Berryman’s The Dream Songs

John Berryman’s The Dreamworks has been sitting on my shelf since the early 70’s, and, though I’ve tried to start it a few times, I think Theresa William’s
recent announcement that she was going to use it in a new course she is teaching inspired me to finally start reading the book.

There’s little doubt that the poems are hard to understand, reminding me in several ways of Roethke’s “The Lost Son,” particularly in its personal obscurity. One is required to read multiple poems in order to truly understand any single poem, much in the same way that we must learn about another person’s personal life before we can truly understand some of their actions. (Of course, it also helps if you spend a little time on the internet (or in the library) reading about the author’s life.

Several critics note that Berryman is linked not only to the “Confessional Poets,” but also to the Beats, and though the subject matter certainly seems confessional in the same sense that much of Roehtke’s poetry was, his style, particularly its use of informal language does remind me of the best Beat poets.

One of my favorites is the number 1, perhaps because I could hear Berryman read it here


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

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

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

This poem serves rather well as an introduction to the collection, at least to the first fifty poems that I’ve finished so far. A central event in Berryman’s life was his father’s suicide when he was a young boy. Naturally enough, that event haunted him throughout the rest of his life, or at least it seems so if we are to judge his life by his poems.

There’s considerable argument whether Henry is or is not Berrryman, but if it is, no wonder he wonders how Henry can survive, “pried open for all the world to see.”

Unlike many people, Berryman does not seem able to find comfort in the idea that his father has found a happier place in heaven:


He yelled at me in Greek,
my God! It’s not his language
and I’m no good at his is Aramaic,
was I am a monoglot of English
(American version) and, say pieces from
a baker’s dozen others: where’s the bread?

but rising in the Second Gospel, pal:
The seed goes down, god dies,
a rising happens,
some crust, and then occurs an eating. He said so,
a Greek idea,
troublesome to imaginary Jews,

like bitter Henry, full of the death of love,
Cawdor uneasy, disambitious, mourning
the whole implausible necessary thing.
He dropped his voice & sybilled of
the death of the death of love.
I ought to get going.

Instead of his father’s death bringing the narrator closer to Jesus, and that’s obviously who this poem is about, the narrator sees Jesus’ death as the foreshadowing of the “death of the death of love.” From the opening “my God!” which to me suggests Jesus’ words on the Cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” this death doesn’t seem to offer redemption, but, rather, leaves him abandoned, forsaken, incapable of love.