 and 4. If you listen even closer, you will hear two extra beats at the end of each those four lines. So it can be represented like this:

First Four Lines - Ghost Syllables

Those two extra stresses (“/   /”) at the end of each line are what I refer to as ghost syllables, and they move the poem forward. They create an extra tension between what is heard and unheard. They extend the line. I thought perhaps I might be hearing things. However, once in 2002 or 2003, I gave a poetry reading to a very receptive audience. Not too far into my reading of this chorus by Swinburne, the audience started supplying those ghosts beats at the ends of the lines by stomping their feet and slapping their tables. They picked up on the ghost syllable, and validated my reading. This effect is magical. Later on, I purchased The Fugs: The Fugs First Album. (The Fugs were an avant-garde rock band, and poets Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg are the most known members.) They did a musical rendition of the same chorus and called it the “Swinburne Stomp.” They heard and included the ghost beat, too. (Their rendition of the song has also influenced my reading of the poem, which is now more dramatic, especially at the end.) To this day, I still do not know how the ghost syllables work or how to do it. I wish I did, but I don’t. This among many things is what makes Swinburne a metrical genius from whom I learned so much about the music of poetry. Those two ghost syllables, the “Be” in “Before,” and “years” were the four syllables that affected me the most.

As a result, Swinburne prepared me for listening and listening with intent. He taught me prosody and how to talk about it. He prepared me for Gerard Manley Hopkins, especially “The Windhover,” which was another influential poem to my ears, as well as Edmund Spenser’s “One Day I Wrote Her Name Upon the Stand” (which maybe a perfect sonnet), and it prepared me John Donne’s Holy Sonnet #10, “Death, be not proud, though some have callèd thee.” It prepared me in such a way that I preferred to write musical poems over poems that made sense. That is, I became so obsessed in writing music to “delight the expert” that I forgot about everyone else, which means I forgot about clarity. The reader needs clarity. Writing poems with clarity would take me a whole other decade with W. S. Merwin to accomplish.




Works Cited

Bly, Robert. “Educating the Rider and the Horse.” American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity. New York: Harper & Row Publishers: 1990. 289-96. Print.

Donne, John. “Holy Sonnet 10.” The Norton Anthology of English Language: Volume 1. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. 1099. Print.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “Thou are indeed just, Lord, if I contend.” Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. 67. Print.

Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect.” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions: 1968. 3-14. Print.

—. “Swinburne and His Biographers.” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions: 1968. 290-294. Print.

Spenser, Edmund. “Sonnet 75.” The Norton Anthology of English Language: Volume 1. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. 770. Print.

Swinburne, Algernon Charles. Atalanta in Calydon. Major Poems and Selected Prose. Eds. Jerome McCann and Charles L. Sligh. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 3-67. Print.





– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u u  – u


u = short syllable. – =long syllable.

The first three lines are the hendecasyllabic lines, or “lesser Sapphics.” The fourth and eleventh syllables are open syllables. Originally they were long, but now are variable.

The adonic is the fourth line.

A Sapphic poem usually consists of a number of these formally structured stanzas.




To download a PDF of this essay, click Four Syllables.



On John Berryman’s Syntax and Music and Other Observations

For my poetry workshop class at The University of Southern Mississippi with Rebecca Morgan Frank, one of the assignments was to read the collected poems of a poet. I chose John Berryman. At the end of the semester, we’re expected to write a 3-4 paper about our experiences with the collected poems. I, however, decided to also takes notes as I read so I’d remember things to to say. Below are 50+ double-spaced pages of notes. The notes are either something resembling an initial draft to essays or just long notes for potential essays. Hopefully, I will develop some of these notes into larger essays or perhaps they will make you look at/listen to Berryman in new ways. Perhaps, you will expand on one of my observations or disagree with what I have said. In the end, I just want to keep the Berryman discussion progressing.

I tried to write about what I observed in the poems, but, occasionally, I referenced other sources, which are noted. My not referencing other sources was not done out of arrogance, but rather to have my own intimate experience with Berryman. Plus, I thought it closer to the intent of the assignment.

In addition, all the Berryman books I refer to appear in The Collected Poems: 1937-1971, edited by Charles Thornbury, except for the Dream Songs, which appear in The Dream Songs. All other sources are noted as they appear and in the Works Cited section.


John Berryman – Collected Poems 1937-1971    John Berryman – Dream Songs

I am choosing John Berryman: Collected Poems 1937-1971 and John Berryman’s Dream Songs as the poet to focus on for a few reasons. One, I have both books on my shelves. Two, I want a poet who writes in meter. At this time, I don’t know if he always wrote in meter, but I know he did often enough. I wanted to hear his meters because it’s not often I hear metrical poetry anymore, and this semester I want to explore the musical measure of the line. (I want to explore the possibility that iambic pentameter is really iambic tetrameter. Instead of five feet, there are four bars of stress laid on top of a back beat of iambic pentameter.) And I wanted someone who writes from the personal, as I think he does often enough. I want to learn how to do that because it’s a very rare occasion to find me in my poems and want to be able to put me in. Fourth, I want to refamiliarize myself with his poetry of which I haven’t read enough of. Fifth, my favorite poem is “Berryman” by W. S. Merwin (though “Berryman” isn’t my favorite Merwin poem), and so I want to get an even deeper appreciation of that poem. These are the main reasons.

– Wednesday, January 16, 2013.


John Berryman – The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed [1948]

It’s good to know that Berryman order the poems in his books pretty much in the chronological order in which he wrote poems because I will be able to clearly see his growth. The opening poems in The Dispossessed move forward on syllabics and often on a four-beat measure, the grammar/syntax of the poems is fairly straight, and the image has balance between the concrete and abstract. That continues until section one’s penultimate poem, “The Ball Poem.” In this poem there is a lot syntactical variation, which I expect to see a lot more of as I travel through Berryman’s years of poems. Some variation is simple but effective, such as “As he stands rigid, trembling staring down / All his young days into the harbour.” Here “staring down” works in two ways: the boy is down to where his ball is, and the boy is staring down his history. We’ll see a more effective use of this with the word “Right” in “The Moon and the Night and the Man.” Other variations in “The Ball Poem” include: “I would not intrude on him, / A dime, another ball, is worthless” or the use of the unrestrictive phrase in “He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes, / The epistemology of loss [. . .].” This may not seem a grand variation, but it’s the first or one of the first variations of its kind in poems where the poems move forward with interruption, pause, or nonrestrictive phrases. I think “The Ball Poem” will end up being a pivotal poem to which other poems will be compared.

Later in the section, Berryman gets involved in the repetition of words. For instance, in “Farewell to Miles,” in the first stanza, he repeats “therefore” three times in lines 2-4, “man” three times in lines “1-4,” and “hard” three times in lines 6-8. This creates a cadence on top of the rhythm on top of the meter. There are three beats going on as a result. In addition, it creates the feeling of expectation and the feeling of loss. We expect to hear the word again and we do, and then we don’t. The expectation is lost. But then a new word arises. The beat is hope to loss. (A down beat of sorts.) Later in section three is the line break/syntax pivot effect of “Right” that I mentioned above: “A stupid well-intentioned man turned sharp / Right and abruptly he became an angel.” “Right” concludes the previous action turn sharp right, and begins the next action of “Right and abruptly he became an angel.” That is a very effective first word. Again, not a great invention, but for him at this stage in his poetry it is.

Section four’s opening poem is “Cantor Amor,” and it’s a wild crazy poem that’s a love poem and ars poetica among other things. Here, Berryman’s syntactical/stylistic variations arise again to more effect and are more complicated. Stanza two has some interesting but simple variations in the parenthetical in its first line (which is rare for Berryman so far) and then the simple inversion of “bless” and “You” in the stanza’s last line: “If (Unknown Majesty) I not confess / praise for the wrack the rock the live sailor / under the blue sea, – yet I may You bless.” Typically, the “You” would come last.  In the second line, he doesn’t use punctuation in the list “the wrack the rock the live sailor.”  I think the end of the K sound causes a natural pause, though brief, that it can act as a comma. Then hear how much emphasis gets laid on “live” as a result.  It’s a long and hard syllable. Merwin wrote a letter to me telling me he doesn’t use punctuation because “the mind doesn’t think in punctuation.” I don’t think that’s why Berryman is doing this, but it’s a new effect for him, but an effect I’ve worked with for years. I may not think in punctuation either, but my poems think better with punctuation. Also notice in this poem how for the first time in this collection of poems, the first letter of each line is not capitalized unless it begins a sentence. This poem like “The Ball Poem” may be another important that other of Berryman’s poem will end up talking to and evolving from.

But later is where the interesting stylistic variations occur.

   […] Also above her face
   serious or flushed, swayed her fire-gold
   not earthly hair, now moonless to unlace,

   resistless flame, now in a sun more cold
   great shells to whorl about each secret ear,
   mysterious histories, white shores, unfold.

   New musics! One the music that we hear,
   this is the music which the masters make
   out of their minds, profound solemn & clear.

   And then the other music, in whose sake
   all men perceive a gladness but we are drawn
   less for that joy than utterly to take

   our trial, naked in the music’s vision,
   the flowing ceremony of trouble and light,
   all Loves becoming, none to flag upon.

