Berryman's Dream Songs

January 8, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In December, I attended a short seminar regarding poet John Berryman's Dream Songs. At the end of a wonderful discussion, the host commented on Berryman's ironic, masochistic need to find trouble in a world that readily presented trouble. His father committed suicide, and from then on, he tumbled in a world of addiction and alcoholism. And yet, I find myself wondering about a character like Berryman, an intellectual giant perpetually haunted by demons. Perhaps, in looking for trouble (of all sorts!), he, in a sense, took the reins. If he found trouble, at least he had an idea of what it might be, instead of having trouble find him.

This may help explain why Berryman chose to make a 'hero' out of a nearly un-sympathizable character such as Henry. In Dream Songs, Berryman gives Henry multiple personalities, voices and vices, all of which complicate the narrative. John Berryman's Dream Songs can definitely be viewed in the epic tradition. However, I propose that they have higher ambitions than a mere epic. I believe that Berryman wrote a series of sacred poems. In the same way that Milton depicts a sympathetic Satan, Berryman presents a truly ambiguous character full of sin and faults as the poem's 'hero'. Through Henry, the reader engages with a variety of sin. Having, in a sense, lived through the horror of Henry's sins, the reader comes to understand and accept the full idea of Henry's idea of love. In song #74, Henry despises “the horror of unlove”, which may be, after all, what Berryman wants the reader to understand. Henry was good at horrible deeds. He often hates himself for his desire and greed, but through these struggles he also comes to understand what it means to love and to hate. Much like Milton's Satan, the reader finds themselves unable to hate the character we are meant to hate.

Henry discusses his disgust for our current, commercialized understanding of love in song #69: ”Love her he doesn't but the thought he puts/ into that young woman/ would launch a national product/ complete with TV spots & skywriting/ outlets in Bonn & Tokyo”. While Henry does feel entitled, he also recognizes the false disguises of feeling. He realizes he is neither saint, nor hero. Henry exists (to some degree) in all of us, in the readers, in the world, in the world leaders even. We feel terror at the thought of his sin because we realize the terrible presence of his sins within ourselves and within our social circles. This, in turn, implicates all of society with great sin. Berryman neither states that all humans are completely flawed, nor that all flaws exist simultaneously. Yet, the merging of sin from a text into the emotional reception of the reader implies sin's universality. If true, then Berryman reveals a sacred text for the modern world. The more that society dismisses, denies, ignores or disregards sin, the more heroic Henry becomes.

Berryman attempts to reconcile the world of someone like Anna Karenina with her fate. Henry does not absolve our sins, he presents them to us, boldly, in the gritty reality of acceptance. This is Henry's path towards absolution in a society of misfits (himself included as a misfit). Having reconciled ourselves to both innocence and greed, we can no longer replicate the innocence of Biblical times. Humanity has lived through some pretty difficult and brutal times which leaves Henry with this statement: “I don't see how Henry, pried/ open for all the world to see, survived” (song #1). In other words, Jesus was unflawed: the perfect hero. But perhaps modern society, having lived through world wars and brutal dictatorships, hardly understands a flawless character. Therefore, Berryman reimagines the life of a saint through Henry's flawed, but open record. In a society which continually represses flaws, which refuses to discuss or admit to flaws, Henry's openness reveals society's superficiality.

In “Henry's Confession”, song #70, Henry says, “-I saw nobody coming, so I went instead.” This is not a hero talking. Instead, Henry is someone deprived of all trimmings and ornaments. Deprived of all pride. Laden with sadness, heavy thoughts, and desires, Henry reflects society in general. Berryman's father abandoned him in suicide and this unfortunate reality leaves only one possibility of reconciliation available to his hero, Henry: he must endlessly discuss 'the bullet on that cold concrete stoop'. And, in actuality, we must all address death, even the death of virtue.

Our final impression of Henry comes from song #77, Seedy Henry. We understand that he is not wholesome, but unseemly. We also understand that he is to germinate the next chapter of spiritualism, a spirituality to fit today's grotesque reality. Stripped of all, unashamed, Henry prepares to move on. He holds a text in each hand. He has written old and new testaments for the coming day.

“Henry likes Fall.
Hé would be prepared to líve in a world of Fáll
for ever, impenitent Henry.
But snows and summers grieve & dream;
thése fierce & airy occupations, and love,
raved away so many of Henry's years
it is a wonder that, with in each hand
one of his own mad books and all,
ancient fires for eyes, his head full
& his heart full, he's making ready to move on.”

There is a difference between honor in life, and honor after life. There is a difference between accepting fate and creating it. There is a difference between virtue before sin, and virtue after.

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