“Poets don’t usually get much fan mail,” said John Berryman to the critic A Alvarez in 1967, “but I’ve had a lot of mail after I published this Song in the United States … I may say that the mail was entirely hostile.” John Berryman’s The Dream Songs are a series of 385 poems which follow the actions of an imaginary character by the name of Henry, described in the epitaph as “a white American in early middle age, who has suffered an irreversible loss.”
Henry is a concoction of Berryman’s own past, of his reading, and of American history. He gives utterance to a thousand shades of thought and feeling, of hesitations and inklings – the most intimate stuff of the inner voice which he executes through verbal theatrics. ‘Dream Song 14’ begins by Henry telling us that “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.” As he presents these two contradicting statements side by side he sets the tone for the rest of the poem.
The poem is full of interruptions and contradictions – Henry juggles his first, second, and third persons and the result reads like an improvised vaudeville act. It is his entanglement with language that becomes the central drama of the sequence. “Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no / Inner Resources” is how Henry quotes his scolding mother, followed quickly by his own ironic assertion: “I conclude now I have no / inner resources, because I am heavy bored.”
After one reads the poem in its entirety, it is no surprise to learn that Berryman was a serious Shakespeare scholar well equipped to gauge the tensile strength of a dramatic monologue. ‘Dream Song 14’ is more anti-drama than drama, in which the only movement captured is Henry’s internal movement – the fastidious stirring of his inner life as he reflects on his boredom: “Peoples bore me, / literature bores me, especially great literature, / Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes /as bad as achilles.”
Though it lacks the rhythmic chime of iambic pentameter that strikes through Shakespeare’s monologues, Berryman’s syntax is utterly booze-soaked and fragmented with the tone of anxiety that accompanies a severe hangover. Indeed, Berryman struggled with alcohol addiction for most of his adult life and Henry’s lines of idiomatic anxiety serve to reflect that state of being. The Dream Songs function as a record of an individual human personality who stumbles, jerks, freezes, and jumps through life as a living contradiction. Henry, just as all of us, is capable of reading great literature and penning poetry, but is simultaneously vulnerable to irascible passions and bodily fatigue. As sacks of meat filled with electricity we are an unstable combination of spirit and flesh – “we ourselves flash and yearn”. Ultimately, The Dream Songs exist as John Berryman’s most explicit and prolonged exploration of the development of the human self as it is projected into the turbulence of the modern world.
You can read John Berryman’s ‘Dream Song 14’ online here.
Illustration: Hannah Riordan