There’s a lot going on in those lines. First, from the bigger view, there are four sentences in these excerpted five stanzas. The first two stanzas each contain one, long complicated sentence. This provides an effect on the third stanza, which has two sentences. These short sentences want to emphasize the simplicity of the masters’ music. But like a master there are some subtle complications going on. For instance, the second sentence beginning “One the music …,” should actually be two sentences. The comma after “hear” should be a period. The comma plus the line break add up to a period, at least to the ear. It does not sound incorrect. It flows. It’s simple. It doesn’t interrupt. At the end of the stanza, is a list with no commas as occurred in stanza 2. In this case, one action flows into the next. “Profound solemn & clear” are not separate actions but three that work as one. So simplicity has subtle complications in it that work simply surrounded by more complicated sentences that emphasize the simplicity in the middle stanza. Also, there a lot of commas. More and more commas appear as I read Berryman. He’s using them to vary his language and his music. Between the commas is information that adds to the description as well. It becomes an accumulative force in language. I’m not quite sure how to hear it yet. That is, I’m not quite sure the musical effect.

A few poems later in “A Professor’s Song,” however, I can hear Berryman finally writing from his ear. He’s not counting syllables or stresses in this poem. He following sound like Jimi Hendrix follows sounds on his guitar. The poem opens interestingly, too, but I’m not sure why or how it is working. The first line is “(. . rabid or dog-dull.) Let me tell you how”. Berryman has been using the two periods with space in between as an ellipsis but I wonder if it is also a musical device like W. C. Williams later does.

In section five’s opening poem, “Rock-Study with Wanderer,” Berryman abandons the period at a sentence’s end in favor of a triple space, except for the two occurrences of the period-space-period ellipsis. This triple space, I think, also anticipates Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse.” So far Berryman has anticipated two future poetic devises – Projective Verse and the musical notation in Williams later poems. But in this poem the space-in-place-of-a-period creates a few effects. First, it affects how we read it and breathe the poem. It also acts like a line break as the pause seems as pronounced as a line break, but also because sometimes we don’t know if a sentence continues or begins. For instance in stanza two:

   The music & the lights did not go out
   Alas    Our foreign officers are gay
   Singers in the faery cities shiver & play
   Their exile dances through unrationed thought

“Our foreign offices are gay” acts as an independent sentence where “gay” is an object of are. “Singers in the faery cities shiver & play” also acts as an independent sentence. However, the two could be combined into one long sentence where “gay” would become a modifier for “Singers.” I think what makes this work is the lack of periods, the line break, and the capital letter at the beginning of the line. A better example is the penultimate stanza:

   Draw draw the curtain on a little life
   A filth a fairing    Wood is darkening
   Where birdcall hovered now I hear no thing
   I hours since came from my love my wife

“Wood is darkening” could be its own sentence as could be “Where birdcall hovered now I hear no thing,” or it could be one long sentence. In the end, all three coexist simultaneously. He’s already built on the double line-break meanings in “staring down” in “The Ball Poem” and in “Right” in “The Moon and the Night and the Man.” It’s simple in delivery and complicated in effect.

A little later in “The Long Home” he uses triple space again but not as a period but as a pause, a place to breathe, such as “He   is going where I come.” When there’s a breath pause like that and like at the beginning of a poem, it’s difficult for the word at the other end of the pause not to pick up a little more emphasis. Without the space, “is” is unstressed. With the space, “is” picks up a little stress because in the pause the breath is held and on pronouncing the “is” there’s an initial exhale which is slightly stronger than if there had not been the pause. So the “is” gains a little emphasis from the breath. And in this case, we get an etymological pun because “is” as Olson points out in “Projective Verse”: “comes from the Aryan root, as, to breathe” (18).

– Wednesday, January 16, 2013.


John Berryman – Sonnets to Chris

Sonnets to Chris [1947, 1966]

Early into these sonnets, I notice Berryman doing three things: he’s trying to create rhythms that play against the iambic pentameter, he’s really straining syntax a lot, and a lot of that straining and music playing comes from the caesuras that are in the majority of lines. Through the first six sonnets I believe he’s taking Pound’s dictum, “Don’t sacrifice sound for sense.” Berryman has taken this to an extreme of sorts. He has good sounds and when he counters the iamb it’s to good effect, but sometimes he mangles the syntax to make a sound. It’s hard to quite know what he’s up to in meaning making. I’m not sure if I even catch a tonal meaning. Actually, Berryman so far seems atonal. But then we get to Sonnet 7. Here are the first three lines:

   I’ve found out why, that day, that suicide
   From the Empire State falling on someone’s car 
   Troubled you so; and why we quarrelled. War,

The third line is very effective. The first syllable because of the meter should be unstressed but here it is stressed with “Troub” in “troubled.” By breaking the meter, he introduces a musical tension which underscores “Troubled.” The next stressed syllable is “why.” One might want “so” to be stressed, and it is a little (a semi-stress (more on this throughout)), but relationally, it’s not as stressed as “Troub,” “why,” “quar,” or “War.” The line begins and ends on a stress. Three of the stressed syllable (or morphemes) suggest tension of some sort and are closely associated, at least to me: “Trouble,” “quarrel,” and “War.” Those three word all imply some sort of conflict. Notice how “quarrelled” slant rhymes with “War” (“quar” and “war”) and slant rhymes with “Troubled” (“ed” and “ed”). That’s a strong line. The line also has two caesuras, as does line one. Line one jerks forward. The line flows uninterrupted like a man falling from a building. There’s an impact when the faller hits the car and there is also a stress on “car.” The sentence and rhythm stop. The sentence then continues on the line with an altered rhythm that will correct itself. The syntactical arrangement of the first line has a parallels with the last line: “Did you bolt so, before it caught, our fire?” The last line is not as herky jerky as the first, but it has three spread out caesuras and the long I in “fire” recalls/rhymes with the long I “suicide” from line 1, as well as “cried” in line 4, “wide” in 5, “side” in 8, and “desire” in 11. But because of the way the line is carved out, the similar arrangements of line 1 and 14 make their rhymes more enhanced or louder to my ear. Line 5 also has three caesuras, but it ends on a spondee.

The more I read, the more I hear a longer rhythm from these caesuras or the stress that comes after. It’s almost like there’s a time unit before a caesura is entered. For instance, it’s like’s he hearing a pause everything 2 or 3 seconds, and when that moment arrives, it’s time for a pause. The pause is sometimes skipped over but it picks up again. I’m not sure if that is the correct duration, but it feels/sounds like there’s a duration between the pauses and sometimes it forces itself in, such as the beginning of Sonnet 13: “I lift – lift you five States “away” your glass.” I hear a pause after the first “lift” (as you would expect), and after away. I’m not sure if I hear a pause because of the long distant rhythm or because of syntax and grammar. “I” is the subject, “lift” is the verb, and “your glass” is the object. It could be better understood as: “From five States away, I lift your glass,” or something similar. And in fact, if we look at the larger part of the poem, listen to what happens:

   I lift – lift you five States away your glass,
   Wide of this bar you never graced, where none
   Ever I know came, where what work is done
   Even by these men I know not, where a brass
   Police-car sign peers in, wet strange cars pass,
   Soiled hangs the rag of day out over this town,
   A juke-box brains air where I drink alone,
   The spruce barkeep sports a toupee alas –

   My glass I lift at six o’clock, my darling,
   As you plotted . . Chinese couples shift in bed,
   We shared today not even filthy weather,
   Beasts in the hills their tigerish love are snarling,
   Suddenly they clash, I blow my short ash red,
   Grey eyes light! and we have our drink together.

Notice where the em dashes lay. The sentence is really, “I lift my glass.” And then there’s the pause after “My glass.” It’s all tangled up. It could be: “I lift my glass at six o’clock.” But the “I lift at six o’clock” parallels “lift you five States away,” and both phrases are followed by a pause before the line’s last two syllables. This poem is about their places in environments and toasting. The first stanza is about what immediately surrounds him and the second stanza is what surrounds them both on large scale, what surrounds them in the world. Really, the poem’s main sentence is something like: “I lift your glass, I lift my glass, and we have our drink together.” The main parts of the poem are about him or them and the rest is what is going on around him or them. What an interesting strategy.

As I continue to read these poems aloud, I feel like Ezra Pound. There’s a vibration in my throat and a determinacy in the pace. I feel like I should have a baton to conduct the notes. The sonnets stop hard like a Yeats poem. Often a poem will have a crescendo or decrescendo, especially in the last few syllables, but these poems don’t. They just keep on in the same, flat, straight, vibrating tone. The sonnets end hard with certainty. They stop. I expect more for a moment. But it stops. My throats continues to vibrate. When it stops, so does the poem. There’s almost a sophisticated British affectation to the aloud reading, at least that’s how I’ve translated when I read them. Rather, the sonnets translated my readings. Something un-American is going in the tone to say the least.

The following two lines (lines 5-6 from sonnet 47) really sum up what Berryman is up to:

   Double I sing, I must, you utraquist,
   Crumpling a syntax at a sudden need

“Utraquist” (yoo truh kwist), a Latin word,  means “each of two” or “equivalent,” according to Music and syntax are each of two and equivalent, but sometimes the syntax has to be altered to suit the musical needs.

