Berryman’s Testament

The experience of reading Berryman’s The Dream Songs reminds me of the time after my marriage began to fail when I moved in with a friend who had just gotten divorced . I learned a lot from the few months I lived with him, mostly how NOT to live my life after my divorce. He would come home from work at midnight with a 6-pack of beer and want to TALK. Forever. And those were the least of his problems. I suspect both I and my kids benefited from the lessons I learned there, but I was never happier than when I bought my own home and was able to move out.

It’s probably no accident that these two poems appear at the end of the book, giving us a perspective on what we’ve just read:


Chilled in this Irish pub I wish my loves
well, well to strangers, well to all his friends,
seven or so in number,
I forgive my enemies, especially two,
races his heart, at so much magnanimity,
can it at all be true?

-Mr Bones, you on a trip outside yourself.
Has you seen a medicine man? You sound will-like,
a testament & such.
Is you going? -Oh, I suffer from a strike
& a strike & three balls: I stand up for much,
Wordsworth & that sort of thing.

The pitcher dreamed. He threw a hazy curve,
I took it in my stride & out I struck,
lonesome Henry.
These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand.
They are only meant to terrify & comfort.
Lilac was found in his hand.

I don’t think any number of poems would really allow us to “understand” the pain Henry, or Berryman, felt in his life. Neither can we comprehend why he felt driven to commit suicide. We have experienced some of the chaos and terror in his life, though it don’t give Loren much comfort, in fact, hardly none at all, realizing the pain some people have to get through. The best we can hope for is that the poems bring Awareness


Henry saw with Tolstoyan clarity
his muffled purpose. He described the folds-
not a symbol in the place.
Naked the man came forth in his mask, to be.
Illnesses from encephalitis to colds
shook his depths & his surface.

When he dressed up & up, his costumes varied
with the southeast wind, but he remained aware.
Awareness was most of what he had.
The terrible chagrin to which he was married-
derelict Henry's siege mentality-
stability, I will stay

in my monastery until my death
& the fate my actions have so hardly earned.
The horizon is all cloud.
Leaves on leaves on leaves of books I've turned
and I know nothing, Henry said aloud,
with his ultimate breath.

though apparently awareness, by itself, will not save us, or surely Henry would have been saved.

The Dream Songs has certainly made me aware just how devastating someone’s suicide can be on those who love them. You can only wonder how Berryman, knowing this better than anyone else, could commit suicide, leaving behind a son and two daughters. Awe Full.

Berryman’s Dream Song 261

I’ve reached the final fourth of the Dream Songs, and I’ll have to admit it’s a good thing because my interest is beginning to wane. I can only take so much confessional poetry before I start wanting something more optimistic to balance it out.

I have learned much about human nature from these writers, insights I would’ve hated to have gained any other way. In the long run, though, I always turn back to poets like Roethke or Whitman who inspire me in deeper ways and appeal to my longings for transcendence.

Thankfully, some of the later poems in the long section VI have turned from self-absorption into a broader view, that is to say, they seem to be saying more about MY life, rather than just poor Henry’s:


You couldn't bear to grow old, but we grow old.
Our differences accumulate. Our skin
tightens or droops: it alters.
Take courage, things are not what they have been
and they will never again. Hot hearts grow cold,
the rush to the surface falters,

secretive grows the disappearing soul
learned & uncertain, young again
but not in the same way:
Heraclitus had a wise word here to say,
which I forget. We wake & blunder on,
wiser, on the whole,

but not more accurate. Leave that to the young,
grope forward, toward where no one else has been
which is our privilege.
Besides, you gave up early in our age
which is your privilege, from Chatterton
to the bitter & present scene.

Although at first glance this poem appears to be addressed to a particular “You,” perhaps his father who committed suicide at a relatively young age, further reflection suggests it may actually be addressed to people like me, people who are no longer young and start to worry about the effects of aging.

The first and most of the second stanza detail the disadvantages of growing old, though Berryman apparently didn’t live long enough to learn all the disadvantages. By the end of the second stanza, though, there’s a grudging admission that there are some advantages to growing older. One being that we are “wiser, on the whole,” perhaps due to our past blunders.

Perhaps the greatest advantage is that because of our experience — if we are lucky — we are able to “grope forward, toward where no one else has been.

In typical Henry fashion, though, the poem can’t end there, ending with a “dig” at those who have committed suicide, including the English poet Chatterton who served as an icon of unacknowledged genius for the Romantics after committing suicide at 17.

Berryman’s Dream Song 235

It’s hard to imagine how Berryman could have stated more clearly, or more effectively, the terrible effect his father’s suicide had on him than here in Song


Tears Henry shed for poor old Hemingway
Hemingway in despair, Hemingway at the end,
the end of Hemingway,
tears in a diningroom in Indiana
and that was years ago, before his marriage say,
God to him no worse luck send.

