Jul 18, 2013

John Berryman, "Dream Song 14"

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. 
Angst? Boredom? Nirvana? 

Poetry Foundation says John Berryman's Dream Songs “portray [the speaker] ‘Henry’ [as] an anguished and often-deranged character very much like Berryman.”

 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.
Angst? Boredom? Nirvana?
I don’t find enough to love in the poem. At the risk of sounding insensitive toward clinical depression, it seems a self-indulgent whine with no specific causes for the speaker’s angst (if “angst” is not too ennobling a word for the boredom that ails him).

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.

I do like “the sky flashes, the great sea yearns, / we ourselves flash and yearn.” Those verbs make me wonder if all earthly motion and effort amount to, can be reduced to, flashing and yearning. I cannot dismiss the possibility.

The last line engages me, too. The speaker, Henry, wants to go away with the dog, presumably because the animal is more interesting than humans. Many of us might see it that way, but the poem leaves it an undeveloped and unconvincing proposition.
I don't know these guys, but I like the attitude

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.

What does either possibility do to or for the poem? Turn the whole thing into a joke on the reader?  “Don’t take me seriously—I’m just being a wag.” Or, "I'm terribly bored, and I'm telling myself to wag like a dog's tail. That would fix everything."
Mackinaw Bridge, 5 Miles Long, Connecting Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas

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. 

Dream Song 14 by John Berryman : The Poetry Foundation


Anonymous said...

Didn't we discuss this poem earlier? If so, can you link to that discussion so that I don't either repeat myself or contradict myself.

Banjo52 said...

AH, here's from November 2009. It's the only thing I can find:


Anonymous said...

Ok, you're right; wasn't Berryman. But another poem ever so similar in the end, or the tail, as it were. Now it's going to haunt me, and until I figure it out, I won't be able to explain why I like this poem so very very much.

RuneE said...

I must lack "Inner Resources", because this bored me. But I enjoyed Debit and Credit!

Re your comment: I sincerely hope the comfort is better now, but I don't know about the fun :-)

Banjo52 said...

AH, for what it's worth, I had the same feeling of familiarity about the poem; maybe I considered posting it once and chose not to. I wonder if you're thinking of another confessional poet, like Sexton. As for liking #14, I think you're in the majority. I like the parts I mentioned liking a LOT, but the rest . . .

Rune, maybe it's a guy thing? And that bench makes me want to know who Bob and Ernie were. Accountants? Too witty a marker for accountants? :)

Anonymous said...

I think we're coming at the poem from different angles. I found it very very funny up until the ending. I found the final image strangely sadly beautiful.

Banjo52 said...

AH, I do hear the humor but can't get past its whine, its unconvincing attempt at self-deprecation (by including "Henry" as a boring thing), its sort of teenage sarcasm and rejection of pretty much everything. I can see how the ending tries to save all that from itself and make us realize all that might have been just a set-up for the last two words, which, I agree are affecting.

And I'll give Berryman this: how those final words, or final two lines, achieve their power is almost a testament to the limits and the magic of language. All at once Henry and we find language too limiting to express how completely blocked he is (and we are?) from anything fulfilling, and not boring.

But at the same the concluding language brings us to an understanding, and maybe empathy, that neither Henry nor we can explain with "normal" language. To grasp just how . . . bereft? . . . he is, he and we must rely on words that communicate in an almost supra-rational way.

Have I said anything remotely connected to your point?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Can't say i completely understand the last line but the word 'wag' strikes me as funny. Peoples also - and part of why we named outr cat that 'Peoples'

In terms of whine - seems he's laid the ground of critique on another

I saw the humor

Ken Mac said...

Debit and credit. that's rich!

Hannah Stephenson said...

When I was first getting interested in poetry (maybe age 15 or 16), I LOVED what Berryman did. It just seemed so wacky and deranged....I couldn't predict at all what the poems would do.

I went back to my first contemporary poetry anthology, and I'd marked Dream Song 45...it has a great opening line: "He stared at ruin. Ruin stared straight back."

I think many of these Dream Songs end the same way--with a short list that seems to fall apart/break. This one does it, too.

The "Peoples" bit I took to mean that not just people bore him....but vast populations, peoples...

I do see such angst in these, and self-loathing, especially. I feel sad for him.

His lines don't necessarily stay with me (and I don't count him in my favorite poets now, necessarily), but the mood of his poems does linger. Does that make sense?

Here's Dream Song 45: http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/john_berryman/poems/12154.html

John Evans said...

Maybe I'm taking it too seriously, having dealt with depression in the past. One can choose to focus on the depressing side of life -- or not. I read his poem and my reaction was, "Get away from that." That last line was forlorn, to me. He seemed to have an affinity for the dog, and even the dog has left him in solitude.

Lovers' Lane