I’ve tried to capture his rhythm and crumpling syntax in a sonnet I wrote titled “Measure in Time 5.1”.

– Wednesday, January 23, 2013


John Berryman – Homage to Mistress Bradstreet
Homage to Mistress Bradstreet [1953]

            A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The above quote is the Second Amendment to the Constitution. It’s filled with crumpling syntax. It’s so crumpled that no one can rightly say what that sentence is intending to say. What is modifying what? What is the subject or subjects of the sentence? The predicate is certain: “shall not be infringed,” but the rest is uncertain. This type of crumpling also occurs in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. The Second Amendment’s confusion may have arisen because multiple people were involved in writing it, but for Berryman, only one person is writing and the crumpling syntax is a choice. But what is the effect of this?

In stanza 3, there’s an interesting effect in how it opens with two passive sentences and then two active sentences.

   thy eyes look to me mild. Out of maize & air
   your body’s made, and moves. I summon, see,
   from the centuries it.
   I think you won’t stay.

Here, things are coming to order. The fourth sentence is clear and direct. The first two sentences are clear but passive. The third sentence is active, but a bit difficult to follow. It’s like my ear wants to hear: “From the centuries, I summon and see it.” It wants balance with the anticipation of how sentence two appears to start with a prepositional phrase. By the end of sentence of two we realize “Out of maize & air” is the object of the sentence and not the prepositional phrase we expect.

Then there are poems like stanza 31:

   – It is Spring’s New England. Pussy willows wedge
   up in the wet. Milky crestings, fringed
   yellow, in heaven, eyed
   by the melting hand-in-hand or mere
   desirers single, heavy-footed, rapt,
   make surge poor human hearts. Venus is trapt –
   the hefty pike shifts, sheer –
   in Orion blazing. Warblings, odours, nudge to an edge –

I like the opening. It’s not the ordinary: “It is Spring in New England.” The apostrophe es makes Spring possessive and, to my mind, causal. I read it almost like this is the effects of Spring in or on New England. The next sentence is straightforward. The third, sentence, starts to read like the Second Amendment. By the time I get to “in heaven” or just after, I’m not sure what is a modifier and what is a predicate. I’m not sure what is happening. I move along through the images, but confusingly. I can hold together “fringed in yellow” and “in heaven” and “eyed” may be the predicate to “Milky crestings,” but are the “Milky crestings” in heaven or are they fringed yellow there. Are the Milky crestings like yellow-fringed, fallen angels or are they still in heaven? And what follows is even more confusing: “by the melting hand-in-hand.” What is melting? Actually, what are milky crestings? Can they melt?

I don’t think the crumpling syntax is sign of a weak writer trying to rhyme, either. Berryman was doing these things in earlier poems. The structure of the poems does recall Gerard Manley Hopkins “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” though the rhyme scheme is a bit different. There are even some places where he sounds Hopkinesque:


   faintings black, rigour, chilling, brown
   parching, back, brain burning, the grey pocks
   itch, a manic stench
   of pustules snapping, pain floods the palm,
   sleepless, or a red shaft with a dreadful start
   rides at the chapel, like a slipping heart.
   My soul strains in one qualm
   ah but this is not to save me but to throw me down.

Listen to all those gerunds accumulating momentum and cadence and that are draped with the multiple harmonies from the many consonant sounds. Even the tone is Hopkinsesque. This could have been written by Hopkins. That’s one thing I’ve notice about Berryman so far, he likes to use consonants as a harmonic device more often than vowels. He likes hard consonants more than long vowels. He must have terrific headaches.

And then I wonder if Berryman is trying to mimic a Puritanical grammar, an Anne Bradstreet grammar. Is he trying to recreate the confusion of the times?

I’m going to leave this book alone for a while, and see what he does next. I assume he is building to something larger, something closer to the way he mind works or perceives or thinks or aches.

– Monday, January 28, 2013


John Berryman – His Thoughts Made Pockets & The Plane Buckt

from His Thoughts Made Pockets & The Plane Buckt (1958)

            According to John Thompson in “Poetry Chronicle,” “His Thought Made Pockets & The Plane Buckt is a pamphlet containing twelve poems printed in funny type on hand made paper toweling” (108). However, the whole book His Thoughts Made Pockets & The Plane Buckt is not in this collection. “The Black Book” I, II, and III are excerpted. I assume editor Charles Thornbury has chosen a selection that is representative enough of this book. I wonder why he didn’t include the whole book? Anyway, let’s look and listen to what we Thornbury gave us.

The book opens with a six-line poem epigraph. Lines 2 and 3 rhyme and lines 4 and 6 rhyme. Already, Berryman is inverting expected word orders: “Careful Henry nothing said aloud,” where we would expect “Careful Henry said nothing aloud.” Berryman also uses variant spellings for word, such as “de” for “the,” “dropt” for “dropped” (which is something Robert Duncan does quite often because that “ed” does sound like a T (I wonder who came to it first?)), “buckt” for I don’t know what (maybe “bucked”?), “Parm me” for “Pardon me,” and “Orright” for, I assume, “Alright.” So I can see/hear that I’m going to be involved in some syntactical play, perhaps something that is mimic a colloquial speech pattern, which I assume from those variant spellings which may be suggestion regional diction. Thompson says:

These minor oddities are becoming to Berryman’s small, surface crankinesses, his ampersands and his spelling: & The Plane Buckt. Beneath these, there is a deep and stubborn individuality. Berryman’s style in most of these short poems is something like that of his Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, harsh, wry, broken, a speech that seems all fragments or symbolist dissociation, but in the end coheres strongly. (108)

(The poem that opens the book later becomes the second stanza to Dream Song 5.)

Having now read “His Thought Made Pockets & The Plane Buckt,” I have to disagree with Thompson. These poems are not like Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. The opening poems’ forms recall Homage, but that’s about as close as it comes for me. In reading this, I feel the epigraph is misplaced. I don’t get the connection between it and the poems. And the language of the poems is fairly straightforward, especially for Berryman. I don’t hear or see much experimenting going on here. He actually seems less involved in these poems than the previous books. He doesn’t seem as focused or as concentrated. It’s almost like regular syntax and/or filling the rhyme is leading him instead of he leading them. What’s new is “his ampersand and his spelling,” as Thompson noted, but spelling variants are few.

– Wednesday, February 06, 2013


Of Poetry and Power: Poems Occasioned by the Presidency and Death of John F. Kennedy
Formal Elegy [1964]

This is about a three-page poem of 10 sections. It appeared in the anthology Of Poetry and Power: Poems Occasioned by the Presidency and Death of John F. Kennedy. The tone of the first section is judgmental with hints of anger. There are some syntactical parallelisms: “A hurdle of water, and o these waters are cold”; “Murder on murder on murder, where I stagger, / whiten the good land where we have held out”; “& fear & crazed mercy”; and

   Ruby, with his mad claim
   he shot to spare the Lady’s testifying,
   probably is sincere.
   No doubt, in his still cell, his mind sits pure.

                                                                     [My bold]

The technique in the opening of section V is interesting:

   Some in their places are constrained to weep.
   Stunned, more, though.

The S sounds push this forward or hold these two lines together. The first line’s syntax is contorted a bit. It sounds like he’s bending the arrangement of words so he can get “weep” at the end so he can later rhyme it, which he does two lines later. It’s “in their places” where the awkwardness occurs. To what effect of even having those three words create? I think it adds to the rhythm. Those three words extend the line. If you read the line, “Some are constrained to sleep,” the line works fine, but the following line won’t. The following line (“Stunned, more, though”) needs the longer previous line in order to work. The second line can’t succeed with out the lengthier preceding line­. It’s like “in their places” locates the people who are weeping because of JFK’s assassination and it limits the number of weepers. Part of that limit comes as residue from “constrained.” It could almost be read, “A few people are only able to cry.” Because of that, “more” becomes successful. It plays off “some” and the limited few. The “Stunned, more, though” is a syntactical arrangement that mimics the stun. Weeping is long. It’s a process. Being stunned though is like fragmented or jarring or disconnected thoughts. “Stunned, more, though” reflects that with the comma and the three long, stressed monosyllabic words. There are more people who are stunned than weeping, and, in fact, the language maybe also be suggesting that those that are weeping are also stunned. I also wonder if “Stunned, more, though” is reflecting the gasping and the short phrases that accompany sobbing. On top of it all, it sounds right when it’s read. It’s not jarring, but it is new. It sounds like it just came out natural for Berryman. In fact, that line (“Stunned, more, though”) might be the most Berrymanesque line in this poem, or least as I am expecting it at this point.

