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His Toy, His Dream, His Rest

By John Berryman

Original Publisher: Faber and Faber
Current Publisher: Out of Print

Kiki Petrosino writes:

I don’t know how to talk about Berryman after Berryman. It’s like trying to trace the sonic imprint of hip-hop after Run-DMC revolutionized all the beats. How do you describe the dimensions of a heartbeat? Where’s the end of one thing, and the beginning of the next? 

Open to any page of The Dream Songs and you’ll find much of the irreverence, wordplay, and formal variety that today’s poets currently display in service of the long-form poem. In this seminal work, Berryman doesn’t weave a tight crown of traditional sonnets, nor does he recapitulate the long, loose lines of Song of Myself. His imagination is a blade cutting a unique path through his material. He develops and applies his own odd, tri-stanzaic form to each installment of The Dream Songs. He twists syntax, makes up words, and takes overt pleasure in mixing lowbrow diction with high lyric concerns. The Dream Songs is a world in its own right, and the personality of Berryman’s randy doppelgänger, Henry, is what makes that world go round.      

I’ve insisted more than once (with the help of a pint, in the company of indulgent friends) that those of us who love to write series of linked poems—especially poems with characters in them—are writing deep in the shadow of Berryman. And this fact deserves more explicit acknowledgment by young poets. Berryman wasn’t the first to work in sequence—Pound, Williams, Crane, and others had established the validity of this form vis à vis 20th century poetics—but Berryman’s mad project opened up so many vistas of experimentation that no discussion of the contemporary lyric would be complete without a nod to his tremendous influence.    

Berryman composed the 385 poems that comprise The Dream Songs between 1955 and 1968, and it’s the first large volume of this work, 77 Dream Songs, that’s most routinely studied and referenced today. Songs 78-385 emerged as His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, and this is the collection for which Berryman won the National Book Award in 1969. Most English majors are pretty familiar with 77 Dream Songs. This volume contains the (in)famous Song 4, in which Henry lusts after the “compact and delicious body” of a radiantly anonymous woman who happens to be lunching at an adjacent table. “What wonders is / she sitting on, over there?” leers Henry, who may as well have hooves and a pan flute at this point in the collection. 

Much has been made of Henry’s often cringe-inducing dealings with, and statements about, the women of The Dream Songs. These poems are frankly sexual, often transgressive, and Berryman doesn’t impose “politically correct” filters on Henry’s utterances. Equally unsettling from a contemporary perspective are Henry’s periodic forays into blackface Negro dialect of the Al Jolson variety. Many are the times that Berryman’s substitution of de for the and wif for with has made me put down the book, close my eyes, and count back from twenty. It would be easy to dismiss the whole project on the basis of these (numerous) cultural insensitivities, which Berryman only briefly explained in interviews and (so far as I have read) never retracted.  

But to do that—to put the book down after Song 4—would be to miss the point of a project like The Dream Songs. This is a long, ravenous experiment in craft, a project that demands that the poet make himself utterly vulnerable to the reader. The Dream Songs are intensely personal poems, idiosyncratic in content and structure, and so intimate in their diction that even when you’re infuriated with Henry, you still want to weep for him. This effect is particularly strong in His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, when, despite Berryman’s claims to the contrary, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate Henry’s pain from the poet’s. It’s here, in the heart of The Dream Songs, that Berryman’s treatment of elegiac subjects turns magisterial. Take the last stanza of Song 172, for instance:

Long falls your exit all repeatingly,
a poor exemplum, one more suicide
to stack upon the others
still stricken Henry with his sisters & brothers
suddenly gone pauses to wonder why he
alone breasts the wronging tide.

This poem finds Henry lamenting the recent suicides of poet-colleagues, particularly Sylvia Plath, who ended her life in 1963. The poet feels her death “all repeatingly,” a turn of phrase that’s both elegaic and childlike. Note how the lines “one more suicide / to stack upon the others” are enjambed in such a way as to literally stack themselves on top of Henry as he struggles to apprehend each loss. The line break that transitions “Henry with his sisters & brothers” to “suddenly gone” is another unmistakable reminder of how death cleaves friends from one another. 

The pathos of this stanza is reminiscent of Canto XXX of il Purgatorio, when Dante calls after the recently-disappeared Virgil: “Ma Virgilio n’avea lasciati scemi / di sè, Virgilio dolcissimo patre, / Virgilio a cui per mia salute die’mi.” Just as Dante’s triple-invocation of Virgil serves to underscore the finality of his absence, the image of “Henry with his sisters & brothers” hovers at the end of the line, both highlighting and defying death’s “sudden” cancellation. The special six-line stanza Berryman whittles and shapes throughout The Dream Songs allows for a tremendous amount of feeling to be transmitted. We do feel the “wronging tide,” and we feel it “all repeatingly,” since the suffix –ing rings like a bell, throbs like a wound.                                

And it’s the wound at the center of The Dream Songs that keeps us riveted. The “plot” of the poem matters less than the evolving state of Henry. He burns with lust, rages against death, weeps for lost friends, taunts his critics, and tries in his frantic, yet endearing, way to express love for this fallen world. And if the reader stumbles or gets bored, frightened, or angry along the way, it’s all part of the journey through this long diary of a dream. As Henry tells us in Song 366:

These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand.
They are only meant to terrify & comfort.   

Kiki Petrosino is the author of Fort Red Border (Sarabande, 2009). She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her poems have appeared in FENCE, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Louisville. (Photo credit: Philip Miller)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Gwendolyn Brooks for In the Mecca
  • Galway Kinnell for Body Rags
  • John Thompson for The Talking Girl
  • Keith Waldrop for A Windmill Near Calvary

Poetry Judges that Year: William Alfred, John Frederick Nims, Richard Wilbur

The Year in Literature: Of Being Numerous by George Oppen won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • John Berryman (1914-1972) was born in McAlester, OK.
  • When Berryman was twelve years old, his father shot himself outside of his son’s bedroom window. This shocking death was a recurring theme in much of Berryman’s poetry.
  • Read National Book Award Winner William Meredith’s elegy for Berryman here:

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Reader Comments (12)

I think Berryman's use of Mr. Bones need not be as disturbing as it seems if you consider the history of minstrelsy in America. Mr. Bones was a foil to commedians who appeared in black face usually from a window above the stage and makes of Berryman's Henry a pathetic clown, inspiring both contempt and pity, as if Berryman recognizes his character's (and his own) weaknesses.

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark Folse

Mark, your good comment underscores my point about the sequence. It would be a mistake, indeed, to dismiss the work on the basis of what we, in 2011, might find "disturbing," without accounting for context--not just the historical context of minstrelsy in America and how Berryman's protagonist complicates that pattern, but also the way in which these 385 poems build their own world, their own context. Thank you for your thoughts!

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKiki Petrosino

Don't really feel any need to go into details or specifics here. I only regret, at most, that your own piece could not have been a little longer, reached even further; but quite happy enough with things just as they stand. You covered several issues well and expressed defenses of certain of Berryman's characteristics as exemplified especially in The Dream Songs that I hadn't in the past been able to explain so well to friends (and others) when I defended what he was doing. So thank you, thank you, and I'll send this piece on to others.

March 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeyton

Thank you for the kind words, Peyton!

March 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKiki Petrosino

He can be bullish about the relationship between fine art and the jobbing artist.girlsdoporn

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