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.

15 thoughts on “Berryman’s The Dream Songs

  1. These poems are difficult, to put it mildly. In the first one, I like the lines: “What he has now to say is a long/ wonder the world can bear & be.” That one’s worth pondering, and you’re right– it does call to mind Roethke. (“A man goes far to find out what he is.”) A wonder that the world can bear and be says something about the weight of universal suffering.
    The second one might be one, as you say, that needs to be read in the context of some of his other poems. There’s a lot going on there that doesn’t come through when it’s just set out on its own. The tone of it is vaguely blasphemous, if that quality has shadings, although he does allow that redemption is something “necessary.” The concluding line is interesting; to me it calls to mind the ending of Frost’s stopping by the woods. We sometimes want to “get going” because the truth of the world and its immense message is terrifying.

  2. Loren,

    I keep trying to respond to your posts, but I can only strike one letter in the comment field at a time, and then something comes up about a “runtime error” and asks if I want to “debug.” I am going to try to copy and paste a response in. I don’t understand what a runtime error is. I love this entry on Berryman and will say more when it isn’t so late. It is after three in the a.m. and I must teach tomorrow.

  3. What I like about Berryman is that he is almost uncategorisable, and although he seems at times wilfully obscure I invariably sense that there is meaning there. I like the way he seems to draw (often playfully) on other sources, without ever giving them away. In the first poem the lines “Once in a sycamore I was glad all at the top, and I sang …” reminds me of ‘Fern Hill’ by Dylan Thomas, but I may be completely wrong. You’re never quite sure with him.

    I have always assumed Berryman was Henry, or rather that Henry was his alter-ego.

  4. I’ve never seen that error, so I’m not sure what’s up, Theresa. Maybe they were doing maintenance on the servers while you were trying to post.

    Berryman complained that people confused him with Henry, but there certainly seems to be many reasons to do so, doesn’t there?

    Though I haven’t noticed many critics mentioning his sense of “humor,” I definitely thought it was a part of the poetry, alan.

  5. During a seminar last semester, Berryman came up. We were meeting at the professor’s home in Prospect Park, the neighborhood where Berryman spent his last years, not far from the Washington Avenue bridge where he dove into the Mississippi. Our host mentioned that at a neighborhood yard sale not long ago, his widow was selling off Berryman’s books. Curious to see you take this turn Loren– an odd coincidence.

  6. Loren, I see the “runtime error” other places, but it is worst on your blog. I just have to cut and paste. I’ll ask my son, the techno-wizard, about it. Would I have ever loved to go to that yard sale of Berryman’s books! I understand he spent a lot of money on books. Loren, have you read Poets in Their Youth by Eileen Simpson? She was his first wife and she has written a beautiful memoir of her life with Berryman and their writer friends. I highly recommend it. I am going to tell one of my students about your blog; he is doing a presention on Berryman for us and I think he will love your insights. The Henry=Berryman connection is there, for sure. Simpson tells an intriguing story about the emergence of the Henry character in her husband’s work. And I see a lot of humor in Berryman. I played a CD in class today of him reading “Dream Song 4” and the students also found it very funny. I want to say more to both your posts but time is not on my side at the moment. I will be back!

  7. Is anyone else getting this “runtime error” while trying to post to my blog?

    If so, I’ll pursue it with my ISP, but I’ve never had anyone mention it before. Strange.

  8. Loren and Theresa, I am downunder and out-of-touch with USA classroom realities however I presume Berryman’s use of a minstrelsy vernacular would make him an unusually interesting topic on many levels.

  9. Loren, Eileen Simpson tells an intriguing story in POETS IN THEIR YOUTH about a time John Berryman was celebrating a literary achievement at a party, drank too much, and climbed a tree, just as he describes here. Upon reading that, I marveled that, perhaps, Berryman immortalized that moment in this poem. The “Empty grows every bed” makes me think of three things. 1) The life of his best friend, the poet Delmore Schwartz, whose divorce left him lonely, sad, and lost. 2) Berryman’s loneliness after Eileen left him; he really was beside himself. 3) The empty bed after one has died and been carried away. Berryman was, for sure, a troubled man. Eileen says that writing poetry kept him alive because he felt suicide pulling at him for many years and even acted on these impulses occasionally: when a child, standing on ledges to frighten his mother (serious mother/son issues) and later doing the same during an emotional breakdown after he was married. I think it is facinating how he wove these things into his work. I love your interpretation of the second poem. Berryman did have a great deal of guilt. He enjoyed his erotic life (affairs) but felt great guilt afterwards. He had a hard time believing in God but he also had a great need to believe. We do see this struggle in his poems as well.

  10. I haven’t seen a runtime error, but I don’t know what that is ….

    I always thought Henry was Berryman’s poetic voice, his elucidating persona, not completely under his control and sometimes elusive (as might an inner muse or dream-guide be)

    By coincidence I’ve lately read Paul Mariani’s essay ‘Lowell on Berryman on Lowell’

    if you haven’t read it, Theresa, you might want to look it up

  11. I don’t know that essay, but I will definitely look for it. Thanks for the tip. I found a source recently by Samuel Fisher Dodson called BERRYMAN’S HENRY: LIVING AT THE INTERSECTION OF NEED AND ART. Dodson includes copies of early drafts of some of the dream songs in which Berryman has scratched out the “I” and replaced it with “Henry”!!!

  12. thanks for Theresa.
    climbing a tree: There was a tree in Chris’s (Sonnets to Chris, his paramoure) garden. Berryman and Lowell challenged each other climbing the tree and Berryman was behind, which Berryman thot might indicate their “fame”. Also, if u like, this may be an act of “writing poetry”. Re. Song 147, about Schwartz.
    It, then, may also be related with affairs (for him, poetry and women almost the same thing, as his later collection entitled as Love and Fame). Re: Song 350 “There’ll have to be an order/ specifically to stop climbing trees,// and other poeple’s wives”
    The Empty Bed image may also be related to Bessie Smith’s blues. He stayed in his mother’s home one summer (?) and listened to the records all the time. Re. Song 68.

    btw, been reading your postings on and off for nearly two years, Loren, thank you for those enlightening postings.

  13. Hello,

    I am so delighted to have run across these wonderful discussions of a poet who is so important to me. Thank you! –I am a little concerned to hear that B’s wife is selling his books. I really thought they had all been given to the U Minnesota Library, where Richard Kelly (at least, until his recent retirement) did such a great job of making them available. Richard Kelly also compiled a book called “JB’s Personal Library” which not only gives a list of all of Berryman’s books, but also describes the sort of markings Berryman had made in them — a great help for us to see which books were most influential for him. So I am wondering, does anyone have more information on this sale? Is it something she is doing by auction, or is she just simply selling them to whoever passes by? …I sort of can’t bear to think of this happening! I’d appreciate any information.

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