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.

5 thoughts on “Berryman’s Dream Song 66”

  1. I applaud your stab at the message of this poem. You may be right. I have absolutely no idea. Lots of dark images: death (Berryman highlighting a suicide as something serene), whores, urine.
    So we have yet another inscrutable 20th cenntury poem about misery or madness.
    One thing does seem clear: I think we’ve found the originator of the typographical smiley face.

  2. Modern poetry reminds me a lot of cable TV, Tom. There’s so much on that no one could ever watch all of it.

    Some of it’s so bad that you could only pity those who watch some of it.

    Luckily, though, you can always seem to find something that matches your own taste.

  3. Wow, isn’t this just the most intense poem! Berryman struggled so long to get recognition. He was much older than his writing friends when fame came to him at last. He struggled with the concept of fame because, really, what he loved the most was the act of writing and also certain authors, such as Shakespeare and Crane (both of whom he wrote marvelous critical books about). He loved, LOVED, getting together with people and reciting poems. I have read that he was a powerhouse in the classroom. And hearing him read is a real treat. What a voice, and what he brings to the work in terms of emotion. I know he was a man of great failings, but I do admire the way he held those failings up for inspection.

  4. Meant to say that his writer-friends gained fame at a much younger age that Berryman did (Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz), and he felt left behind. Struggled for it; thought it would make him happy. In reality it was literature that he loved, not fame. He did come to realize this. He was never more alive than when he was discussing an author he loved.

  5. Here’s one by someone for whom life was not morally ambiguous, and who actually enjoyed it.

    Here dies another day
    During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
    And the great world round me;
    And with tomorrow begins another.
    Why am I allowed two?


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