minstrelsy

John Berryman

[Lowell’s review was important for Berryman: it appeared in the New York Review of Books and at the height of Lowell’s own achievement – For the Union Dead had just been published. Lowell was at times baffled, irritated and dismayed by the poems, and when he offered support, it was remarkably tentative.. His descriptions would set the tone for other reviewers. When eulogizing Berryman in 1972, Lowell blurted out: "77 Dream Songs are harder than most hard modern poetry, the succeeding poems in His Toy are as direct as a prose journal, as readable as poetry can be. This is a fulfillment, yet the 77 Songs may speak clearest, almost John’s whole truth. I misjudged them, and was rattled by their mannerisms."]

… [Berryman’s previous long poem,] Homage to Mistress Bradstreet is the most resourceful historical poem in our language.

Dream Songs is larger and sloppier. The scene is contemporary and crowded with references to news items, world politics, travel, low life, and Negro music. Its style is a conglomeration of high style, Berrymanisms, Negro and beat slang, and baby talk. The poem is written in sections of three six-line stanzas. There is little sequence, and sometimes a single section will explode into three or four separate parts. At first the brain aches and freezes at so much darkness, disorder and oddness. After a while, the repeated situations and their racy jabber become more and more enjoyable, although even now I wouldn’t trust myself to paraphrase accurately at least half of the sections.

The poems are much too difficult, packed, and wrenched to be sung. They are called songs out of mockerym because they are filled with snatches of Negro minstrelsy, and because one of their characters is Mr. Bones [Lowell corrected this error in a later issue: "Mr Bones is not ‘one of their characters’ but the main character, Henry."], who keeps questioning the author and talking for him. The dreams are not real dreams but a waking hallucination in which anything that might have happened to the author can be used at random. Anything he has seen, overheard, or imagined can go in. The poems are about Berryman, or rather they are about a person he calls Henry. Henry is Berryman seen as himself, as poète maudit, child and puppet. He is tossed about with a mixture of tenderness and absurdity, pathos and hilarity that would have been impossible if the author had spoken in the first person.