Save us from shotguns & fathers' suicides.
It all depends on who you're the father of
if you want to kill yourself-
a bad example, murder of oneself,
the final death, in a paroxysm, of love
for which good mercy hides?

A girl at the door: 'A few coppers pray'
But to return, to return to Hemingway
that cruel & gifted man.
Mercy! my father; do not pull the trigger
or all my life I'll suffer from your anger
killing what you began.

“God to him [but especially to ME] no worse luck send.“

One almost wonders if Berryman could somehow see his own fate in Hemingway’s suicide after all the times Hemingway ranted about his father’s weakness in taking his life because he (allegedly) couldn’t stand up to his wife.

The poems seem like the ultimate testament to “or all my life I’ll suffer from your anger/ killing what you began.”

Berryman’s Dream Song 207

I like Song 207 because it suggests why most people never have a clue how you’re feeling, and it’s not entirely their fault, either. Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, most of us really don’t want to know what other people are feeling, particularly if it’s likely to make our day any worse than it already is.

Of course, most of us feign interest in our neighbor’s welfare, but God pity the neighbor who makes too many demands upon his neighbors:


-How are you? -Fine, fine. (I have tears unshed.
There is here near the bottom of my chest
a loop of cold, on the right.
A thing hurts somewhere up left in my head.
I have a gang of old sins unconfessed.
I shovel out of sight

a-many ills else, I might mention too,
such as her leaving and my hopeless book.
No more of that, my friend.
It's good of you to ask and) How are you?
(Music comes painful as a happy look
to a system nearing an end

an empty question slides to a standstill
while the drums increase inside an empty skull
And the whole matter breaks down
or would it would, had Henry left his will
but that went sideways sprawling, collapsed & dull.)
How are you, I say with a frown.

Isn’t this precisely how most conversations go.

“How are you?”

“Fine, fine”

“How are you?”

Even in a fairly advanced stage of Alzheimer's disease my mother could carry on these kinds of conversations. They are so ingrained that most of us never stop to think how meaningless they really are other than a simple way of showing that we recognize the other person.

No wonder that someone really suffering finds it so difficult to reveal his inner feelings, knowing that such personal revelation is seldom welcomed by any but the closest friends, if he happens to have any.

Berryman and Schwartz

Judging from his book’s dedication to Delmore Schwartz and from the sheer number of poems where he’s mentioned, Delmore’s death must have been devastating to Berryman. Perhaps that’s merely because Schwartz was once his teacher. If so, Schwartz must have had a powerful influence on him.

Interestingly, a Berryman interview from the the Paris Review touches both on Berryman’s view of fame, another major theme, and his relationship to Schwartz — not to mention a million other things.

As the interviewer points out, this one sounds a little Shakesperian:


Henry’s mind grew blacker the more he thought.
He looked onto the world like the act of an aged whore.
Delmore, Delmore.
He flung to pieces and they hit the floor.
Nothing was true but what Marcus Aurelius taught,
‘All that is foul smell and blood in a bag.’

He lookt on the world like the leavings of a hag.
Almost his love died from him, any more.
His mother & William
were vivid in the same mail Delmore died.
The world is lunatic. This is the last ride.
Delmore, Delmore.

High in the summer branches the poet sang.
His throat ached, and he could sing no more.
All ears closed
across the heights where Delmore and Gertrude sprang
so long ago, in the goodness of which it was composed.
Delmore, Delmore!

There’s certainly a point at which thinking becomes counterproductive, where one needs to just experience life directly if one is to function, as most of us have probably experienced at one point or another. Which is not to say that it is possible to quit thinking once you’ve reached that point.

The Marcus Aurelius quotation comes from this section of his meditations:

“Does Panthea or Pergamus now sit by the tomb of Verus? Does Chaurias or Diotimus sit by the tomb of Hadrianus? That would be ridiculous. Well, suppose they did sit there, would the dead be conscious of it? and if the dead were conscious, would they be pleased? and if they were pleased, would that make them immortal? Was it not in the order of destiny that these persons too should first become old women and old men and then die? What then would those do after these were dead? All this is foul smell and blood in a bag.”

I wonder if Berryman purposely drew a quotation from a section that begins:

THIS reflection also tends to the removal of the desire of empty fame, that it is no longer in thy power to have lived the whole of thy life, or at least thy life from thy youth upwards, like a philosopher; but both to many others and to thyself it is plain that thou art far from philosophy. Thou hast fallen into disorder then, so that it is no longer easy for thee to get the reputation of a philosopher; and thy plan of life also opposes it

Some have argued that tragedy is no longer possible in the 20th Century, but it certainly seems tragic to me when a poet with a beautiful voice descends into madness, “flung to pieces and they hit the floor.”

