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Posts Tagged ‘The Dream Songs’

Six More Public Cases

September 27, 2016 | by


In March 2016, our correspondent Anthony Madrid began composing a set of quasi-kōans (on the theme “What is poetry for?”) for the Chicago arts and commentary magazine The Point. What follows is the second of two sets written for the Daily. (The first one ran in July.) Madrid’s unwieldy and indeed unusable title for the first set was “Both speech and silence are involved in transcendent detachment and subtle wisdom. How can we pass through without error?” His unusable title for the present set is “I always remember Jiangnan in May; where the partridges call, the hundred flowers are fragrant.” (Taken together, the two titles constitute Case 24 in the Song Dynasty kōan collection Wumenguan.)

Public Case 6: Ancient Chinese

Our teacher said: “Has anyone ever noticed that many of the most attractive ancient Chinese poets have the same ideas about poetry as modern American high school students? Anyhow, the themes are the same. What am I doing today. How am I feeling. What’s my philosophy. What can I see from where I’m sitting. What just happened. I am kind of a loser. What are my favorite quotes.”

One of the students said: “James Schuyler.”

Comment. It is hard for twenty-first-century USA poets to really understand old Chinese poetry: no surprise there. The surprise is that we find our own childhoods as difficult to “relate to” as the literary world of premodern China. We rub our eyes in disbelief when we have anything in common with either.

Tao Qian, James Schuyler, our own sixteen-year-old selves—of course they write about what they can see from where they’re sitting. What else can be seen? 

The truth is almost everyone has almost everything in common. The main exception is the people who are “too smart for that.” They make a point of not having anything in common with anybody. Read More »

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. Read More »