Dream Song 14 by John Berryman : The Poetry Foundation
I haven’t had much luck with John Berryman and haven't tried him for a long time, but the literary community takes him very seriously. So I went to the trusty Poetry Foundation to find a thing or two by and about him. I’ve seen “Dream Song #14” a few times—maybe it’s one of Berryman’s most famous in the series.
The Dream Songs display an astonishing variety of poetic resources that include slangy diction and a nervous, fractured syntax. Influenced by the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, psychoanalysis and Berryman’s beloved Shakespeare, they also stirred controversy by drawing on nineteenth century minstrel shows in which white performers in blackface enacted racist stereotypes.
The frankness of Berryman’s work influenced his friend Robert Lowell and other Confessional poets like Anne Sexton. The poet’s lifelong struggles with alcoholism and depression ended in 1972, when he jumped off a Minneapolis bridge in the dead of winter.
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Also, I wonder about Line 3 with “Peoples bore me,” instead of “people.” Is that another self-indulgent Look-at-Me-Me-Me-so-different-so-different? Or is Berryman trying to introduce an ethnic or cultural peoples-of-the-world theme? If so, he leaves it completely undeveloped.
Finally, there’s the appealing play on “wag.” The most obvious meaning to most of us is probably the dog’s tail wagging and the speaker’s missing that happy activity. But that flies in the face of the structure and punctuation. Forgive me, but the grammar, the syntax, and the comma matter. I see two possibilities. First, the speaker might be urging himself to wag like the dog's tail. Secondly, "wag" might be a noun in apposition to "me" in which case the speaker is calling himself a “wag,” somebody who’s witty or jocular and gossipy.
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Even if you find the closure an effective, or at least interesting, choice of words, can it carry and conclude the poem? Or does it shrink the poem to a writer’s effort to mess, perhaps cleverly, with his reader?
These aren't rhetorical questions; I'm really interested in others' takes on the poem and the closure in particular. And if someone out there has Berryman titles that would make me want to explore more of his work, please let me know.