Beginning in 1955, John Berryman began a long cycle of confessional poems, all following a strict form of three stanzas with six lines each. Eventually he produced 385 of them, and these were ultimately collected in The Dream Songs. But that full collection has so much material that it is overwhelming for anyone approaching this poetry, so the first collection, 77 DREAM SONGS, is worth examining on its own.
The protagonist of the Dream Songs is a man named Henry, whose last name is never pinned down. The first poem introduces this character and the state he finds himself in: "All the world like a woolen lover / once did seem on Henry's side. / Then came a departure. / Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought. I don't see how Henry, pried / open for all the world to see, survived." Berryman denied that depictions of Henry were autobiographical, but in fact the poems are clearly based on Berryman's own anguished life: feelings of romantic and sexual inadequacy, alcoholism, the travails of life in academia, temporary relief in travels in the Orient, and sorrow at the death of literary friends like Frost and Roethke (and lingering pain from the suicide of the poet's father decades before). Over these individual achings hangs a general existential one:
"Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so. / After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns, / we ourselves flash and yearn, / and morever my mother told me as a boy / (repeatedly) 'Ever to confess you're bored / means you have no // Inner Resources.' I conclude now I have no / inner resources, because I am heavily bored."
As much as Berryman/Henry's existence is plagued with doubt, his poetry is powerful.Read more ›
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