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.

5 thoughts on “Berryman’s Dream Song 207”

  1. My Grandmother was born in the Netherlands and carried with her a spin on the “How are you?” social greeting. Responds instead with: “Good enough.” A response I’m now finding myself use as well.

  2. Made a social greeting in Denmark once about “getting together” and soon learned how different our “throw off” greetings can be. My dear friend said, “Yes, in America you are always saying ‘we will have to get together.’ Here when we say it, we mean it.” This doesn’t mean I would have approached Berryman with
    “How’s it going?”

  3. KJM’s comment hit home. It took me years when I came to this country to realize that “Let’s get together” didn’t mean anything other than “hello” over here. I wondered why people kept saying that and then not following through, and for a long time I thought it was something wrong with me, that I’d managed to insult them without realizing it. Now I realize I do the same thing, and it’s horrifying to me. But if you don’t, you’re out of step. People think you’re insulting them if you tell them, “Well, I’d love to, but I’m really way too busy right now and maybe next summer would work.” They think you don’t like them. So it’s better to say, “Yes, yes, absolutely,” and everyone goes away happy because the social convention has been met.

  4. Just finished a book worth reading which is called LINCOLN’S MELANCHOLY: HOW DEPRESSION CHALLENGED A PRESIDENT AND FUELED HIS GREATNESS, by Joshua Wolf Shenk. Abraham Lincoln suffered from debilitating depressions and on more than one occasion considered suicide. Now that I have read Shenk’s book, I can imagine that Lincoln would have had no problem understanding and appreciating John Berryman’s poems. Lincoln, too, had a wry sense of humor.

    Having experienced severe depressions up until I was 37 years old, these poems are a reminder of how it used to be for me. Fortunately, my depressions came to an end for the most part.

  5. Dream Song 207 is my favorite Berryman’s poem, though I’ve only read the (excellent) Hebrew translation of this poem till now, and it is the first time I read the original, thanks to you.
    I loved your nature photographs too.

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