Excerpted Criticism

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Joel Conarroe: On "Dream Song 29"

[Conarroe quotes the last stanza.]

… The lines above describe the morning horrors of an alcoholic who has no memory at all of what he may have done during a blacked-out period the night before, and who automatically fears the worst. Though nobody is ever missing, Henry knows that he is capable of "ending" someone and hacking her up (a recurring misogynous fantasy in Berryman’s work), and this helps account for his identification with [Richard] Speck, who murdered several nurses in Chicago, with the insane Texas sniper [Charles] Whitman (whose father taught him "respect for guns but not for people"), and with Loeb, who gave himself wholly to crime. One is inevitably reminded of Life Studies in which Robert Lowell expresses a terrible sense of kinship with Czar Lepke of Murder Incorporated [in "Memories of West Street and Lepke"].


from Joel Conarroe , John Berryman: An Introduction to the Poetry (New York: Columbia U P, 1977), 101-102. Copyright 1977 Columbia University Press.

Edward Mendelson: On "Dream Song 29"

This song, number 29, exemplifies in an unusually clear and regular manner the paratactic method by which almost all the songs are organized. The first sestet describes an experience in intensely private terms; the "thing" is on Henry’s heart, the cough "in Henry’s ears." In the second sestet he notices or remembers the world outside, and does so through a metaphor ("a grave Sienese face") whose vehicle at least is publicly accessible, although the tenor is only an unspecified guilty "reproach." Rather than locating sound "in Henry’s ears," it is the bells, outside, that speak; and although blind, Henry at least "attends." Finally, in the last sestet, he acknowledges almost in defeat the social world of others, all those who persist in surviving despite his dreams of violence (the cause of the "reproach" is now identified), who remind him that the thing on his heart is only private. This neat enactment of Husserlian epistemology (awareness of self, things, others) recurs throughout The Dream Songs. But often in reverse order – with the awareness of others narrowing down to awareness of self – or in some other variant pattern.

From Edward Mendelson, "How to Read Berryman’s ‘Dream Songs’ in Robert B. Shaw, Ed. American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perceptions (Cheadle Hulme: Carcanet, 1974).

J. M. Linebarger: On "Dream Song 29"

The Song is about Henry's response to the death of the father, the funeral itself (the "cough," "odour," and "chime"), and Henry's hallucinations about killing others. Berryman quoted the poem in 1965 to illustrate his technique, and then he commented about it: "Whether the diction of that is consistent with blackface talk, heel- spinning puns, coarse jokes, whether the end of it is funny or frightening, or both, I put up to the listener. Neither of the American poets who as reviewers have quoted it admiringly has committed himself so I won't."

from John Berryman. Copyright © 1974 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.

J. M. Linebarger: on "Dream Song 22"

Dream Song 22, "Of 1826," criticizes America for its anti-intellectualism, Dale Carnegie salesmanship, domineering women, and devotion to television. The last stanza mentions one important fact we have forgotten ("Collect" here means "prayer"): "Collect: . . . the dying man / . . . is gasping "Thomas Jefferson still lives" / in vain. . . ." Berryman said in 1967 that "no national memory but ours could forget the fact that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the same day—the fourth of July in 1826." Adams did make the remark "Thomas Jefferson still survives" as he lay on his death-bed.

from John Berryman. Copyright © 1974 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.

Joel Conarroe: On "Dream Song 5"

[Conarroe quotes the first stanza.]

As in many of the poems, the peculiar language, which adds a comic tone to the whisky broodings, presents no obstacles to a reader’s comprehension. Henry, sitting at a bar (perhaps The Brass Rail [in Minneapolis]), is reflected in a mirror, which is some distance from his glass of bourbon. He likens himself to St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who was stoned to death, and sees himself as "getting even" for his own martyrdom by being at odds with God, and by "getting stoned" in the bar. The "getting even" is played against "was odd," and "at odds," producing a play on "odds and evens." The cruel references to his wife is softened if we notice Henry’s habitual baby-talk, as in number 114 ("Henry is weft on his own") and translate "wife" to "life," so that the bitter comment is also self-directed. (It is curious that he also uses "wif," which makes a play with "wife," but not "nuffing." It is never possible to predict exactly where Henry’s verbal inventions will take him.)


from Joel Conarroe , John Berryman: An Introduction to the Poetry (New York: Columbia U P, 1977), 100-101. Copyright 1977 Columbia University Press.

