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.
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.
The Dispossessed 
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.
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 Dictionary.com. 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
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
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
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
Dream Songs (1964, 1968)
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):
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
(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
(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
(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
(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
Love & Fame 
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
Delusions etc of John Berryman 
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.
(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
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.
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“Canonical hours.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 Feb. 2013. Web. 7 Apr. 2013.
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Ellman, Richard. The Norton Anthology of Modern American Poetry (Second Edition). New York: Norton, 1988. 911. Print.
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