Wednesday, July 06, 2005

'Life, friends, is boring': A little on John Berryman

I picked up Adam Kirsch’s The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets after reading Michiko Kakutani’s review of it in the Times, and thus far I’ve been happy I did. I’ve read several chapters, but the one that I’ve found most interesting is on John Berryman. (The other poets Kirsch discusses are Lowell, Bishop, Jarrell, Schwarts, and Plath.)

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]


Ed said...

"But dosn’t he also, with such a self-consciously ‘light’ topic, literally end up not achieving it (greatness)?"
Muldoon's stock-poetry-event breathy reading attempts to give it a kind of majesty that it doesn't deserve or perhaps it is his attempt to play up the humor (he gets laughs, but that too sounds a little contrived—the audience knows when to laugh). I think this is a fun poem, cleverly entertaining. And I like the way it works out in the end. I expect the relentless boredom to end in some tragic existentialism, the little jokes along the way masking a burgeoning depression. But it ends with a wag. He upends my expectations by not attempting "greatness." That surprises me and I like it. 'Course, why can't a "light" topic be "great"?

Amardeep said...


But it ends with a wag. He upends my expectations by not attempting "greatness."

Yes, exactly -- you nailed it.

'Course, why can't a "light" topic be "great"?

That's the question I'm struggling with... This is a very witty, beautifully constructed, joke poem. Nothing at all like the heavy-heavy themes of modernism from the 20s and 30s...

Ed said...

I'd be tempted to call it a light poem because it refuses to challenge its central issue: he shrugs off his boredom like a dog wags its tail. But jokes themselves can deal with heavy issues (I could quote any number of Woody Allen films or Shakespeare comedies). For me, Berryman's joke doesn't do this.

_Ulises_ said...

Lights out
(A John Berryman)

La vida, mis amogos, es aburrida.
Nos llenamos de libros
para llenar la vida
y en cada abandono, en toda despedida
trazamos la inevitable figura del absurdo.
Bufones, nos forzamos en contemplaciones
intentando asir un trozo de dios.
Yo he perdido todo esto
en las puertas de una iglesia,
y retipo, ningún llanto es eterno,
no anhelemos no brillemos
Ya es hora que apaguen la luz.

Anonymous said...

I am doing a research blog project for my english class where each of us has to pick a poet, and I happened to choose John Berryman.

What I liked most about what I read was your reference to Yeats as an influence on Berryman, because I believe you hit it perfectly. Lot of sources that I have read have given Yeats the credit for one of the main influences on Berryman's poetry. However, I agree that while Yeats was an influence on Berryman, he used Yeats to establish his own, unique voice. If you haven't already read this, and are interested in learning more about Berryman, I would highly recommend "The Paris Interview." In this interview, Berryman states on the topic of Yeats and the influence he had on him, "Practically everything I could then manipulate. On the other hand, they didn't take me very far, because by the time I was writing really well, there was no Yeats around."

I believe that Berryman's style of writing is very unique, and that his influence stems heavily from (but not completely) from simply teaching and studying English for most of his life, and having many different relationships with other poets, allowing him to gain a wide range of knowledge and creating a unique style of writing.

I also found the type of voice Berryman uses to be very confusing.

Another thing I would also like to explore more is the idea of 'Confessionalism' because although Berryman has claimed many times that his poetry is not 'Confessional' many scholars, and the overall sense of his poetry seems to say otherwise.

Anonymous said...

I'd argue that you misunderstand the poem's parodic targets. Note the repetitive lines -- the "somehow" ends the paratactic construction and provides a 'creative' moment that implicitly critiques the prior repetitions. Note the shifting pronouns -- from "we" to "I" [and the "I" is *always* caught in repetitions] until we get to a more 'narcissistic' "me." But the "me" isn't narcissistic so much as it shuns the repetitiveness, the specious individuality, of the preceding "I." Ever inflected by psychoanalysis, I'd argue that Berryman is trying to affirm the narcissist.

Or he's drunk.