Helen Vendler: On "Dream Song 4"

Dream Song #4, a farcical sketch of Henry in a restaurant lusting after someone else's young wife: this is Berryman' s picture of the Id at work, checked in its lust by Conscience. It is a poem unthinkable in American poetry before the postwar Freudian era: . . .

It is Berryman's gaiety of writing, his joyous blasphemy of traditional love-poetry, that wins us in this Song. The parodic aspects are several: the planctus takes place in a restaurant; the lady is reduced to her body engaged in the inglorious act of eating; she is guarded not only by her husband but by a comic superfluity of 'four other people'; the Petrarchan lover's cry of adoration is debased to 'You are the hottest one . . . / Henry's dazed eyes /have enjoyed'; the lover continues to eat, and does not omit to notice that it is spumoni that he is, even if despairingly, eating; the lover's jealousy makes him cartoon the husband as 'The slob beside her'; the lover's admiration of the lady's beauty suddenly descends to a crude interest in her buttocks ('What wonders is / she sitting on, over there?'); and the conventional eloignement of the lady takes on tones of science fiction: 'She might as well be on Mars.' The lover's comment is of the fist-to-brow soap-opera kind—'Where did it all go wrong?'

The growling, resentful, truculent, unmanageable Henry is an enviable comic creation, and his repertoire of semiotic reference, old and new, is lovably various in both serious and parodic ways. We become marginally convinced, by such a poem, that the troubadours were Henrys too, and that Berryman is merely uncovering the unsalubrious, but oddly solacing, layer of psychic squalor beneath high artistic convention. And yet, at the same time, we see the negative of this truth: that even the lustful and coarse-minded Henry wants to call his 'feeding girl' by a name like 'Brilliance,' to see her eyes as 'jewelled' and her company as a 'feast.' These are all metaphors straight out of the love-tradition, and what is exhilarating in Berryman as a writer is the balance between the parodic and the ecstatic that he keeps alive, as he reveals both the body's abject yearning for idealization, and the mind's conspiratorial desire for buttocks.


from The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Helen Vendler


Paul Breslin: On "Dream Song 4"

With Berryman, the adoption of "Henry" as a persona mitigates the bluntness of self-disclosure. So does his self-deprecatory wit. Lowell and Plath are seldom funny, and even when they are, theirs is a muted, saturnine humor. Already by the fourth Dream Song, Berryman has struck a comic note never sounded in their poetry:

and only the fact of her husband & four other people kept me from springing on her

or falling at her little feet and crying 'You are the hottest one for years of night Henry's dazed eyes have enjoyed, Brilliance.' I advanced upon (despairing) my spumoni.

Much as I like Berryman at his best, I have omitted detailed discussion of his work, because he seems less "confessional," in the sense defined by Rosenthal and Alvarez, than Lowell and Plath. Although Berryman occasionally claimed representative implications for his private suffering (as in the Massachusetts Review interview quoted earlier), the poems seldom draw the sorts of parallels between personal and social history that one finds in those of Lowell and Plath, who, between them, define a polarity within the confessional mode.

from The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by the U of Chicago P.

Denis Donoghue: On "Dream Song 1"

On the first page of the first dream song we read, stanza 3:

What he has now to say is a long  wonder the world can bear & be.  Once in a sycamore I was glad  all at the top, and I sang.  Hard on the land wears the strong sea  and empty grows every bed.

Three voices, two lines each, speaking in one stanza. The first voice is objective, the poet introducing his character, giving the gist of his theme. The second voice may be received as Henry's voice, recalling the good times, sycamores and songs. But the third voice is different from either; it is generic, representative, apocalyptic, Mankind rather than any particular man, Henry or J. B. or anyone else. In this third voice the feeling is universal rather than local; it is consistent with the first and second voices, but distinct, as if its experience were the history of the world rather than the fate of a man. It is my understanding that these three voices are nearly as many as the poet requires for his long poem: the unidentified friend who addresses Henry occasionally as Mr. Bones uses an AI Jolson voice and a chocolate idiom to admonish his white American friend, but beyond that degree he is hardly distinguished from any other figure, silent, sympathetic, watchful. So the three voices are nearly enough.

from Art International 13, no. 3 (March 20, 1969)

Joel Conarroe: On "Dream Song 1"

The stanzas are self-contained, but the rhythms are more complex, and the norm on which the variations are played is the four—rather than five—stress line. The sound pattern is also more subtle, the strong regular rhymes (day-away, thought-ought, etc.) partly obscuring the less obtrusive slant rhymes (sulked-talked, long-sang, glad-bed).