– Wednesday, February 06, 2013


John Berryman – Dream Songs

Dream Songs (1964, 1968)

John Berryman – 77 Dream Songs

            77 Dream Songs was released in 1965, and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest was released in 1968 and concludes The Dream Songs. There are 385 Dream Songs in total, so I plan to read about 77 per week. I’m not sure if this an aggressive pace with everything else I have to do, but I’ll see what happens. I’ll read:

  • Sections I-III (Dream Songs 1-77)
  • Sections IV-V (Dream Songs 78-145)
  • Dream Songs 146-223
  • Dream Songs 224-278 (146-278 make up section VI),
  • Section VII (Dream Songs 279-385)

Dream Song 1 starts with a solid trochaic rhythm with the extra stress (catalexis) at the end of the line, which is the same meter as the beginning of William Blake’s “The Tyger.” Knowing how Berryman works and plays so far, suggests that he is letting the reader know that this will be the back beat off which he play his rhythms because after that the rhythm varies. In stanza two there are four sentences. the first and last sentences have non-restrictive clauses. The first, “like a woolen lover,” is not set off by commas, while the second, “pried open for all the world to see,” is set off by commas. Both of those sentences also rhyme: “side,” “pried,” and “survived,” which suggests those sentences have some connection.

With the first non-restrictive clause, there is a natural caesura after “world” and preceding the non-restrictive clause, and there is an imposed one after the non-restrictive with the line break after “lover.” Berryman must have heard those pauses and omitted commas. He must have decided those notations (commas) weren’t needed for the poem’s musical score. I wonder if that is how/why he uses commas. For him, commas aren’t necessarily being used grammatically but as notations of where to pause or breathe. He often uses the stress mark over a syllable to indicate where he hears a stress where one might normally hear less than a stress, so perhaps he’s doing something similar with commas.

With the second non-restrictive clause, Berryman uses commas on either side. Here he must or else the reader would be confused as to how to read the sentence. This non-restrictive clause is also interesting because it pries open the sentence like Henry is being pried open. It pries apart Henry and his verb, “survived.”

In the second Dream Song, “Big Buttons, Cornets: the advance,” the speech becomes colloquial or imitating an uneducated speaker. The first sentence comes across in standard diction and grammar, but sentence two uses the incorrect verb tense: “Henry are baffled.” At this point, the reader must be thinking the speaker is uneducated or has split personalities, like Golem in Lord of the Rings. The next sentence has alternate spelling for “everybody” – “ev’ybody” – and the sentence starts in what I think is called a declarative, “Have ev’ybody head for Maine,” but on the line turn, it morphs into a question.

   [. . .] Have ev’body head for Maine,
   utility-man take a train.

Is “utility-man take a train?” a sentence fragment? I’m not sure how I’m supposed to read that. The rest of this poem continues to fall into a language of an uneducated, Southern speaker. Or maybe it’s just some bizarre dialect.

Here’s what Richard Ellman has to say about 77 Dream Songs:

The poem the, whatever its 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, and sometimes in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses himself as Mr. Bones and variants thereof. (911)

So the speaker does kind of have a split personality. As for Mr. Bones, in the same preface to the John Berryman section in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (second edition), Ellman notes, “Mr. Bones is name from the minstrel show circuit” (911).

So far I’ve notice that Berryman works with stressed syllables and he enjoys consonants more than long vowels. Then I read Dream Song 8, and I can hear that he also works on a quantitative level of rhythm, too, and in an interesting way. Here’s the first stanza (– = long, / = stressed, x=hard stress, u/=semi-stressed, u = short or unstressed, u– = middle length, and // = caesura):

Dream Song 8 scansion

What results is a tension in syllabic length on either side of the caesura. In line one, the first half is shorter in duration than the other side of the caesura. The length underscores the emotional tone of the content. The first side is ordinary weather talk and is mostly short. The long I in “fine” tries to bring in some emotion to the bland word. The second half of the line is more alive and interesting. It’s not ordinary and there are long syllables and four long vowels.

A similar thing occurs in line two, but not to the same extreme, but the spondee “backhand” lengthens those syllables and brings some action to that side of the line.

In line three, there are three long syllables corresponding with three stressed syllables. “[H]alved” is interesting word choice here, and I think it means they cut his hair. A pattern is also developing with “his,” which is short and unstressed in this first stanza. Line three also ends the sentence dramatically with long syllables, the halving, and the oddly colored hair. The V and its sound in “halved” also harmonizes with the V in line four’s “loves” and line five’s “voices.”

In line four, there are two caesuras. In the fist third, there are longer syllables than the other two thirds. The long syllables dramatize the action and “his loves.” The second third is all short syllables and undermines “his loves.” As I read it, “his interests” is more of a non-restrictive clause adding definition to “his loves.” So the line moves from excitement in action to boredom and more abstractions.

The point of this scansion is to point out the rolling motion Berryman creates which emphasizes the schizophrenic nature of the speaker. I picture the speaker sitting in bed and maybe tied up, and he’s swaying back and forth and talking to himself. On the lean forwards are the short-syllable measures, and the on the sway backs are the long-syllable measures. And in case we don’t hear it, Berryman gives a clue after the short (both line length and syllable length) line 15, when he says in line 16, “They flung long silent speeches. (Off the hook!)” Surely this character is in a mental-care hospital of sorts, but the care is more of a torture.

This motion then gets played again in Dream Song 14, “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.” This first half of line one, “Life, friends, is boring,” has three long syllable, and two of those are enhanced by the commas. The first half of the line is slow like ennui and has a low pitch. It’s a deep sound. The second half of the line is much quicker, despite it having more long vowel sounds than the first half. The pitch of the second half of the line is higher. The line slows and falls, then speeds up and rises. The next line is dominated with long syllables amid the dramatic if not clichéd imagery: “After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns.” The third line (“we ourselves flash and yearn”) has two halves to my ear, which puts a slight caesura after “ourselves.” The first half is quick and the second half is long. The juxtaposition of lengths dramatizes the ironic juxtaposition of “we ourselves” with “flash and yearn.” The irony is made more apparent because the mother says “Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no // Inner Resources.” It’s the admitting that you are bored that is indicative of lacking “Inner Resources,” whereas boredom more likely might come from lacking “Inner Resources.” Or maybe the boredom comes from having “Inner Resources” and with no place to put them or to use them. The speaker can’t even use his inner resources with people or literature or even great literature. He lacks enthusiasm that a mere dog has.

It should also be noted that the poem’s first three sentences are written in standard grammatical English. The first sentence is brief and definitive. The second sentence is a long compound sentence, but it doesn’t have any of the Berryman syntactical variations. The third sentence, too, lacks Berryman’s “crumpling syntax.” Then sentence four arrives, “Peoples bore me.” There’s a grammar slip, a dialect shift, an identity slip. It’s no longer “friends,” which suggests a close relationship (though in its irony it suggests distance) but it’s “Peoples,” and a distant relationship – a distant as far as he from the dog, and emphasizing how is absent from life.

I’m reading quite a number of these poems aloud. Aloud I read, and when I read, a rhythm I hear infectious to me. Those last sentences are play at mimicry. However, I have been reading aloud. When I do, I fall into his voice. I start with my voice and it takes a few lines, but then I fall into his voice, which is deeper than mine and which vibrates a lot in the throat. Berryman’s poems emanate from the Adam’s Apple. Ripples of vibrating consonants fill the throat and make it hum like some Hindu mantra repeated over and over without change in inflection. A drone. It’s like repeating the V in “have” or “over” over and over. The lips get their vibrations, too. I mentioned this earlier in Sonnets to Chris, and I forgot I mentioned it, but it’s still there, especially at a line’s end where it vibrates and extra beat or so. A good place to hear this is in Dream Song 66, among others. By analogy, you could think of the repetitious sounds in the movie Inception, and you’d have an idea of what I mean.

Dream Song 75 seems like reflection on the books, or book, he wrote. Henry wrote a book with the possibility of revealing himself and exposing himself. But “No harm resulted from this.” The great luminaries in writing (“Neither the menstruating     stars (nor man) was moved”) were not impressed, but the critics (“Bare dogs drew closed for a second look”) gave it some attention. Here, Berryman’s irony continues as “friendly operations” most likely means the dogs/critics pissed and shat on his writings. Nonetheless, it was receiving some attention so something good must be happening, else why would one respond to it. Without a response by the critics, surely means the book sucks. But I wonder if any of that matters. The lines “thing made by savage & thoughtful / surviving Henry / began to strike the passers from despair” implies that if Henry writes out his despair, he’ll impact his readers out of their despair. Exhilaration follows as he stands on the shoulders of his predecessors.

I just mentioned Inception, a movie about invading another person’s dreams and understanding the logic of the dreamer’s dreams. Once understood, the person’s dreams can be influenced to affect the dreamer in the dreaming and, most importantly, in the waking state. Berryman wrote The Dream Songs with similar understanding, I assume, else why call them dreams? The poems are hard to follow. They are difficult to make conscious sense of, but a sense is felt, at least a sense of movement. The poems are definitely not haphazardly put together, and neither is a dream. I think the jerkiness of the poems, the “crumpling syntax,” is a the distortion a dream can take. Dreams have their own language and syntax and so do these poems. Sometimes a poem is more clear and readily understood by the conscious mind than another poem, but the accumulation of poems, the overwhelmingness of them all leads to a larger understanding – Henry is in crazy despair with occasional bouts of joy, a “bark rejoiced.”

