John Berryman and The Dream Songs

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns…” – light show by olson j

To celebrate the centenary of American poet John Berryman’s birth, John Canfield explores his inventive, intense and endlessly intriguing Dream Songs.

I first discovered John Berryman’s poetry about six years ago. He kept cropping up, being name checked by contemporary poets (Simon Barraclough and Stephen Romer) and musicians (The Hold Steady and Nick Cave). I took this as a sign, bought a Selected Poems and from that point on have been hooked.

He was born as John Allyn Smith, Jr. on October 25 1914 in Oklahoma. His mother was a former elementary school teacher and his father a banker. They separated when he was young, and in 1926, when John was twelve, his father committed suicide by shooting himself, an act that would forever reverberate through his life and his art. His mother remarried to John Angus McAlpin Berryman less than three months later, and the young John was renamed after his new stepfather.

He showed early academic and literary talent, studied at Columbia University and Cambridge and for most of his subsequent life worked as a teacher and academic at various high profile Universities. His first published books were The Dispossessed (1948)and Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1953), a long poem about Anne Bradstreet, the first published female poet in America in the 17th Century. He also wrote the fantastic Sonnets to Chris sequence throughout these years, but as it was about an adulterous affair he was having at the time, it wasn’t published until 1967.

In mid-1955, Berryman began writing what has become the foundation of his reputation: The Dream Songs. In their completed version, there are 385 of these 18-line poems (sadly, the whole sequence is not currently available in this country, but God bless the internet), and they blew me away. Some of them confused me, some of them moved me and some of them made me laugh out loud on public transport. As Berryman wrote towards the end of the sequence:

These songs are not meant to be understood, you understand.
They are only meant to terrify & comfort.
Dream Song 366

The Dream Songs came in two parts: 77 Dream Songs was published in 1964 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year, and a further 308 songs were published as His Toy, His Dream, His Rest in 1968. Broadly speaking they are about and in the voice of a character, Henry, who shares many of Berryman’s own habits and preoccupations – but as Berryman himself explained, “I must remind you that not only is it not me, it’s not even Henry. He’s sleeping.” The question of how much of a poet we can or should discover in their poems is particularly relevant in The Dream Songs and Berryman deliberately plays with this.

Probably one of the most well known, and for my money, brilliant songs in the first section is number 14 (some of them have titles, some are just numbered).

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.’

Read the rest of the poem.

It’s impossible to summarise The Dream Songs, but this one goes some way to explaining their flavour and their appeal (and is especially enjoyable to see him read it): the broad humour; the fractured syntax and startling use of language; learned references and strange images; the form holding it all together, but with a looseness so that it never overbears and becomes repetitive.

Dream Song 54 says “Write as short as you can,/ in order, of what matters.” That this advice is followed by a further 331 Songs might seem to contradict this wisdom, but individually or taken as a whole they hone in on what matters to “Henry”, who is at the very least an alter-ego for Berryman. In a 1970 interview he said “Henry both is and is not me, obviously. We touch at certain points. But I am an actual human being; he is nothing but a series of conceptions – my conceptions.” But, conceptually they share a fascination with the same subjects: money, art, women, fame, the suicide of loved ones, alcohol and depression.

It was the latter of these that would lead Berryman to take his own life in January 1972. In 1970 he had published his last collection, Love & Fame, and subsequently completed another collection, Delusions, etc. which was published posthumously. But it’s in The Dream Songs that we see all the pain and the skill and the wit and the playfulness that Berryman had. I keep returning to them again and again and finding new surprises each time, and his influence and the references to him keep cropping up. Or maybe, now, I go looking for them.

John Canfield

John Canfield is a London-based poet. His poems have appeared in magazines and anthologies including Oxford Poetry, Transom Journal, Poems in Which, A Poetic Primer for Love and Seduction: Naso was my Tutor, Coin Opera II and Double Bill. He trained as an actor, but due to a clerical error currently works in an accounts department.



Published October, 2014

One thought on “John Berryman and The Dream Songs

  1. interesting piece. Always loved Berryman’s poetry and the Dream Songs in particular. Got them both in original hardback. Did my undergraduate dissertation on the Dream Songs. So glad he’s getting due recognition. Thanks.

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