With its alliterative opening phrase followed by a caesura the first line resembles Anglo-Saxon verse. except that the half line following the pause fails to repeat the pattern of the first half. It is clear that the repetition of the "h" sound is meant to underscore the implications of "huffy." The pause. however. where one would logically expect a preposition, such as "throughout," thus making a conventional five-stress line, lets the reader know immediately that he must collaborate actively, must suspend his expectations and learn to hear Henry's music. After the comically alliterative expression of persecution ("the thought that they thought"), Henry describes himself (the "I" and "his" being the same person) as "wicked & away." This odd phrase, totally unexpected, is quintessential Berryman, the sort of thing that accounts, at least in part, for the charm of Henry's lengthy lamentation.

The transition between the first stanza and the second is implicit rather than obvious: we immediately discover why Henry is in such a rotten mood. The world was once on his side, like a woolen lover, which suggests someone wrapped in a warm blanket, sharing Henry's side of the bed (and the empty bed emerges explicitly at the song's end). Following the departure, and the ensuing disappointment, Henry introduces the image of being "pried open." There are several possible interpretations for this phrase. It suggests, for one thing, an oyster, pried open for its pearl—and "all the world" was Henry's oyster once. (In number 25 he is referred to as "valved.") It also suggests the scene of number 91 in which, like Lazarus, Henry is dug up from a grave. And "pried open" implies, in addition, an operation, a reading that takes on added resonance when we come to number 67, in which Henry conducts operations of great delicacy on his own body. (In number 8, another hospital poem, "they lifted off / his covers till he showed, and cringed & pled.") The word "pry" also hints at secrets, knowledge of intimate details, and as a poet Henry has been, and still is, on display, his "pride" in his "long wonder" subject to the world's scrutiny. The world, however, no longer a single lover, is now a manipulative, impersonal "they."

While in stanza two Henry does not understand how he survived, he introduces in the final stanza an elegiac lament for past happiness—the memory of what has been and never more will be—when he sang like a bird in a tree. This image, which derives from references in the Sonnets to the sycamore outside Lise's house (and which may also allude to Zacchaeus in a tree, watching Christ pass), is picked up in the final song in the first book: "The glories of the world struck me, made me aria, once," and later, in number 352, "He sang on like a harmful bird," as well as elsewhere. The concluding lines have considerable power. In the course of the songs we come to associate the sea both with Berryman's mother (and birth) and with his father (and death). In this case the "empty bed," following the sexual pun in "hard on," looks back specifically to the departed woolen lover as well as generally to attrition (the sea wearing down the land) and to loss through death. Moreover, the movement from the singing bird to the empty bed is related to the image in number 68 of Pinetop and Charlie (Bird) Parker playing the "'Empty Bed" blues.

This song, putting forth images of a man sulking alone (like Achilles when his bedmate has been taken from him), of a woolen lover, of a prying open, a sycamore, and finally of the sea and an empty bed, introduces its symbols with the associational logic of a dream. It is helpful when reading the songs to remember that dreams (including nightmares), on which so many of them are modelled, are mysterious, that they tend to lack coherent transitions, and that their symbols are often grotesquely distorted. To explain away particularly difficult passages, however, by saying that dreams are, after all, inscrutable, would be to give up our critical and imaginative prerogatives too easily. Dreams (and songs, and poets) can be analyzed, if not always definitively, then at least suggestively. Moreover, there are a great many songs (the one describing Pound at Eliot's funeral, for example) that have nothing to do with dreams. A few, some quite wonderful (101, 317), are apparently transcriptions of dreams, but these are out-numbered by those in which dreamwork, if involved at all, comprises only one facet of the song.

The caesura in line one, the ampersand in line five ("wicked & away"), the complex interlacing of rhymes, the repeated word ("Henry" is named five times in eleven lines), and the images picked up in other songs are all strategies that Berryman employs throughout the book.

from John Berryman: An Introduction to the Poetry. Copyright © 1977 by Columbia UP.