– Monday, February 11, 2013


John Berryman – His Toy, His Dream, His Rest His Toy, His Dream, His Rest

(Dream Songs 78-145)

The poems in The Dream Songs have a structure. There tends to be three six-lined stanzas. The stanza’s rhythmic structure often has five or four beats in lines 1, 2, 4, and 5, and lines 3 and 6 tend to have a three-beat measure. In addition to the rhythmical structure, there’s a movement structure, at times. The first stanza at times describes a personal or a Henry experience. The second stanza often goes beyond the personal or Henry and occasionally it is done metaphorically or with a metaphor or analogy or comparison of sorts. And the third stanza realizes the other world actually does exist even though the realization comes about in a disappointing manner. It’s as if the realization comes against the personal will or Henry’s will because neither want that other, non-personal world to exist. The realization only enhances his pain as he realizes his pain is more personal and less universal than he expects/wants/hopes/assumes. I plan to read the upcoming Dream Songs with that in mind as to prove or disprove this hypothesis.

Dream Song 79, “Op. post. no. 2,” provides a good example.

   Whence flew the litter whereon he was laid?
   Of what heroic stuff was warlock Henry made?
   and questions of that sort
   perplexed the bulging cosmos, O in short
   was sandalwood in good supply when he
   flared out of history

   & the obituary in The New York Times
   into the world of generosity
   creating the air where are
   & can be, only, heroes? Statues & rhymes
   signal his fiery Passage, a mountainous sea,
   the occlusion of a star:

   anything afterward, of high, lament,
   let too his giant faults appear, as sent
   together with his virtues down
   and let this day be his, throughout the town,
   region & cosmos, lest he freeze our blood
   with terrible returns.

The poem’s first stanza is involved with a personal Henry experience. It’s Henry-centric. In the second stanza, it leaps to an outside world via “The New York Times,” which ends the line with three stresses, and the metaphor(s) arises in the last three lines. In the third stanza, through the “high lament” is the disappointing realization of this outer world, and it’s moreso disappointing because “his giant faults appear.” His despair is unto himself and is not universal even though the final lines imply he wants it to go beyond himself:

   and let this day be his, throughout the town,
   region & cosmos, lest he freeze our blood
   with terrible returns.

Sometimes the order gets reversed, such as Dream Song 88, “Op. posth. no. 11”:

   In slack times visit I the violent dead
   and pick their awful brains. Most seem to feel
   nothing is secret more
   to my disdain I find, when we who fled
   cherish the knowings of both worlds, conceal
   more, beat on the floor,

   where Bhain is stagnant, dear of Henry’s friends,
   yellow with cancer, paper-thin, & bent
   even in hospital bed
   racked with high hope, on whom death lay hands
   in weeks, or Yeats in the London spring half-spent,
   only the grand gift in his head

   going for him, a seated ruin of a man
   courteous to a junior, like one of the boarders,
   or Dylan, with more to say
   now there’s no hurry, and we’re all a clan.
   You’d think off here one would be free from orders.
   I didn’t hear a single       word. I obeyed.

In this poem two outer worlds (the dead and “Most”) interact with his world, and he wants neither to exist. In fact, in this instance, both don’t want the third outer world of the dead to exist. He actually aligns himself with those others in “we.” The second world then recalls others, such as Bhain and Yeats, who is the metaphorical vehicle. And in the last stanza, especially, the last line, the poem turns to the personal/Henry experience: “I didn’t hear a single    word. I obeyed.”

It’s interesting to note that this string of poems is titled “Op. posth. no. #,” which is short for “Opus Posthumous Number #,” which implies a body of work after the author’s demise. Work left over that the author/musician didn’t complete/publish in his lifetime. Should the reader assume the poems are incomplete?

This latter installment of Dream Songs is much easier to follow. The syntax is much more normalized. I’m starting to miss the irregularities and inventions. I can often hear him trying to invent, but it’s only through the content which is trying to overcome linguistic invention. The invention of content is successful and to be applauded, but based on what preceded, despair is soon to follow. Dream Song 103 is a terrific poem, but the syntax is more regular:

   I consider a song will be a humming-bird
   swift, down-light, missile-metal-hard, & strange
   as the world of anti-matter
   where they are wondering: does time run backward –
   which the poet thought was true; Scarlatti-supple;
   but can Henry write it?

   Wreckt, in deep danger, he shook once his head,
   returning to meditation. And word had sped
   all from the farthest West
   that Henry was desired: can he get free
   of the hanging menace, & this all, and go?
   He doesn’t think so.

   Therefore he stakes and he will sing no more,
   much less a song as fast as said, as light,
   so deep, so flexing. He broods.
   He may, rehearsing, here of his bad year
   at the very end, in squalor, ill, outside.
   – Happy New Year, Mr Bones.

The second line is an example of content invention overcoming syntactical play, as is much of the poem.

– Tuesday, February 12, 2013


John Berryman – His Toy, His Dream, His Rest His Toy, His Dream, His Rest

(Dream Songs 146-223)

The language, syntax, and music are becoming very commonplace. For the most part, I hear him writing to fit a rhyme and to please his ear, or a meter he hears. There’s not much play musically, though. The rhythm and rhyme are generally predictable, unlike in his previous books. The syntax is very ordinary as is the language. This can be expected, I assume. How many poets can write in the same form for 385 poems without losing some imagination? I think even Berryman picks up on this. For instance, in Dream Song 175, he writes: “Blank prose took hold of Henry’s soul / considering all the deaths & considering. There is a little life upstairs.” The deaths he refers to are a number of poets who recently died – “First he [god] seized Ted, then Richard, Randall, and now Delmore. / In between he gorged on Sylvia Plath” (Dream Song 153). Ted I think is Theodore Roethke, I don’t know who Richard is, Randall is Randall Jarrell, and Delmore is Delmore Schwartz, who many of these early poems in section VI are about. Back to Dream Song 175. There are two things to notice in those quoted lines. One, the use of long vowels. Berryman, so far, has been a consonant man. His daring and crumpling come from his consonants, especially his use of plosive consonants which mirror his gashing comma use. Pound tells of to “pay attention to the tone leading of vowels.” Here, I think it’s especially important. Here I think Berryman is relying on the long vowels to create an emotional atmosphere, whereas before he would have done that through rhythm and syntactic variation. No matter the reason, he’s relying on vowels instead of consonants. The second thing to notice is the period at the end of the second quoted line, which is line 5 in the poem. Here it does try to evoke some syntactic creativity by ending on “considering” with the reader’s ear expecting an object for the verb, but one does not come. However, an earlier Berryman would have used the line break to his advantage. He most likely would have a put a comma there to act as a pivot to carry “considering” over to the next line that it could exist without an object on the line break and then pick up one on the line turn. He could have created two effects from the price of one line break. Or maybe he wouldn’t have even used a comma, but the daring here is less effective than a younger Berryman.

Berryman also realizes his lack of invention a few poems earlier in Dream Song 166, which opens: “I have strained everything except my ears, / he marveled to himself: and they’re too dull.” Then he concludes the poem “Only his ears sat with his theme / in the splices of his pride.” To a degree, this acknowledges what was just noted above: he’s writing by ear and sound. I do read “splices of his pride” as a play on words about his comma splices and other original uses of the comma, and the music has replaced that. If only the music were more interesting. It sounds too much a metronome, though not a metrical metronome, but a Berryman metronome, which was gone from wild to tame.

This is true up to Dream Song 175. Maybe those deaths really did affect him because by Dream Song 177, man, he’s blazing and continues to do so for the most part.

In Dream Song 194, I noticed something about his use of accent marks. Here is the first stanza:

   If all must hurt at once, let yet more hurt now,
   so I’ll be ready, Dr. God. Púsh on me.
   Give it to Henry harder.
   There lives content: one area, taking a bow,
   unbothered, whére I can’t remember, lovely,
   somewhere down there,

Berryman added accent marks over “Push” and “where.” He wanted them stressed, which I’ve noticed before, and which he probably borrowed from Hopkins. But if you read the lines without the accent marks, those words are already stressed. One could make a debate for “where” not being stressed, but only if the argument included over stressing the following “I.” Maybe, that’s Berryman letting us know to not read it like as I guess one could. Nonetheless, what I wanted to note and point out were the effects. When you draw attention to a stress like, whether Berryman wants to stress what is normally unstressed, to stress it even more, or to ensure the reader reads –the line correctly, one thing happens – there’s a pause. It’s so unnatural to pronounce what should be unstressed as stressed syllable or to add extra stress that the body, voice, mind has to stop. Maybe the stop occurs to readjust, but there’s a pause, a caesura, an unnatural caesura. The rhythm stops. In the case of “Push,” maybe he wants the reader to actually push when they read “Push,” and then in the pause the reader collects him/herself and pushes on to “on me.” Maybe Berryman is trying to orchestrate content and sound here. Or maybe he just likes creating unnatural pauses. Maybe he’s trying to crumple music like he crumples syntax. Hopkins, if I remember correctly, put accents over words that would be accented anyway. Maybe I’m on to something here. Maybe not. But there is a pause.

