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.

Berryman’s Dream Song 261

I’ve reached the final fourth of the Dream Songs, and I’ll have to admit it’s a good thing because my interest is beginning to wane. I can only take so much confessional poetry before I start wanting something more optimistic to balance it out.

I have learned much about human nature from these writers, insights I would’ve hated to have gained any other way. In the long run, though, I always turn back to poets like Roethke or Whitman who inspire me in deeper ways and appeal to my longings for transcendence.

Thankfully, some of the later poems in the long section VI have turned from self-absorption into a broader view, that is to say, they seem to be saying more about MY life, rather than just poor Henry’s:


You couldn’t bear to grow old, but we grow old.
Our differences accumulate. Our skin
tightens or droops: it alters.
Take courage, things are not what they have been
and they will never again. Hot hearts grow cold,
the rush to the surface falters,

secretive grows the disappearing soul
learned & uncertain, young again
but not in the same way:
Heraclitus had a wise word here to say,
which I forget. We wake & blunder on,
wiser, on the whole,

but not more accurate. Leave that to the young,
grope forward, toward where no one else has been
which is our privilege.
Besides, you gave up early in our age
which is your privilege, from Chatterton
to the bitter & present scene.

Although at first glance this poem appears to be addressed to a particular “You,” perhaps his father who committed suicide at a relatively young age, further reflection suggests it may actually be addressed to people like me, people who are no longer young and start to worry about the effects of aging.

The first and most of the second stanza detail the disadvantages of growing old, though Berryman apparently didn’t live long enough to learn all the disadvantages. By the end of the second stanza, though, there’s a grudging admission that there are some advantages to growing older. One being that we are “wiser, on the whole,” perhaps due to our past blunders.

Perhaps the greatest advantage is that because of our experience — if we are lucky — we are able to “grope forward, toward where no one else has been.

In typical Henry fashion, though, the poem can’t end there, ending with a “dig” at those who have committed suicide, including the English poet Chatterton who served as an icon of unacknowledged genius for the Romantics after committing suicide at 17.

Berryman’s Dream Song 235

It’s hard to imagine how Berryman could have stated more clearly, or more effectively, the terrible effect his father’s suicide had on him than here in Song


Tears Henry shed for poor old Hemingway
Hemingway in despair, Hemingway at the end,
the end of Hemingway,
tears in a diningroom in Indiana
and that was years ago, before his marriage say,
God to him no worse luck send.

Save us from shotguns & fathers’ suicides.
It all depends on who you’re the father of
if you want to kill yourself-
a bad example, murder of oneself,
the final death, in a paroxysm, of love
for which good mercy hides?

A girl at the door: ‘A few coppers pray’
But to return, to return to Hemingway
that cruel & gifted man.
Mercy! my father; do not pull the trigger
or all my life I’ll suffer from your anger
killing what you began.

“God to him [but especially to ME] no worse luck send.“

One almost wonders if Berryman could somehow see his own fate in Hemingway’s suicide after all the times Hemingway ranted about his father’s weakness in taking his life because he (allegedly) couldn’t stand up to his wife.

The poems seem like the ultimate testament to “or all my life I’ll suffer from your anger/ killing what you began.”

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.

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