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.

4 thoughts on “Berryman’s Testament”

  1. In Bob Dylan’s film, “Masked and Anonymous,” there is a character very much like Mr. Bones in John Berryman’s dream songs. He identifies himself as Oscar Vogel (which is the name of a wolf hunter and guide from Alaska who said,” Time and suffering mean nothing to wolves,” and “Intelligence and compassion go hand in hand, and wolves are without compassion”) and quotes from Shakespeare’s play, “As You Like It” (“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players”). Considering that Bob Dylan was at the University of Minnesota at the same time that John Berryman was teaching there, I wonder if that character in “Masked and Anonymous” was Bob Dylan’s nod to John Berryman. One of Bob Dylan’s songs from 1965 was called “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” and contained lyrics which could have been influenced by Berryman:

    But the funniest thing was
    When I was leavin’ the bay
    I saw three ships a-sailin’
    They were all heading my way
    I asked the captain what his name was
    And how come he didn’t drive a truck
    He said his name was Columbus
    I just said, “Good luck.”

    Thank you, Loren, for this thought-provoking series of posts on the poetry of John Berryman.

  2. Like Amanda, I want to thank you for this series on Berryman. I used to read these poems over and over — back some years ago — but even with all that time spent on them I don’t think I could have ever come up with your great “summary” in the last sentence of this post: “Awe Full”!

  3. Well, as to your wonder at how a man could do such a thing, you have to read his good biographers and his letters to his mother. His first suicide attempt was at 13. After failing he, like Orpheus, turned to song to bring back Eurydice. What you have to question, really, is how a man who, finally finding comfort only in the fact that having been cast a tragedy knew he could play it out, managed to make such powerful art. Suicide was set for him, he thought. His Orphean trip to hell (Dream Songs) to bring either his father or his young self back (Eurydice) through song, which was all he had left, and finding both his boyhood self (a Smyth, as I recall, his mother took the name of their landlord, Berryman, who she was sleeping with when her husband killed himself, (and who himself took young John’s name from him and gave him Berryman)) staring back at him, like Orpheus flinched. Think it was Cummings who said,

    ‘Grinned his grin
    Done his chores
    Laid him down
    Sleep well.’

    Though not, of course, for Berryman, the sentiment stands when you can only view with wonder he survived at all.

    After all, we can only count ourselves lucky that he, like Orpheus, bothered to chase Eurydice at all, and left at least his art behind when his spirit faltered.

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