By Stephanie Burt
Featured Image: Abstract by Carl Newman 1858-1932
I’m not sure when I first realized I was “serious” about writing poetry—1987? 1990?—but I am sure that John Berryman played a role. I spent part of my teens, and a slice of my twenties, hung up on so-called “confessional” art—the kind of art that claims to give a raw, or at least medium rare, slice of the artist’s soul; the kind of art that glories in broken taboos, that draws its rhetorical force from its power to shock, that turns its intelligence into a drill driven down as forcefully as possible into the lowest layers of an artist’s life. I admired the music of the Washington, DC, rock band Rites of Spring, the blank-verse sonnets of Robert Lowell, the apostles of Action Painting, and I still do. But I admired, most of all, the John Berryman of The Dream Songs, who seemed to me almost uniquely able to combine the confessional with the self-critical, the rawly shameful with the really entertaining. Berryman could mourn while he mugged for the cameras (as in his series of elegies for Delmore Schwartz), and still make the mourning seem genuine; he could flirt with suicide (as in the penultimate poem of His Toy, His Dream, His Rest) and revel in language that made even his life—or especially his life—seem clearly worth living. Hadn’t I felt that way too? (Hadn’t I felt as ridiculous as he felt, as important, as full of resentment and lust?)
I love the lighter, the less “confessional” Dream Songs (“Life, friends, is boring”) as much as I did. And I’ve noticed how influential The Dream Songs are now (as they were not in 1990): just this week I see yet another homage to Berryman in yet another first book (Samuel Amadon’s Like a Sea), and I won’t say I mind. But I’ve fallen out of love with a lot of The Dream Songs, and decidedly out of love with their presiding persona, the “Henry” who both is and is not the author: I find him inventive, agile, but often shallow, self-conscious without self-knowledge, a source of temptation, even a source of pathology, a record of an artist unthinkingly dominated by some of the most persistently repellent aspects of his time.
Some people have trouble with Henry, and hence with The Dream Songs, because he sometimes breaks into blackface dialect, especially when addressed by the offstage Other, the second minstrel, who calls him Mr. Bones. But that’s not the problem for me: rather, it’s a symptom of a problem, and not the most visible symptom either.
The Dream Songs present a man who suspects that the life of the artist—the straight male artist—is the only real subject, the only one for him: too often the poets for whom he writes elegies become alternate versions of The Artist, and the women become his props. “I most love those for whom the world is real,” James Merrill once wrote: the Berryman of The Dream Songs could not have said that, because the Berryman of The Dream Songs was too often a man who did not seem to realize how often he made other people— especially women—unreal. Consider “A Stimulant for an Old Beast” (Dream Song number 3): “I’m not so young, but not so very old, / said screwed-up lovely 23 . . . Women get under things.” The pun is fine (women have underclothes that men remove) but the tone is hard, now, for me to enjoy.
Dream Song 4 (included in The Norton Anthology of Poetry) shows a young woman “Filling her compact & delicious body / with chicken páprika . . . and only the fact of her husband & four other people // kept me from springing on her // or falling at her little feet.” In other words: only force majeure keeps the Henry persona from rape, or from what we now (“springing on her”) would surely call rape: Henry appears to think “springing on her” belongs in the same register as “falling at her little feet,” since both are expressions of sexual devotion. I am not troubled so much by these sorts of assumptions when they underpin the language of poems from 400 years ago (see Philip Sidney’s “The Nightingale” for a particularly well-constructed, particularly hair-raising example), but I have trouble when the poets are our contemporaries—as Berryman (1914-1972) still seems to me to be.
The erotic desires of adult straight men have become notoriously hard to depict without silliness in modern verse: other than Seamus Heaney, it’s hard to think of a living poet who has done well by them. And Berryman—in this sense even more of a good Freudian (or a good American-Freudian) than his friends were—placed erotic desire and erotic fulfillment near the core of Henry’s sense of himself. That placement harms—if not the poems themselves—then my ability to enjoy them now.