This poems suggests that Schwartz played a much more powerful role than merely teacher for Berryman, Henry:


This world is gradually becoming a place
where I do not care to be any more. Can Delmore die?
I don't suppose
in all them years a day went ever by
without a loving thought for him. Welladay.
In the brightness of his promise,

unstained, I saw him thro' the mist of the actual
blazing with insight, warm with gossip
thro' all our Harvard years
when both of us were just becoming known
I got him out of a police-station once, in Washington, the world is tref
and grief too astray for tears.

I imagine you have heard the terrible news,
that Delmore Schwartz is dead, miserably & alone,
in New York: he sang me a song
'I am the Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz
Harms & the child I sing, two parents' torts'
when he was young & gift-strong.

I really don’t know why Schwartz was so important to him, but it’s clear that his loss affected “Henry” in the same way that the father’s suicide haunts these poems.

Perhaps it’s the “miserably” and “alone,” despite his fame and talent, that so terrifies Henry.

Berryman’s Dream Song 133

As Theresa noted, fame, or at least the need for fame, is a recurring theme in The Dream Songs. I like this one because it looks at fame from a different perspective:


As he grew famous-ah, but what is fame? -
he lost his old obsession with his name,
things seemed to matter less,
including the fame-a television team came
from another country to make a film of him
which did not him distress:

he enjoyed the hard work & he was good at that,
so they all said-the charming Englishmen
among the camera & the lights
mathematically wandered in his pub & livingroom
doing their duty, as too he did it,
but where are the delights

of long-for fame, unless fame makes him feel easy?
am cold & weary, said Henry, fame makes me feel lazy,
yet I must do my best.
t doesn't matter, truly. It doesn't matter truly.
It seems to be solely a matter of continuing Henry
voicing & obsessed.

Having gained fame, not surprisingly he finds fame does not bring what he thought it would bring, does not make “him feel easy.”

He may no longer obsess about his lack of fame, but neither does he find what he’s looking for in it.

Fame does not resolve the issues that made him seek fame in the first place for there is still something inside making Henry obsess. This doesn’t come as any great surprise, of course, because we see this in far too many stars who gain fame only to spiral into a meteoric tailspin, perhaps because they realize what they’ve devoted their whole life to attaining isn’t really what they wanted, or need, after all.

Berryman’s Dream Song 66

Though I find myself much more drawn to Berryman’s writing style than to his vision of life, it’s impossible to ignore his insights into life (even if he seemed totally unable to apply any of those insights to himself).

Poem 66 seems to be trying to make a statement about the relationship between fame and virture, as suggested by the lines “How feel a fellow then when he arrive/ in fame but lost?”


‘All virtues enter into this world:’)
A Buddhist, doused in the street, serenely burned.
The Secretary of State for War,
winking it over, screwed a redhaired whore.
Monsignor Capovilla mourned. What a week.
A journalism doggy took a leak

against absconding coon ('but take one virtue,
without which a man can hardly hold his own')
the sun in the willow
shivers itself & shakes itself green-yellow
(Abba Pimen groaned, over the telephone,
when asked what that was:)

How feel a fellow then when he arrive
in fame but lost? but affable, top-shelf.
Quelle sad semaine.
He hardly know his selving. ('that a man')
Henry grew hot, got laid, felt bad, survived
('should always reproach himself'.

Lines two through four offer an interesting contrast between two “famous” people, the Buddhist priest who made headlines all over the world when he burned himself to death to protest the Vietnam War. The equally famous “Secretary of State for War” (would that be McNamara?) winked at the monk’s act while making love to a redhaired whore. It’s pretty clear who has the moral high ground here, but I’m betting given those choices most people would choose not to be the monk. I know the only matches I was lighting about then were igniting the cigarettes I used to calm my nerves and stay awake while on guard duty.

Part of what haunts the narrator, and all of us, is the moral ambiguity of life. This ambiguity pervades the poem but is suggested strongly by this quotation from St. Pimen the Great:

A brother asked Abba Pimen: “What constitutes repentance of sin?” The elder replied: “Never to commit this sin again. The sinless and the righteous are so called because they have rejected their sins and have become righteous.”

Abba Pimen said: “Man has constant need of humility, spiritual wisdom and the fear of God, just as he needs the air that he breathes through his nostrils.” Abba Pimen said: “If man reaches the state of which the Apostle said: for the pure one everything is pure, he will see himself the worst of all creation.” A brother said to him: “How can I consider myself to be worse than murderers?” The elder replied: “If a man reaches the spiritual state indicated by the Apostle, and sees another man who had committed murder, he will say to himself: that man committed the sin only once, while I kill myself and others with my sins daily!”

I would assume that the narrator himself had come under criticism for “absconding,” or for his lack of virtue. He goes so far as to suggest that he handled that criticism by getting laid — and feeling bad. Though, of course, the tone of these poems seem to indicate that he didn’t get off quite that easily.