– Wednesday, February 20, 2013



John Berryman – His Toy, His Dream, His Rest His Toy, His Dream, His Rest

(Dream Songs 224-278)

For these following Dream Songs, I will look at the use of plosive consonants. Plosive consonants are consonants explode from the mouth after a blockage of air by the tongue against the teeth (dental or alveolar plosives), tongue against the soft part of the palate or against the back roof of the mouth (velar plosives), or by the lips (bilabial plosives). Dental plosives arrive with D and T, such as “dawn” and “time”; velar plosives arrive with G and K, such as “gaggle” and “ache”; and bilabial plosives arrive with B and P, such as “bed” and “pillow.” I know this is simplified, but it’s a starting point for what I want to listen to.

Dream Song 224 provides a good demonstration of this, especially in stanza 2:

   Dry, ripe with pain, busy with loss, let’s guess
   Gone. Gone them wine-meetings, gone green grasses
   of the picnics of rising youth.
   Gone all, slowly. Stately, not as the tongue
   worries the loose tooth, wits as strong as young,
   only the albino body failing.

As you can hear and feel in your mouth, there are an abundance of plosives in this stanza. In fact in stands in contrast to stanza one, which is dominated by non-plosive consonants at the beginning of words, such as approximants (“Lonely,” “leaned,” “living,” “friend,” “friend”), fricatives (“his,” “his,” “it’s,” “sang,” “thoughts,” “snow,” “sound,” “them,” and “though”), voiceless fricatives in “Henry” and “hymn.” There are some plosives at the beginning of words, such as “great,” “Abbey,” “Pound,” and “bowed,” but most plosive sounds arrive at the end of words, such as “friend,” “leaned,” “burning,” “hymned,” “living,” “rang,” “sound,” “Pound,” “bowed,” “hard,” “old,” “sang,” and “word.”

Here’s the first stanza:

   Lonely in his great age, Henry’s old friend
   leaned on his burning cane while hís old friend
   was hymned out of living.
   The Abbey rang with sound. Pound white as snow
   bowed to them with his thoughts – it’s hard to know them though
   for the old man sang no word

The more I listen to this poem the more complicated it becomes. There are a lot of interesting sounds. The first line has harmonies with L, long A, long O, G, en, and long E sounds. There are two spondees, which both come before a pause. The spondee pattern is repeated in the next line, too, except one spondee bridges a pause/caesura: “cane while.” In lines 3-5,the ow sound is harmonized four times (“out,” “sound,” “Pound,” and “bowed”), but the persistence of the O sounds continues in “snow,” “to,” “thoughts,” “to,” “know,” “though,” “old,” and “no.” Those are a variety of O sounds but they all arise from the O. This stanza relies on these longer vowels and shorter consonant sounds.

The second stanza relies on shorter vowels and longer consonant sounds. By longer consonant sounds is meant plosive sounds. Plosives, to my ear, lengthen a syllable. These two stanza work in opposite directions to the same end. The first stanza is slowed by the spondees, longer vowels, and plosives at the ends of words, and the last line of the stanza is brought to a crawl with the five stressed words, “old man sang no word.” The second stanza is slowed by the spondees, the plosives at the beginning of words, and the increased use of punctuation with commas and periods. There’s even a hint that Berryman is aware of the plosiveness of this stanza when he writes, “not as the tongue / worries the loose tooth.”

The title to this poem is “Eighty.” It’s one of the few Dream Songs with a title. I’m reading this poem now as a poem about Ezra Pound who would have been 80 around the time of this poem, and at this time rarely said a word; hence, “for the old man sang no word.” Maybe  Berryman is mimicking Pound’s growth of sounds from a younger Pound working with vowels to an older Pound working off consonants and spondees. The first stanza is filled with tone leading vowels, and the second is filled with alliterative plosives.

The fricatives then return alliteratively in the final stanza with “Where,” “what,” “white,” “while,” and “white,” here,” and “hue.” There are also a number of es sounds. It’s like this stanza is mellowing out in its old age. It’s almost like the last stanza is wheezing or whimpering in its old age.

Stanza one is passionate with its long vowels, the second stanza is more cerebral with consonant, and the last stanza is filled with wheezing old age.

As I proceed into Dream Songs, I’m not finding what I expected, which was a heavy reliance on plosives. What I am hearing, though, is a heavy use of consonants, in general, at least in relation to long vowels.  I’m also notice the intricate uses of consonant harmonies.

–        Wednesday, February 27, 2013


John Berryman – His Toy, His Dream, His Rest His Toy, His Dream, His Rest

(Dream Songs 279-285)

            I’m reading Berryman with a very stuffed up nose, which is like trying to drink wine with a very stuffed up nose – the experience is okay, but it’s not complete. I can’t hear the sounds correctly, and so the poems lose some energy and meaning.

The beginning of Dream Song 314 appears to be in passive in voice, at least lines 2-4:

   Penniless, ill, abroad, Henry lay skew
   to Henry’s American fate, which was to be well,
   have money in the bank
   & be at home.

However, the lines are not passive, but why not? Wouldn’t the sentiment be more effective, or is the intent to have “American fate” play an active role in Henry’s life? I think that is the intention. The opening could easily be: “Henry being penniless, ill, and abroad, Henry lay skew.” But if that is case Henry is an active participant in being penniless, ill, and abroad. He’s also active in changing the course of plans (“lay skew”). The American fate is acting on Henry, but not syntactically. Henry still does the acting. The choices he makes or the desires he wants are not of his choice, but the syntax makes it seems as if he deliberately has the desires for health, wealth, and being at home.

To add to the complexity, the rhyming pattern is also playing a role in how the poem is shaped, which is being shaped against its will. The poem opens “Penniless, ill, abroad,” but the definition of “American fate” is “to be well, / have money in the bank, / & be at home.” The order of conditions changes from money, health, and location to health, money, and location. The second arrangement of condition has been altered to meet the rhyme scheme. This switch must be deliberate and for cause. Or the opening condition could be rearranged: “Ill, penniless, abroad,” but then there’s three unstresses in a row, which is not a condition that is desired by a poet who earlier wrote in Dream Song 297, “I perfect my metres / until no mosquito can get through.” (And if no mosquito can get through, not only is the meter tight, but no blood will be lost, either.) So the line could be rearranged: “Abroad, penniless, ill,” which is must closer to the current situation, and it’s not an unfamiliar meter to these Dream Songs.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of forced deliberateness going on in these lines in Dream Song 314, and maybe that’s the point. Henry is acting a certain way because he has no money, is sick, and is far from home, and he’s also acting a certain way because of “American fate.” All of that mirrors how the poet ordered the Henry’s conditions of state, which was organized not by poet, but by the meter and rhyme he heard. I think often is the case when Berryman writes to the rhyme in compromise to a tighter image or focus, which is fine, I suppose. “Never sacrifice sound for sense” says Ezra Pound, and if a good effect is had in sound without losing too much sense, then Berryman has succeeded, but has the poem? Maybe “his mind was not in it. His mind was elsewhere / in an area where the soul not talks but sings” (Dream Song 352). Maybe the last lines of Dream Song 314 have the answer: “Were there any other gods he could defy, / he wondered, or re-arrange?” Maybe this is why he re-arranges at the beginning while talking about fate.

Maybe the issue is even bigger than that. Maybe the issue is on another level about wishing the fate of death would act on him so he didn’t have keep pushing on. I say this because of what he says in two poems. In Dream Song 324 “An Elegy for W.C.W, the lovely man,” Berryman writes, “if envy was a Henry trademark, he would envy you, / especially the being through.” Berryman is saying he wants to be dead like Williams. In the next stanza, however, he writes, “Too many journeys lie for him ahead, / too many galleys & page proofs to be read.” Here he gives he is reason to live, but he does it in a passive voice. I hear those lines as if Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh were reading them. There’s so much despair in those lines. Hope is undermined by the passive voice. But when it comes to the wants of dying, he says in the active voice, “he would like to lie down / in your sweet silence,” where “your” is Williams. These are the types of effects I was thinking about with American fate.

The other poem is Dream Song 331 in its last stanza:

   Yeats listened once, he found it did him good,
   he died in full stride, a good way to go,
   making them wonder what’s missing,
   a strangeness in the final notes, never to be resolved

I think this is echoing Berryman’s desire to die before all his creativity and talent fade, as often happens in later years with writers and artists. He wants to go out while people still think he’s great, so they can wonder forever what other great poems he would have written or so, as he says in line 3, so “nobody will be ashamed of me.” He’s very concerned about what people think of him and his poems. So I wonder also if he is tiring of writing poems, or trying to get the music to work out, as is hinted at in “a strangeness in the final notes, never to be resolved.” Is Berryman tired of getting all his poems resolved, especially the music of them? Is he tired of trying to satisfy and audience and critics? Is his ego his downfall? Is Henry his ego? That can’t be as Helen Vendler points out:

Henry, the Id, has a great deal to say: he is petulant, complaining, greedy, lustful, and polymorphously perverse; he is also capable of childlike joy and disintegrative rage. Henry’s life has been blasted, as he tells us, by the suicide of his father when he was a boy; he is driven by a random avidity, often sexual, which he indulges shamelessly until the unnamed Conscience reproaches him.

Maybe he’s just tired of writing in general and looking to resolve poems and their musics. Maybe he thinks, “The only happy people in the world / are those who do not have    to write long poems” (Dream Song 354). Whatever it is, these Dreams Songs in the last section are certainly taking a turn toward the desperate and suicidal.