The Dream Songs are a wonderful collection of verbal fireworks, but they are also a sporadic record of (as we call it today) sexual harassment, a series of poems in which women are goals, and men the triumphant adventurers who go in quest of them. “You had so many women your life was a triumph / and you loved your one wife”—this from Berryman’s elegy for Williams, “The Lovely Man”; Williams himself (see “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”) would not have put it so blithely. “Them lady poets must not marry, pal” (Dream Song 187): so begins his elegy for Plath. (It gets better, but—yikes.) In “MLA” (Dream Song 39) Henry advises the “assistant professors” to “forget your footnotes . . . dance around Mary”; for Mary, who may or may not be an assistant professor herself, he offers no advice. As for “Mrs Thomas, Mrs Harris and Mrs Neevel,” “all his students” in Dream Song 254, “He couldn’t tell, from the other, one,” because he sees them only as women, as wives.
Such attitudes were normal for the period (77 Dream Songs appeared in 1963), but they were not normal in the durable poems of its major poets: not even the heterosexual men, not even the ones with complicated and often culpable love lives (Creeley and Lowell come to mind). What undercuts my pleasure as a reader here is not Berryman’s honesty about lust, but the lack of reflection around that honesty, the lack of self-consciousness about lust and power and entitlement (in a set of poems that is self-conscious about almost everything else). Henry compares himself elsewhere to “a coon treed” and to a man in hell, because the woman he loves, or wants, or seeks, has left the house, “retrieving her whole body, which I need”; a few Songs later, Henry prays, “Vouchsafe me, Sleepless One, / a personal experience of the body of Mrs Boogry / before I pass from lust!” It’s ridiculous, it’s virtuosic, and it’s neither serious nor funny: it is perhaps the reduction to absurdity, the last ebb or flourish, of Petrarchism, of a myth about romantic love which casts women as stars and men as needy seekers, or as heroic adventurers, discovering for the first time the great phallic self, and speaking throughout to an all-male audience (pal), for whom the interlocutor (the one who calls Henry “Mr. Bones”) serves as a kind of stand-in, a kind of relay.
But it’s not just the representations of women that get in the way; it’s the sense of heroic helplessness—the sense that The Artist, Berryman’s kind of artist, deserves and gets special attention because he is a man compelled: the same great force that removes his inhibitions is the source of his poetic gifts, a source particularly odd (and particularly modern) because it demands our respect for no better reason than that it enables him to write poetry. Dream Song 4 ends memorably: “There ought to be a law against Henry,” Henry says, to which the interlocutor replies, “Mr Bones: there is.” That vivid ending lets him off too lightly, because it elides the man with his actions, and thus prevents the former (the man) from admitting that he might, if he chose, change the latter (the actions). Here and in many other passages, The Dream Songs is seemingly sheepish but actually proud, and its self-accusations are really self-defenses. (Robert Lowell, by contrast—the Lowell of the poems—did not find his transgressions forgivable, much less funny; my problem with much of The Dream Songs is also a problem with much of Lowell’s The Dolphin, but not with Life Studies, or History, or “1930s,” or Day by Day.)
The Berryman of The Dream Songs is, as the medical people say, “disinhibited”; alcohol does that to people, and it’s hard to watch, no matter how brilliantly they perform. That performance doesn’t ruin all The Dream Songs for me—not by any means—but it does spoil some, and tarnish more. (The best contemporary poetry indebted to Berryman—and the best of it is wonderful—tends to decouple performance from autobiography, more fully than he did or could.) Berryman’s very late poetry, inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous—and uneven as it is—looks better the more you see the flaws in The Dream Songs: it looks like the work of a man who has realized that the life of the artist, even the life of an artist whose subject is The Life of the Artist, includes the same obligations as the life of the plumber, the physicist, the planter, the second-grade teacher; that poetry can explain, but it cannot excuse; that abandon is no more interesting than repentance; and that other people are at least as important as he can be.
Stephanie Burt is Professor of English at Harvard. Her most recent works include the chapbook For All Mutants and the collection After Callimachus.
Originally published in NOR 7