The Dream Songs

Helen Vendler: On "Negro Minstrelsy" in The Dream Songs

The fiction of The Dream Songs .. is that its two protagonists are "end men" in an American minstrel show. This common form of vaudeville (still seen in my childhood) presented, while the curtain was lowered between vaudeville acts, banter between two "end men," one standing at stage left, one at stage right, in front of the closed curtain. The end men were white actors in exaggerated blackface, whol told jokes in an exaggerated Negro dialect, one acting the taciturn "straight man" to the buffoonery of the other. They addressed each other by nicknames such as "Tambo" or "Mr. Bones" (the latter a name referring to dice). The unnamed Friend in The Dream Songs, acting as straight man and speaking to Henry in Negro dialect, addresses Henry as "Mr. Bones" or variants thereof. Henry, the voluble, infantile, and plaintive chief speaker, is the lyric "I" of the songs: he never addresses his "straight man" by name. Henry’s own colloquial idiolect (sometimes represented in third-person free indirect discourse or second-person self-reproach) is not exclusively framed in any one dialect, but rather exhibits many dialectical influences, from slang to anarchism to baby-talk.

One can see that there is no integrated Ego in The Dream Songs: there is only Conscience at one end of the stage and the Id at the other, talking to each other across a Void, never able to find common ground. …

From Helen Vendler, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition (The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent), (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1995), 35-36.

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.

Denis Donoghue on "Huffy Henry"

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.

Helen Vendler on: "The Dream Songs"

Though it is tempting to characterize the two protagonists of The Dream Songs—the 'imaginary character' Henry and his nameless 'friend'—by the words of faculty psychology—'intellect' for the friend, and 'will' for the irrepressible Henry, a much better fit comes if we speak loosely of the two protagonists of The Dream Songs as Superego and Id. Yet, though the second of these two names fits the anarchic protagonist Henry reasonably well, the unnamed Friend, representing both common sense and conscience, does not exhibit the irrationality and sadism of the Freudian Superego, though he utters the reproaches proper to it. He could more properly, perhaps, be called Conscience, like something out of a medieval Christian allegory. In fact, it is the very crossing of the Christian model of the Friend with the Freudian model generating Henry that makes The Dream Songs an original book; two great schemes of Western thought, the religious and the psychoanalytic, contend for Berryman's soul in a hybrid psychomachia.

The fiction of the Dream Songs (first published as 77 Dream Songs in 1964) is that its two protagonists are 'end men' in an American minstrel show. This common form of vaudeville (seen in my childhood) presented, while the curtain was lowered between vaudeville acts, banter between two 'end men,’ one standing at stage left, one at stage right, in front of the closed curtain. The end men were white actors in exaggerated blackface, who told jokes in exaggerated Negro dialect, one acting as the taciturn 'straight man' to the buffoonery of the other. They addressed each other by nicknames such as—'Tambo' or 'Mr Bones' (the latter a name referring to dice). The unnamed Friend in The Dream Songs, acting as straight man and speaking to Henry in Negro dialect, addresses Henry as 'Mr Bones' or variants thereof. Henry, the voluble, infantile, and plaintive chief speaker, is the lyric ‘I’ of the songs; he never addresses his 'straight man' by name. Henry's own colloquial idiolect (sometimes represented in third-person free indirect discourse or second-person self-reproach) is not exclusively framed in any one dialect, but rather exhibits many dialectical influences, from slang to archaism to baby-talk.

One can see that there is no integrated Ego in The Dream Songs: there is only Conscience at one end of the stage and the Id at the other, talking to each other across a void, never able to find common ground. In the early Dream Songs, the fastidious John Berryman writing the poem never enters the verse, and never interacts with either of his split under-selves. As he wrote about his Henry, ‘Who Henry was, or is, has proved undiscoverable by the social scientists. It is . . . certain that he claimed to be a minstrel.’ Each Dream Song is (with very few exceptions) eighteen lines long, and is divided into three six-line irregularly rhyming stanzas—an isometric form one might associate, looking backward, with Berryman's debt to the meditative Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet sequences or, looking forward to the therapeutic fifty minutes, with the, inflexible and anecdotal psychiatric hour. Theoretically, anything can be said within this arbitrary limit, but one has to stop when one's time (one's rhyme) is up. Henry, the Id, has a great deal to say: he is petulant, complaining, greedy, lustful, and polymorphously perverse; he is also capable of childlike joy and disintegrative rage. Henry's life has been blasted, as he tells us, by the suicide of his father when he was a boy; he is driven by a random avidity, often sexual, which he indulges shamelessly until the unnamed Conscience reproaches him.

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

Adrienne Rich: On "Negro Minstrelsy" in The Dream Songs

A new language is evolving in the heads of some Americans who use English. Some streak of genius in Berryman told him to try on what he’s referred to as "that god-damned baby talk," that blackface dialect, for his persona. No political stance taught him, no rational sympathy with negritude. For blackface is the supreme dialect and posture of this country, going straight to the roots of our madness. A man who needs to discourse on the most extreme, most tragic subjects, has recourse to nigger talk. "Arrive a time when all coons lose dere grip" … early in the 77; most flamboyant, most broad blackface. Later, more complexly, the muted, the whispering "Come away, Mr. Bones." Come away! Shakespeare’s English and some minstrelsy refrain meet, salute and inform each other.

 

From Adrienne Rich, "Living with Henry," (originally in the Harvard Advocate in Spring 1969), rep. in Harry Thomas Ed. Berryman’s Understanding: Reflections on the Poetry of John Berryman (Boston: Northeastern U P, 1988), 129-130