Books: The Metropolitan Critic — John Berryman: On the <i>Dream Songs</i> |
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John Berryman: On the Dream Songs

If the contention is accepted that an excess of clarity is the only kind of difficulty a work of art should offer, John Berryman’s Dream Songs (it is surely permissible by now to call the complete work by that name) have been offering several kinds of unacceptable difficulty since they first began to appear. It was confusedly apparent in the first volume of the work, 77 Dream Songs, that several different personalities within the poet’s single personality (one doesn’t suggest his ‘real’ personality, or at any rate one didn’t suggest it at that stage) had been set talking to and of each other. These personalities, or let them be called characters, were given tones of voice, even separate voices with peculiar idioms. The interplays of voice and attitude were not easy to puzzle out, and many reviewers, according to Mr. Berryman and their own subsequent and sometimes abject admissions, made howlers. With this new volume of 308 more dream songs comes a rather impatient corrective from the author pointing out how simple it all is.

Well, the first book was not simple. It was difficult. In fact it was garbled, and the reviewers who said so and later took it back are foolish. His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, this new and longer book, is simpler, with many of the severally-voiced conversational devices abandoned. Its difficulties are more of texture than of structure: the plan is less schematic but the indulgences are proportionately greater, eccentricity proliferating as the original intellectualized, constructural gimmicks fold up under the pressure of released expression. There are passages that are opaque and likely to remain so. Some of the language is contorted in a way designed to disguise the platitudinous as a toughly guarded verity. The range of reference is very wide (the Dream Songs, like dreams in sleep, draw freely and solidly on the cultural memory) but there are some references which go well beyond the legitimately omnivorous curiosity of the poetic intelligence and achieve impenetrable privacy through not being, like most of the rest, explained by their general context.

This last, the general context, is the true structure of Berryman’s complete book of 385 individual, but not isolated, lyrics. It is not wise to contend that the ambitions of structure (with a capital S) can go hang, the individual lyrics being all that matters. In fact, the lyrics mostly explain each other’s difficulties — sometimes across long distances — by tilting themes to a different angle, revisiting a location, repeating a cadence or redefining a point. It was Yeats’s way and for that matter it was Petrarch’s — the long poem as an arrangement of small ones. One proof that this is the operative structure in the Dream Songs is that the work feels more comfortable to read as one gets further into it. But if it is not wise to say that the structure is nothing and the individual lyric everything, it is still less wise to say that the work is unintelligible without a perception of its grand design. It is unlikely that a clear account of such a grand design will ever be forthcoming, although the chances of several bright young academic things building a career on the attempt are unfortunately 100 per cent. It will probably not be possible to chart the work’s structure in the way that the Divine Comedy, for example, can be charted out in its themes, zones and stylistic areas. The development of the Dream Songs is much more a development by accretion: Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams are the two obvious models. An indication of this is the already mentioned fact that the multi-voiced interplay of 77 Dream Songs is in these later ones not so much in evidence: as a device it has yielded to ideas more productive, especially to the unabashed elegiac strain, sonorous as lamenting bagpipes, which in many ways makes this new book a convocation of the literary ghosts. One feels at the end of this new volume that there is no reason, except for the necessary eventual loss of inspiration, why the work shouldn’t go on literally for ever — just as the Cantos, whose material is undigested information (Berryman digests his) could obviously go on to fill a library. The work has no pre-set, confining shape to round it out, and one doesn’t see why the 385th song need absolutely be the last one; not in the way one sees that the last line of the Divine Comedy, for many previously established reasons, must bring the poem to an end.

In brief, with the Dream Songs Berryman has found a way of pouring in everything he knows while still being able to tackle his themes one, or a few, at a time. Attacking its own preliminary planning and reducing it to material, the progressive structure advances to fill the space available for it — a space whose extent the author cannot in the beginning accurately guess at but must continue with the poem in order to discern.

The Dream Songs are thus a modern work, a work in which it is possible for the reader to dislike poem after poem and idea after idea without imagining that what he likes could have come into existence without what he dislikes. It is particularly worth remembering this point when one comes across gross moments which make one feel like kicking the book around the room. And it is particularly worth making this general point about the Dream Songs having the title to a work (rather than just a trendily labelled grab-bag) in view of the virtual certainty that the weirdball academic studies will soon be upon us, bringing with them the inevitable reaction into an extreme commonsensicality which would deny the existence of a long poem rather than have it ‘studied’ in brainless terms.

It was a masterfully asserted, overwhelmingly persuasive version of commonsensicality which enabled Croce to liberate the Divine Comedy (the case is again relevant) from an inhumanly attentive Wissenschaft and release the poetry within it to immediate appreciation. But of course the Crocean case was over-asserted. The poem does possess an informing structure, a structure which the reader must know in detail, though better later than sooner and better never than in the first instance. Berryman’s Dream Songs, on their much smaller, less noble scale, likewise have a structure, and will continue to have it even when the scholars say they do. That is the thing to remember, that and the fact that the structure is inside rather than overall. Especially when a long poem is such a present to the academics as this one is, the humane student is engaged in a fight for possession from the very outset: he needs to remember that to be simplistic is to loose the fight. He must admit complication: certainly here, for the Dream Songs are extremely complicated, having almost the complexity of memory itself. They depend on the perception that the mind is not a unity but a plurality, and by keeping the talk going between these mental components, by never (or not often) lapsing into a self-censoring monologue, they convey their special sense of form. It’s even possible to say that the poorest sections of the work are the sections where the poet’s sense of himself is projected into it as a pose — where an attitude is struck and remains unquestioned in a work of art whose unique quality is to question all attitudes through the critical recollection of their history and a sensitive awareness of all the clichés attendant on the concept of the creative personality. And the personality in play is, all along, the creative one: the central motive of the Dream Songs can be defined as an attempt by a poet to examine himself without lapsing into self-regard. ‘The poem then’, Berryman writes in his prefatory Note.

Whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr. Bones and variants thereof.

Not the poet and not me. But obviously, in what is mainly the story of a poet who is currently writing a poem which sounds remarkably like the one the reader is reading, the poet is the hero, a fact readily ascertainable from the amount of autobiographical material being used, some of which would be embarrassing if not rendered neutral by the poem’s universalizing mechanisms, and some of which is not rendered neutral and consequently is embarrassing. The question is always being turned up, as the reader ploughs on, of whether the author knows that every so often a certain insensitivity, a certain easily recognizable ‘creative’ belligerence, is getting through unqualified to the page. Here and only here is the central character ‘me’ in the raw sense: in the refined sense the ‘me’ is representative of all artists and hence of all men in their authentically productive moments. The embarrassments are probably best accepted as a contributory quality, a few turns of the stomach consequent upon the many thrills. The poem’s devices of voicing are not meant to distance personality but to reveal it: the doubts begin when we suspect that attitudes are reaching us which the poet has not analysed, that he does not realize he is being revealing in a crude sense. But really there are bound to be these. The important thing to say here is that the personality in the poem, manifold, multiform and self-examining in an obsessive way, keeps all one’s attention. The language never settles into anything less than readability, and even when the restlessness becomes a shaken glamour in which one can see little, it is evident that something is being worried at: we are not just being dazzled with an attempt to churn meaning into existence. There is not much fake significance, though quite a lot of blurred.

Thematically, these new songs are first of all a disorderly, desperate and besotted funeral for Berryman’s literary heroes, who might be called, following the author’s own terminology, the ‘lovely men’. Of these, Delmore Schwartz is easily the star. His decline is convincingly (one hopes fairly) illustrated. There are sketches towards blaming this writer’s collapse on society at large, but there is also a more powerful evocation of a sheer inability to cope. ‘Admiration for the masters of his craft’ was one of the emotions Edmund Wilson picked out as characterizing 77 Dream Songs. In the new book the simple admiration for the masters continues, but in Schwartz’s case (and to a lesser extent in Randall Jarrell’s) it goes a long way beyond admiration, and a good deal deeper than craft, into a disturbed exploration of the artist’s way of life in America now — and this concern again, through the internalizing way the poem has, is referred back to the condition of the poet-narrator, a condition of physical crack-up and a fearful but no longer postponable facing of the unpalatable truths. Some of the evocation of Schwarz’s life seem a trifle cheap, like all those Greenwich Village memoirs conjuring up the less than compelling figure of Little Joe Gould: here as in the sporadic scenes of Irish pubbing and loosely buried claims to a hairily abrupt way with the ladies, the underlying ideas of bohemianism sound a touch conventional, the reactions provincially American as opposed to the acutely modern, prolix Western intelligence of the work’s usual tone.

Exemplified by the poet’s cacophonous admiration of Shirley Jones, the supposedly ‘genuine’ identification with the straightforward and simple reads as hick gullibility and sheer bad taste. Another thumping example of bad taste is the unsufferably patronizing farewell for Louis MacNeice. A lack of ‘good taste’ is one of Berryman’s strengths, in the sense that he can range anywhere for images without a notion of fitness barring his way. But positive bad taste is one of his weaknesses. His tough, anti-intellectual line on the American virtues can bore you in an instant by the insensitivity of delivery alone. There are moments when Berryman writing sounds a bit like John Wayne talking. For all his absorptive capacity for the fine details of life, Berryman’s conception of America and of civilization itself seems cornily limited, and even the book’s elegiac strain, its congested keening for the gifted dead, edges perilously close to an elementary romanticism whose informing assumption is the withdrawal of support by the gods. Waiting for the end, boys. But at its best the Dream Songs is a voice near your ear that you listen to, turn towards, and find that you must turn again; a voice all around you, unpinnable to a specific body; your own voice, if you had lived as long and could write in so condensed a way; a voice not prepossessing, but vivid and somehow revivifying. A solitary quotation makes an appropriate finale:

...I can’t read any more of this Rich Critical Prose,/he growled, broke wind, and scratched himself & left/that fragrant area.

(The Review, 1969)

Postscript, 1994

The inadequacy of the first piece on Berryman is tipped off by what isn’t there: quotations. When adducing evidence from Berryman himself, I go no further than his prefaratory note: the two and a half lines dragged in at the end are transparently a face-saver. If a critic of poetry can’t marshal his argument from quoted illustrations, it’s a sure sign that he has failed to engage with his subject. (This was the perception behind Walter Benjamin’s famous ideal of a critical essay that would consist of nothing except quotations.) My unstated problem with Berryman, I realized much later, was that I liked the ‘Mr Bones’ rhapsody from 77 Dream Songs so exceedingly — what treasures is she sitting on/ over there? — that I was always trying, not quite successfully, to convince myself his later stuff matched up, even when it had been most obviously churned out in a Lowell-like bid for greatness. About the heavyweight American modern poets there was at that time a certain servility in the air, by which I had been infected against my better judgment. While American imperialism was being questioned with regard to Vietnam, with regard to the big-name poets it was still taken to be an ineluctable historic force. To their overweening ambition one was supposed to take the same attitude that Spengler took to history: go with the wave or else go under. ‘The embarrassments are probably best accepted as a contributory quality ...’ But they were worse than embarrassments, they were naked claims to the status of arts hero, and should have been rejected out of hand. In the second piece the critic can be seen waking up, overdoing the alertness, and becoming patronizing where previously he had been abject. As always, the tone, by telling the truth about the critic, gives you a good idea of how much truth he is telling about his subject.