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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Number 201: John Berryman: "Dream Song 149" and "Dream Song 150"

Dream Song 149

The world is gradually becoming a place 

where I do not care to be anymore. Can Delmore die?

I don't suppose

in all them years a day went ever by

without a loving thought for him. Welladay.

In the brightness of his promise, 

unstained, I saw him thro' the mist of the actual

blazing with insight, warm with gossip

thro' all our Harvard years 

when both of us were just becoming known

I got him out of a police-station once, in Washington, the world is tref

and grief too astray for tears. 

I imagine you have heard the terrible news, 

that Delmore Schwartz is dead, miserably & alone,

in New York: he sang me a song 
'I am the Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz 

Harms & the child I sing, two parents' torts' 

when he was young & gift-strong.

-- John Berryman


He had followers but they could not find him;
friends but they could not find him. He hid his gift
in the center of Manhattan,
without a girl, in cheap hotels,
so disturbed on the street friends avoided him
Where did he come by his lift

which all we must or we would rapidly die:
did he remember the more beautiful & fresh poems
of early manhood now?
or did his subtle & strict standards allow
them nothing, baffled? What then did self-love show
of the weaker later, somehow?

I’d bleed to say his lovely work improved
but it is not so. He painfully removed
himself from the ordinary contracts
and shook with resentment. What final thought
solaced his fall to the hotel carpet, if any,
& the New York Times’s facts?

-- John Berryman

Hap Notes: It's really not fair to make our first exposure here to John Berryman (1914-1972) as a precursor to an upcoming Schwartz poem but I don't think Berryman himself would mind it so much because he loved him so deeply. These poems today about Schwartz were in his second book of dream songs, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest. Berryman adored Schwartz and saw him as a learned mentor in addition to being a treasured friend.

I studied literature at the University of Minnesota, where Berryman spent a large part of his teaching career, and I was forever pestering the office staff at Lind Hall with questions about him: was his office here? (yes) Where did he teach? (often in the old "barracks") Do you remember him? (yes. He was odd.) They sent me to a few professors who'd known him. A lot of adjectives were haltingly used to describe him; erratic, charming, loud, effusive, difficult, strange, unstable. But to a man, the one word everyone used to describe him was "brilliant." I never set foot on that Washington Avenue bridge (which I did on a daily basis) without thinking of him.

His dream songs (there are 365 of them) were originally published in two volumes, the first of which, 77 Dream Songs, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965. The dream songs were a revelation of mixed syntax, language and images. Their structure, as you can see, is three stanzas of 6 lines each and each of them carries a charge, whether of dynamite or electricity or a sword flourish.

The dream song poems follow Henry, a sometimes Berryman alter-ego, a sometimes fictional character, and deal with a variety of subjects many of which are dark and odd. Berryman one time wrote, jokingly, that the songs were "meant to terrify and comfort." I would remind you that the gravest things are said in jest. (He chose the name "Henry" because Berryman and his second wife, Ann, once had a discussion about names they hated. She chose "Mabel" and he chose "Henry." They often affectionately referred to each other with these names.)

Berryman was born in Oklahoma and grew up for a while in Florida and New York, all of which would belie his cultured accent. You can hear his sonorous voice here (slightly inebriated and eventually reading "Life, Friends is Boring" one of the dream songs ): (Even inebriated he gives a stunning interview and you can hear for yourself his highly literate brilliance.)

Berryman's biological father, John Smith, committed suicide (he shot himself just outside of the young poet's window) and Berryman took his stepfather's name, with whom he got along well. Berryman graduated from Columbia and also studied at Clare College, Cambridge in England on scholarship. He felt that poetry was his vocation but was forced, like most poets, to supplement his income by teaching. In Berryman's case this was very distracting because he was a scholar and worked hard to make his classes worth the taking. He taught at the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop and Harvard in addition to his years at the University of Minnesota.

He was an extraordinary teacher when he was not in the hospital for treatment for manic-depression or drunk (even then he was erudite.) He often got permission to leave the hospital to teach and then return after the class. He took the teaching, like he took his poetry writing, seriously.

Berryman committed suicide by jumping off the Washington Avenue bridge into the Mississippi on the campus of the University of Minnesota in January of 1972. It is said that he waved to onlookers before making the leap. I don't think he drowned, I believe he hit the frozen bank of the river. He was 57.

In today's poems "Henry" talks about Delmore Schwartz and the poet laments at the gradual diminution of Schwartz's prowess as a poet: "I’d bleed to say his lovely work improved/but it is not so." The word "tref" (pronounced Trafe) is a Yiddish/Hebrew derivative and means "unclean, unfit to consume." It is a derogatory term often used to describe something vile. The expression "harms and the child" is, for one thing, a derivative of the first line of Virgil's Aeneid: "Arms and the man I sing, who, forced by fate/And haughty Juno's unrelenting hate,/Expelled and exiled, left the Trojan shore." (Dryden translation.)

Eileen Simpson, Berryman's second wife, wrote a very interesting book on the poets and their wives that she and Berryman hung with, Poets In Their Youth. It's well worth reading for insights.

Here's a good Berryman quote: "This business about geniuses in neglected garrets is for the birds. The idea that a man is somehow no good just because he becomes very popular, like Frost, is nonsense, also. There are exceptions—Chatterton, Hopkins, of course, Rimbaud, you can think of various cases—but on the whole, men of genius were judged by their contemporaries very much as posterity judges them. So if I were talking to a young writer, I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers."

You can find more Berryman here:

The masthead today is the young Berryman studying at Cambridge (left) and the young Delmore Schwartz (right.)


  1. Hap - my earlier comment doesn't seem to have appeared\been published. no biggie, just an ode to JB, thought you might like it... :-)

    goodbye john

    sorry. so the saying goes.
    i wasn't there. too cold.

    even tho i suppose
    for a lark you chose minneapolis

    could there be anywhere
    farther from everywhere?

    then again folks there
    talk kinda funny, eh?

    i wonder what that really
    looked like, if anyone saw

    a tall brown bearded
    albatross, diving at the ice

    but he is longer
    than his wings are wide

    and i swear he's a tail
    wagging from his ass

    of course i wasn't there
    was sitting at the aberdeen

    taken away, besotted
    by dream songs writ

    as if with strange
    aerosolized muds

    a cache so wholly new
    so to avoid mouths

    or so it seemed. it seemed
    and still seems. so let.

    gawd that was afar
    ago, all that air

    i read the news

    'harms & the child
    i sing' and drink

    cups o' the world's fists
    at stations of friends

    still, i did wonder
    up until now. and still

    wonder. that i would write
    my goodbye, a thank-you

    note of mud, as one does.
    at least a season later.

    & looked and saw
    the cold airs of winnipeg

    weaving those ices
    below the bridges.

  2. I enjoyed reading your comments and reflections. I'm writing a chamber opera about Berryman and will be doing a short run performance of it in Minneapolis - if you'd happen to be interested. I set some of his Delmore poems to music too. Let me know if yr around. Best, Greg