– Wednesday, March 13, 2013



John Berryman – Love & Fame

Love & Fame [1971]

I expect something new to happen with this book. While much of The Dream Songs was good and some seem half-assed, there wasn’t much innovation that I noticed. Berryman is still only doing much of what he was doing in The Dispossessed and Sonnets to Chris, which is still just “crumpling syntax” and in now obvious ways while his metric is becoming flabby, which is to say without restraint. The music is just him pushing forward in authority and syntax and not in sound and rhythm.

This request of change is very selfish of me. It’s hard for any writer to change or to discover something new twice or thrice, but I hope. Plus, I’ve concerns after reading what Hayden Carruth said “Love, Art, and Money,” a review of Love & Fame. The review opens: “John Berryman’s new book of poems is in some respects, as the advance rumors have warned us, a departure from earlier work; but not after all, as we come to look at it, much of a departure. […] these are changes in degree only.” (437). Carruth concludes that Berryman’s poems are still just “language twisted and posed” (438), which I agree with.

One of the reasons I chose to read Berryman was to learn to write about the personal. What I’m learning in this book, which often makes me think of Allen Ginsberg in his honesties, is that Berryman, like Ginsberg, is unconcerned. He’s let down his pride, but unlike Ginsberg, his kept up his fists. Berryman is going to tell you his truth, but he’s not going to let anyone fuck with it. He’s wearied of the critics, though I think he still seeks their approval. Maybe what I really want to say is best seen/heard in “Images of Elspeth”:

In this poem about a lost love and muse, he is sentimental but tough or grounded in reality.

   O when I grunted, over lines and her,
   my Muse a nymphet & my girl with men
   older, of money, continually,
   lawyers & so, myself a flat-broke Junior.

That’s the opening stanza. The first line creates the parallel between writing and muse. The implication here is that he is having sex with a poem he writes (“lines”) in a similar fashion with a woman/muse (“her”). The image also shows he is domineering. He is “over” the poem like he would be on top of woman during sex. He’s in the dominant position. One could even read that he grunts when alone as “over lines and her” are set off by commas and because of what happens in the next three lines.

First, we realize the “Muse” is a nymph who is not loyal to Berryman. (One might want to say “not loyal to the speaker” but the details in these poems are so intimate and protective (he uses initials instead of names, for instance), the speaker and Berryman are the same. Plus, as Carruth notes, “he [Berryman] is writing with candor about his own explicit autobiography; he is writing in simpler, more accessible language than that of earlier poems.” (437).) The muse is nymph. She’s there to get him going sexually and poetically. He’s not good enough for her anyway, since she can be better off with men with money. He is distanced from her.

Second, we realize this is an incomplete sentence. The subordinate clause “when I grunted,” is not completed. The subject of the sentence is “I” and, maybe, the object of the sentence is “myself” or “flat-broke Junior,” which are one in the same, but where’s the predicate pulling them together. There’s only one verb in this whole sentence/stanza – “grunted,” but it’s in the subordinate clause.  He is distant from action or completion.

He is alone with her memories. Even in the next stanza when he was first with her, she wouldn’t let him see the naked pictures he took of her:

   But the one who made me wild
   was who she let take naked photographs
   never she showed me but she was proud of.
   Unnerving: dire.

He’s even distanced from her when he’s with her. And when he’s real distant , when he’s with other loves, she’s still in there confusing him:

   My love confused confused with after loves
   not over time did I outgrow.
   Solemn, alone Muse grew taller.
   Rejection slips developed signatures,

(I want to read the second “confused” as “confussed.” I want the oo sound to become an uh sound.) In her absence, she becomes an even greater influence – she “grew taller.” She grew like she was becoming a good or a grand statue worthy to be praised. And the next line, “Rejection slips developed signatures.” That’s a terrific line. It suggests a few things. First, it suggests he is sending out poems to journals. It then suggests that his poems were receiving the rejection form letter. They were no good. It also underscores that he is nobody and is alone. If the rejection can’t address the author, then the author is anonymous. These lines also show that as she grew taller, his poetry got better. How do we know? Because even though he was still getting rejected, he wasn’t receiving rejection form letters. Someone signed the letter. The rejection has become more intimate. When that happens, the writer feels like he/she has been read. Berryman must be gaining some confidence and not feeling so alone. He might be feeling like he is somebody. And the next two lines tell us this:

   many thought Berryman was under weigh,
   he wasn’t sure himself.

(Here “under weigh” means “getting going.” I point that out in case some, like me, thought it was “under way.”)

Eventually, his muse gets married and he almost does. And in the almost marrying a new muse, he becomes domestic and develops “a sense of humor” which is “fatal to bardic pretension.” By the end he still wants his original muse. In the end of this poem that so far has been 7 four-line stanzas, there is one isolated line: “wishing I could lay my hands somewhere on those snapshots.”

Berryman has exposed an inner sentimentality while acknowledging the harsh realities. He lowered his pride to show his vulnerability. He lets the world and possible future lovers/wives know that they will be second to Elspeth: Muse and His Poetry. He’s saying, “I’m sentimental, but don’t fuck with it because that’s who I am. If you want to love me, you’ll have to contend.” (No wonder his wife “feels ‘inadequate’” (“Of Suicide”).)

I may have imposed on this poem, but I think it’s okay. I think the poem invites that. As Carruth says:

Some readers may say that these matters of substance have no ultimate importance aesthetically and should not concern the critic, whose job is to examine, not the experience but how the experience is turned into poetry. I do not agree. A critic has moral as well as aesthetic obligations, and certainly a journalist-reviewer, as distinct from a critic has a duty, to report the substance of books which he has seen before they are available to the public. (437)

In addition, I think many of us, especially us poets, have an Elspeth. And in learning to write personal poems, I need to negotiate my experiences into his poems to see how my possible personal poems might appear. I’ve learned I need to let down my ego to reveal inner truths that might be unsettling once out in the world, but at the same I’ve also got to let the reader know to not fuck with those personal issues and just accept them, which is probably just good advice in the everyday world, too.

At the same time though, maybe he needs some more pride to gauge what is interesting in his life. Despite him saying “I am not writing an autobiography-in-verse” (“Message”), it certainly seems that way. Many of these poems have uninteresting content, such as concerns about grades he got in school. Uninteresting content can be fine, maybe, but only if it finds something out about the self or is written well. Many of these poems just seem written. I had this feeling in Dream Songs, too. I can’t recall if I mentioned it, but a lot of the middle Dream Songs seemed like they were being written because he had a contract to fulfill. There are so many uninteresting rhymes and even the crumpling syntax can’t save them.

Fame has certainly affected his poetry which has affected Love & Fame, and I think he realizes it to at the end of “Monkhood”:

   Will I ever write properly, with passion & exactness,
   of the damned strange demeanours of my flagrant heart?
   & be anyone anywhere undertaken?
   One more unanswerable question.

– Sunday, March 24, 2013


John Berryman – Delusions etc of John Berryman

Delusions etc of John Berryman [1972]

I’m only seven pages in and I don’t recognize Berryman’s style in here. Maybe it’s my two week absence from reading him, but he’s new. He’s up to something new, even occasionally borrowing old and/or old religious wording, such as “Thou hard” (“Matins”), “Behold, thou art taken in thy mischief” (“Matins”), “Thanks be to God” (“Prime”), “Now hear this programme for    my remnant of today” (“Sext”), etc. But in “Nones” (the seventh poem) he starts to sound like Jim Morrison in “The End” or “Spanish Caravan”: “you are afraid are my brothers – veterans of fear – / pray with me now in the hour of the living”; “I was alone with You again: ‘the iron did swim.’ / It has been proved to me again & again”; “I am olding & ignorant, and the work is great, / daylight is long, will ever I be done”; “Flimsy between cloth, what may I attain, / who slither in my garments there’s not enough me”; etc. Provocative statements are made and they sound cool, but connecting them is the issue. There’s an internal associative leaping going on within the mind as if a secret message is underneath the words for him and him alone or his god. The images and lines draw me in, but I don’t know what I’m drawn into. When I read them aloud as if singing a Jim Morrison song, I’m in. my body gets it. When I step back to read to see where my body’s been, then I’m not quite sure. It’s like a religious experience. Is Berryman trying to find god?

The title to the opening poems of this collection are: “Lauds,” “Matins,” “Prime,” “Interstitial Office” (where “office” means “canonical hour”), “Terce,” “Sext,” “Nones,” “Vespers,” and “Compline.” Where do these names come from? According to Wikipedia: “Already well-established by the ninth century in the West, these canonical offices consisted of eight daily prayer events: Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline, and the Night Office.” And according to New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia: “The name Prime (prima hora) belongs with those of Terce, Sext, None, to the short offices recited at the different hours of the day, called by these names among the Romans, that is, prima towards 6 a.m.; tertia, towards 9 a.m.; sexta, towards noon; nona towards 3 p.m. At first Prime was termed matitutina (hora), morning hour; later, in order to distinguish it from the nocturnal hours of Matins and Lauds, and to include it among hours of the day, it was called prima. The name is first met with in the Rule of St. Benedict. In the Bangor Antiphonary it is called secunda.”

