Kirsch’s approach to Berryman begins with literary biography, and ends with a hefty section of close reading, focused mainly on the 77 Dream Songs. The strength of Kirsch’s 'generalist' approach is the way it inspires one to go out and read the writer named, if one hasn’t already (this is one of the overlooked functions of good criticism). I’d actually never read Berryman, and now I have—-all to the good.
The weakness might be in Kirsch’s need to make a neat picture out of Berryman’s progress, which follows an only slightly tweaked ‘anxiety of influence’ shape. Here the dominant literary model is Yeats, whose impersonal grandiloquence Berryman had to eschew in order to find his own voice. I still haven’t read the early, Yeatsian Berryman, and I don’t contest Kirsch’s general claim that the 77 Dream Songs (1965) represent a breakthrough for Berryman personally, and perhaps for American poetry as a whole. But what complicates the idea of the Dream Songs as Berryman’s discovery of poetic Voice is the radical heterogeneity of the styles and personae to be found in the poems themselves. This doesn’t seem like Berryman’s (or anyone’s) authentic voice, so much as a good mix of voices, tones, and topics. There are poems about Ike, about the taxman, about doing lectures in India, and even one about the MLA (people have apparently been making fun of it for a long, long time). There is plenty of wry wit and satire alongside the more serious, ‘confessional’ verses that gesture at the poet’s father’s suicide.
It’s not that Kirsch is wrong; nearly everything he says in general about The Dream Songs is verifiable. But what he doesn’t say—what doesn’t fit his narrative—is how incredibly messy and uneven the book really is.
I’ll leave off on extended analysis, and instead simply offer Dream Song #14:
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
(repeatedly) ‘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.
Get it? The speaking ‘I’ in the poem ("Henry," who populates all these poems—a close proxy for Berryman himself) is himself the ‘wag,’ as in, the moving tail of the dog, and the happy wit who laughs at everything and everyone. The Dog has escaped, transcending us. We are the Left Behind, with the mocking ghost of its moving tail.
I also like "literature bores me, especially great literature." It’s a nice way of disavowing literary ambition. It certainly helps to inoculate Berryman against the charge of hubris. But dosn’t he also, with such a self-consciously ‘light’ topic, literally end up not achieving it (greatness)? If this is American confessionalism, it aint a whole heckofalot.
Incidentally, you can hear Paul Muldoon reading this poem of Berryman’s here. Click on "Paul Muldoon."
[Cross-posted at The Valve]