J. M. Linebarger

J. M. Linebarger: On "Dream Song 384"

The emotions that Henry expresses toward his father are as we would expect, ambivalent. Thrice he explicitly states his continuing love for his father (143, 145). But rage and despair dominate the last reference to the father, in the penultimate Dream Song. Henry stands before his father's grave, longing not to be darkly moved by the thought of hiS father’s suicide. Unable to feel indifference he spits on the grave; and he ends the poem in a vicious and mad wish to re-kilI his father:

I'd like to scrabble till I got right down  away down under the grass  and ax the casket open ha to see  just how he's taking it, which he sought so hard . . .                                                              & then Henry  will heft the ax once more, his final card,  and fell it on the start.

Henry's presence at the gravesite is only an imagined scene if William J. Martz is correct in saying that Berryman never returned to it. The angry wish to kill the father is a result of the emotions that Henry has suffered because of his father's death—fear, angst resentment, a sense of desertion. These are the emotions that Berryman finds dominant in the first two of Stephen Crane's "Sullivan County Sketches." Like Berryman, Crane was only a boy when his father died. Berryman feels that the sketches are based upon that loss and present a "world . . . of perfect aloneness, in which relations are possible only through rage and fear" (37-40). Henry's fear and aloneness are clear in other Dream Songs; his rage is fully expressed in the scene of axing his already-dead father. That Berryman had the "Sullivan County Sketches" in mind as he wrote Song 384 is suggested by the phrase "his final card"; the first sketch presents a mysterious old recluse who plays cards with a younger man and "cleans the little man out and howls ‘GO.’" ". . . We have here," Berryman says, "a fantasy on Crane's father and the child's sense of abandonment (impoverishment) as his resented death . . ." (Stephen Crane, 39)

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

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.