Louise Glück: On "Dream Song 1"

Implicit in the idea of the lyric is the single voice. Berryman’s primary disruption of the lyric is the fracturing of voice. From poem to poem the paradigm varies: minstrel shows, schizophrenia, psychoanalysis, But always one persona taking over for another, taking the stage: these are noisy poems – shattered, voluble, fragmented, desperate, dramatic, futile. The intense purpose characteristic of the lyric becomes, in Berryman, intense cross-purposes. …

… The poem begins with two lines of report: our speaker is someone who knows Henry from the outside ("huffy" being descriptive of behavior) and from the inside ("Unappeasable"). Reasonable, then, to presume that the central figure – with a curious detachment that contains the internalized perpetual reproach of a parent – here describes himself. … If Henry, in lines one and two, is the speaker, the guiding or prevailing intelligence, then who is the "I" of line three? Friendly to the cause, adult, capable of entertaining several ideas at once ("his point" suggests the many other angles already considered). A reader encountering the first person tends to identify that pronoun with a poem’s central intelligence. But the problem in The Dream Songs, the drama of the poems, is the absence of a firm self. …

… [T]he ruminative tone of the third line suggests that its commentary may go on. In fact, it doesn’t: the "I" is immediately absorbed into the intimate childish rancors of lines four and five. "Do it" means do to: it is all things done to Henry against Henry’s unknown, unknowable best interests. The very idea, which is actually Henry’s, that others have such power is enough to send Henry into violent hiding. The power is vague because its agents are hazy. What exists is a sense of victimization, of jeopardy, but it is never particularly explicit. In fact, so well does Henry hide himself that, ultimately, he can’t find where he is either.

….The last line of the first stanza is the line of fate: he should have. He didn’t. Spoken by the mother, her head shaking sadly.

… But there’s a surprising turn in stanza three, surprising and heartbreaking. Who says "Once in a sycamore I was glad / all at the top, and I sang"? This is an "I" different from the "I" of stanza one, who sees. Or the "I" of stanza two, who doesn’t see. This is engagement, not commentary. This is a whole being, in behavior spontaneous, Henry-like, but in tone, calm. The Dream Songs search for such wholeness.


From Louise Glück, "Disruption, Hesitation, Silence" in Proofs & Theories (New York: Ecco, 1994), 77-78. Copyright 1994 by Louis Gluck