Monday, April 4, 2011

Dream Song 14 by John Berryman

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) 'Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no

Inner Resources.' I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

John Berryman's Dream Songs are as a rule exceedingly difficult, and frustrate those of us who value poetic unity. Their three stanzas apiece are the vestigial organs of poetic structure; they have no meter and only sometimes rhyme, but still those three stanzas suggest a semblance of coherence that rarely materializes. I have chosen "Dream Song 14" for today not because it is the best of them, though I do love it, but because it is one of only a handful of "Dream Songs" that seem to possess a central focus. I also considered Dream Songs 25 and 63, and the first Dream Song, which ends with this absolute sledgehammer:

Hard on the land wears the strong sea
And empty grows every bed.

But there will be poems enough for April with sentiments similar to those; I doubt that there will be any like "Dream Song 14." Its subject is boredom: "Life, friends, is boring." And certainly it is. As much as we would like to emulate Ulysses, the "untravelled world" rarely "gleams" for us--common folk and poets alike--because most things are, in fact, tedious.

In fact, isn't it the job of the poet (or to be generous, any creative mind) to create beauty out of tedium, to elevate life to art? Without Homer to make him a tragedy of them, Achilles' "plights and gripes" are probably petty stuff. "Henry" is the "hero" of the Dream Songs, but here Berryman confesses that he is awfully weary of the task of making art from life, which is merely one tedium becoming another. In other words, the poet is not up to the assignment. Berryman's distance both from his character and his poem is one of the great ironies of "Dream Song 14," and another is this acedia separates him from most of society, here represented by his mother, when it is his "inner resources" that should make the poet unique, not his lack of them. A third is that, despite his boredom, this poem shows Berryman at his most focused and least distracted!

And what to make of that dog, which has taken itself "considerably away?" Whatever it is, it leaves Berryman behind, taking its tail but leaving its "wag"--maybe alluding to the empty uselessness of Berryman's weird attachment to poetic form?

I love "Dream Song 14" because it is a superbly wrought poem that makes the entire exercise of poetry look silly. There are 384 other Dream Songs that belie the fact that Berryman had "no inner resources," but it's comforting to know that a poet of his stature could feel this way, as the non-poets among us do. Let's not embrace Berryman's sense of tedium too tightly--his life got to be so tedious that he threw himself off a Minnesota bridge in 1976. Let us acknowledge it, admire it, and then go back to that "flash and yearn."


Christopher said...

Correction: Berryman killed himself in 1972.

Brent Waggoner said...

I love The Dream Songs. I think they're great gateway poetry, even though they're difficult. They make such great use of language and feel so casual. They drew me in right away.