The Daily

The Poem Stuck in My Head

John Berryman’s “Dream Song #14”

February 23, 2012 | by

John Berryman.

The poet is often taken to be a subspecies of the memoirist, stirred to write about her own experiences—the more intense or “authentic,” the better. Thanks to the Romantics we believe that inwardness is truth, truth inwardness. This aesthetic can produce great lyric poetry, but it also tends to blanket many contemporary poems with a kind of fungus of the first person. Also of solemnity. A strong mid-century alkali to such mildew is John Berryman’s long sequence, The Dream Songs. Its main character is Henry, a concoction of Berryman’s own past, of his reading, and of American history. Henry gives utterance to a thousand shades of thought and feeling, of hesitations and inklings—the most intimate stuff of the inner voice—but he does this via verbal theatrics. He is constantly disputing himself, juggling his first, second, and third persons, and the result reads almost like an improvised vaudeville act. Henry’s entanglement with language becomes the central drama of the sequence.

In “Dream Song #14,” the drama, or antidrama, is Henry’s boredom, a thing that is especially tricky to convey. I never tire of the comic-grave, drooping yet metrically perfectionist, repetitious thespian roundelays of this poem. “Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no // Inner Resources” is how Henry quotes his scolding mother. It’s a maxim both wearily conceded and richly facetious. If the brunt of some of the best lyric poetry is that we must strip the costumes off our feelings and confess them truly, Henry is strewing his alternative propaganda that—honestly? dishonestly?—he has none just now. No gainful feelings. And the costumes are of greater interest.

This spirit of rebellion, or rapscallionism, that sparks through all 385 of The Dream Songs (and it pains me to leave out the other 384) may feel so vital because Berryman was, among other things, a serious scholar of Shakespeare, well equipped to gauge the tensile strength of a dramatic monologue. In an essay written around the time he published the last of The Dream Songs, Berryman isolates one of the things that makes an otherwise minor play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, important: “The sudden endowing of a clown—against our expectation—with a voice of his own … A second clown comes onstage alone at II.iii.I and begins to talk to himself, or rather he begins to confide in the audience … Here we attend, for the first time in English comedy, to a definite and irresistible personality, absorbed in its delicious subject to the exclusion of all else; confused, and engaging.” The same might be said of Henry, even when he seems most wearily disengaged.

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

Jana Prikryl is on the editorial staff of The New York Review of Books.

5 COMMENTS

5 Comments

  1. Henry Gould | February 23, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    Yes, true, agree…. but seems there is another level of tensile tension in the Dream Songs… between Henry’s manic intense struggle to escape, & the inexorable fate which seems to loom gloomily ahead… David Perkins (in a study of 20th-cent. poetry) writes about the extremely painful sense of emotional & personal self-entrapment in the Dream Songs… that very repetitive undertow of grievous sorrow… a sort of caged inwardness, against which all his “rapscallionism” dances, in vain. Hence emerged Berryman’s late “devotional” poems, & the novel Recovery, filled with an aura of humility & renunciation (contrasting somewhat thus with “Henry”)….

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Dream Songs can’t simply be juxtaposed with the standard “memoirism” of that era. It’s a case of both/and. The hectic magpie style struggles against its own involuted inward narcissism.

    & I love the resulting poetry.

  2. Jack Barns | February 24, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    ^ or he’s just bored, but thanks for the dissertation

  3. Gus | February 28, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    I used to walk on a daily basis over the bridge that Berryman jumped off to end his life. I often thought of this poem when doing so.

  4. Roger Selavy | May 16, 2012 at 1:51 am

    I used to jump off the bridge that Berryman walked over to the end of his life. I often thought of you when doing so.

  5. Olga Fedorova | June 15, 2014 at 9:18 pm

    I used to think of you when I walked over Berryman. While doing so, I often ended my life.

Leave a Comment