So it seems that Berryman is turning to religion, which explains his turn in style, tone, and language. A language that now moves more conventionally.

This book, I learned, was written before his suicide, but released after.

In the next section, Berryman appears more Berrymanesque, or at least less religious. But he does evoke the old with “Washington in Love” and “Beethoven Triumphant,” and in “Your Birthday in Wisconsin You Are 140” and “In Memoriam (1914-1953)” he evokes a neo-Sapphic stanza, or at least poems that try to be. I call them neo-Sapphic because the shape is the same, but there’s an extra line. I think he wanted to do so, too, as the first two lines of “Your Birthday in Wisconsin You Are 140” begin with hendecasyllabic lines.

Your Birthday in Wisconsin You Are 140 scansion

(where x=extra stressed and u/=semi-stressed) and a Sapphic meter for a hendecasyllabic line in qualitative metrics is:

   / u /   *   / u u /   u / /

(where * is a free syllable)

He’s trying here, but he’s tired and overwhelmed. He’s losing his ear and discipline, as noted in Love & Fame. In “In Memoriam (1914-1953),” he Americanizes the Sapphic meter into lines of trochees and ending on a stress and maintains the traditional Sapphic stanza shape of four lines. He builds the poem on falling meters but catches a rise at the end of the line and reinforces the rise on the line turn, and this is true for the first two stanzas, then the variations begin. He establishes his meter for us, sets the background rhythm, and then improvises off of it after he collapses. In section two of the poem the variations become more apparent, but in section three he tries to recover the original falling meter of the first two stanzas, and eventually he does (almost) in the penultimate stanza, where the poem turns into a song.

Perhaps the delusion in this book is that he does not know how to complete what he starts. And that could be true of his poetry as a whole. Berryman, through his career, gives us syntactical rearrangements, a sharp ear early on but flat in later years, he introduces how a poet can introspect while using a persona to camouflage his ego. He shows how one can write about the self, which he does. But in Delusions etc of John Berryman, he can’t concentrate or stay focused. He drifts in form, structure, music, image movement, but in all of that drifting, he is most true to himself, I think. He’s guard seems down. It seems less like he is trying to impress an audience, critic, or benefactor. He’s writing for himself. The drifting is him drifting from an impression of himself to himself.

   “The bamboo of the Ten Halls,” went on Ch’en
   “of my time, are excellently made.
   I cannot find so well
   ensorcelled those of later of former time.
   Let us apply the highest praise, pure wind,
   to those surpassing masters; –
   having done things, a thing, along that line myself.”

                                                                           (“Scholars at the Orchid Pavilion” 4)

– Sunday, April 7, 2013






Works Cited

Berryman, John. The Collected Poems: 1937-1971. Ed. Charles Thornbury. New York: Noonday Press, 1991. Print.

—. The Dream Songs. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988. Print.

Cabrol, Fernand. “Prime.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. New Advent. Kevin Knight. 7 Apr. 2013. Web. 7 Apr. 2013. <>.

“Canonical hours.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 Feb. 2013. Web. 7 Apr. 2013.

Carruth, Hayden. “Love, Art, & Money.” The Nation 211.14 (1970) 437-38. Ebscohost. Web. PDF. 24 Mar. 2013. <>.

Ellman, Richard. The Norton Anthology of Modern American Poetry (Second Edition). New York: Norton, 1988. 911. Print.

Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.” Selected Writings. New York: New Directions, 1966. 15-30. Print.

Thompson, John. “A Poetry Chronicle.” Poetry (Vol. 95, No. 2.) November 1959. Pages 107-116. PDF. 06 Feb 2013.

“Utraquist.” Origin. 2013. Web. 23 Jan. 2013.

Vendler, Helen. “from The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition.” Modern American Poetry: On The Dream Songs. n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2013. <>.




Jason Shinder’s Stupid Hope (2009)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 12, which was published circa November 2009.


Jason Shinder's – Stupid HopeTwo reviews of Jason Shinder’s Stupid Hope (Graywolf Press) follow.

Review one: written in a coffee shop.

Jason Shinder has passed away and so has the hope of more beautiful poems like the ones in Stupid Hope. Yes, these poems are beautiful, like Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Both have extraordinary melancholy and despair amid layers of pleasure, and this is what happens with strong poems.

Stupid Hope is two stories of sickness unto death. One story is about the author’s mother, and the second is about the author. Both have brutal honesties, such as in “The Good Son”:

   If God had come to me and said,
   if you are willing to forget your self

   you will find the cure for heart attacks and compose
   the greatest symphonies,

   I wouldn’t have been sure of my answer.
   Because there wouldn’t have been enough
   attention to my suffering. And that’s unforgivable

Later in the poem the mother dies

   after months in a hospital room full of silence
   that lodged itself like a stone in her throat

   And she thought I was wonderful

   and would do anything for her.

The author is not heartless, as you will see when you read this book. He is just bluntly honest. (Also notice the craft of the last two lines. Prior to this, the poem was in couplets. Then in the last two lines the couplets break to emphasize the distance.)

Also, at times, Shinder makes images that parallel the disturbing feeling of joy in your own suffering:

   wanting to be worth the horror
   he lavishes

   wanting to be good enough
   to join his suffering
   with a little of my own.

Review two: from my post on Graywolf ’s Facebook page.

[. . .] And for you poets, it seems to be written under the emotional, empathetic, and sentimental shadow of Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” and “To Aunt Rose.” The poetry is not like Ginsberg’s, but it is sincere like those two poems and like Ginsberg . . . and then some.//




Shinder, Jason. Stupid Hope. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2009.//


Li-Young Lee’s Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee (2006)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 8/9, which was published circa April 2007.


Li-Young Lee's – Breaking the Alabaster Jar“Hey folks, there is a cosmic consciousness,” said Allen Ginsberg during a SUNY Brockport Writers Forum interview. I think he was right, and now I further agree after reading Li-Young Lee’s Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee (BOA Editions), Ed. Earl G. Ingersoll.

Within the collected interviews, there are many recurring themes: Lee’s father, The Bible, alienation, being an Asian-American poet, & the interconnectedness of the universe – especially through its vibrations, as everything vibrates.

But first let me get to how I trust Lee. In the first interview from 1987 with William Heyen and Stan Rubin, Heyen and Rubin ask Lee some strong questions, which almost seem like an initiation ritual into entering the world of poets, which are questions that only one committed/seduced/given to poetry could answer. Lee answers, but he says something startling. His answer is unexpected to me. It’s an answer that only someone truthful could give. His answer, “I have, in fact, a handful of readers that I think about. . . . Oh, if so-and-so sees this, then they’ll really think I’m a poet. I always have this feeling I want to prove I’m a poet myself to a handful of people” (p 27). Do all us poets, especially young ones, have this secret urge within us? Lee also adds that he writes for soul-awaking, too, but it’s the first answer that sucks me into believing him.

The interviews that follow are all interesting. All have new angles (slants of light), even when he similarly responds to similar answers. And each interview, each question and answer, accrue and inform the following interviews. Each interview has Lee thinking more.

During Tod Marhsall’s interview, my way of thinking about poetry changed. Marshall asks Lee the right question with the right words, and Lee responds. Here’s how it goes:

Marshall: I feel those poems as moving vertically, down the page with a push. The movement in the memoir – we’re pushed along in a similar way, but the pace is much slower.

Lee: Even now, in the poems I’m writing, although they have longer line breaks, I can see now that the sentence is my concern. I like the idea that the line breaks make notation for the mind actually thinking. I like that. But it’s ultimately the sentence that I’m writing. Not the grammatical sentence, the measure.

[. . .]

Marshall: So you don’t see yourself as ultimately despairing that you can’t capture this litany.

Lee: [. . . ] I started to entertain some of the “stuff” that’s in the canon; I forgot for a little bit that that was the horizontal, the cultural, and that wasn’t the richest mode for me. If you look at the earliest poems in Rose, you’ll see the vertical assumption. The assumption that vertical reality was the primary reality and all of this was fading away, just “stuff” spinning off on that more important reality. The change was just in the realization. (p 138-39)

So what I realized after reading this and reading what had preceded is that the horizontal movement is when the poem talks to culture. (I had believed that poems intentionally talk to other poems & poets.) The vertical moment, however, talks to the self and the universe. This changed my thinking of writing. Instead of writing for other poets & poems, I should be writing for the depths of my self while simultaneously shooting up to speak to the universe. If you do that, do it well, do it with honesty, then you’ll catch the vibrations of the universe & your soul, and then necessarily/accidentally, the poems will have horizontal movement and talk to poems and poets naturally. To write is to write lines (“a literary activity”), which is vertically neglectful. But to write vertically (as if creating a conduit between you & the universe) – well, if you make the connection with the universe, then reverberations will happen, and it will vibrate up & down & horizontally.

As for Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee as a whole, the interviews inform through accretion and the thinking poet – though he thinks of himself as a body poet – but that’s another theme you should read about in these interviews.//




Lee, Li-Young. Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee. Ed. Earl G. Ingersoll. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2006.//

The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

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The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

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Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

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After Malagueña

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