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Curses John Berryman
on July 29, 2003
Curse you John Berryman! You have ruined my ear for other poets. THE DREAM SONGS is one of those award-winning modern epics you wonder why you are reading until near the end, when you realize that you have slipped completely into the author's syntaxes, thoughts and, yes, dreams.
Don't let Berryman in his forward tell you different: this book is baldly autobiographical. Berryman dubbed himself Henry, gave a voice to his traumatized psyche (Mr. Bones) and set them talking, unraveling a lifetime of scholarship mixed with pain.
If you have read about Berryman, you will see him instantly in THE DREAM SONGS. Yet, unlike Robert Lowell, Berryman doesn't assume a familiarity with his biography that verges on solipsism. It is enough to know his father killed himself, Berryman killed himself, Berryman had affairs, was an alcoholic, was married several times and that he dearly loved literature, especially Shakespeare, some of whose Sonnets he parodies.
There is no narrative to the 385 Songs, per se. They come in thematic groups, which are grouped into seven 'books' and, like diary entries, chronicle whatever is on Henry's mind, which is often the untimely deaths other poets, such as Delmore Schwartz and Sylvia Plath. Like most "modern" poetry, THE DREAM SONGS is a tough slog through sentences that may or may not make sense. Except if you read them enough and carefully, they start making sense. It's a magical effect, but not gained without some serious struggle.
The poems themselves are incomparable to anything I've read before. Berryman borrows aspects of African-American English and WCWesque directness. He composes dehydrated, idiosyncratically-punctuated sentences that straddle stanzas of six lines, often rhymed and never predictable in length. Individual lines sometimes break into startling caesuras or hover outside the regular three-of-six form. However inconsisent individually, the poems achieve a perverse (foolish?) consistency overall which, grasped, is that magical concussion I spoke of before. THE DREAM SONGS are nothing if not unique; I highly-recommend them as part of a balanced poetic diet.