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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The Light Around the Body

By Robert Bly

Original and Current Publisher: Harper & Row

Patrick Rosal writes:

By the mid-1960s, the world had become colossal. The possibilities for travel and communication were booming. (Leslie Ullman’s discussion of the poetry of the sixties in A Profile of Twentieth Century American Poetry is an excellent guide to the decade and a good number of the poetic trends of the time.) Television had secured a place in the American household and so images of the Vietnam War were broadcast directly into living rooms across the country. Many poets, of course, opposed the war, but how were they to respond?

In Robert Bly’s case, it was with outrage (if not rancor) toward the patriarchy and materialistic culture of the time. In The Light Around the Body, Bly’s second collection, the poet relies on the capacity of language to convey our dream lives—the terrible fantasies of the American imagination as corollary to the violence of war, mostly in reference to the conflict in Vietnam, but also to the struggle for civil rights at home. (The subject, imagery, and register are an extreme departure from his pastoral debut, Silence in the Snowy Field.)

The associative power of that dreamscape is, at times, arresting, as in “Come with me,” a poem in which the speaker makes the invitation: “Come with me into those things that have felt this despair for so long— / Those removed Chevrolet wheels that howl with a terrible loneliness.” The poem continues: “Those shredded inner tubes abandoned on the shoulders of thruways, / Black and collapsed bodies, that tried and burst, / And were left behind.”

And while the language of dreams is one of Bly’s primary lexicons, one of the fascinating recurrences in the book is the language of numbers. In “The Busy Man Speaks,” the persona confesses, “I am drawn / To the desert, to the parched places, to the landscape of zeros.” Meanwhile, in “A Dream of Suffocation,” the speaker observes, “Accountants hover over the earth like helicopters.”  There is a through-line attempt to integrate the subconscious, irrational world with the rational vocabularies of management, the market and the intellect.

There is one stunning poem, worth quoting whole, called “Counting Small-Boned Bodies”:

Let’s count the bodies over again.

If we could only make the bodies smaller,
The size of skulls,
We could make a whole plain white with skulls in the moonlight!

If we could only make the bodies smaller,
Maybe we could get
A whole year’s kill in front of us on a desk!

If we could only make the bodies smaller,
We could fit
A body into a finger-ring for a keepsake forever.

The cruel irony of mathematic detachment, a landscape of skulls, the trophies of skulls, and the small keepsake of bones does its work well here. Much of the book, in fact, might be seen as a litany of violence, a way to disrupt the veneer of rational thought sanctioned in board rooms and legislative bodies.

I should say, the macabre renderings are also the failing of The Light Around the Body. Much of the litany does not cohere. Not that a book of poems should force an artificial order onto senselessness. And surely a catalog of injustices is within the ken of a politically conscious poetry, but you have to ask when the poetic catalog becomes complicit in the abstraction of violence. In this collection, it’s evident in the language.

Most of the poems in the book are accretive in nature, building a lyrical constellation one image at time—mostly through a series of declarative statements. Interestingly enough, the subjects of those declarative statements are largely plural. They are collective, which is to say, they enact a subsuming of the particular: “the executioners / Move toward Drusia”; “The bombers spread out”; “We distrust every person on earth with black hair.”

In contrast, there are astonishing moments of particularity, though much more rare: “This grandson of fishes holds inside him / A hundred thousand small black stones.” They seem missed opportunities for introspection and investigation, explorations of the conscious self in an apparently arbitrary world of violence. And I wonder if the proliferation of collective nouns, the lack of seeing through the individual and the particular, is one of the reasons why The Light Around the Body is no longer widely read.

On the other hand, despite the book’s failings, I admire the boldness of writing about the Vietnam War as the death toll climaxed. I ask myself which poets have written explicitly about the ongoing wars of the last fifty years (I distinctly remember hearing the news of the American death toll tipping 3,000 in Iraq). Some individual efforts are extant, but whole collections about war? (Of the current generation, off the top of my head, I think of Brian Turner and Elyse Fenton.)

In the end, the work of the poem is to present questions, and our work, as readers, is to present questions back to the text. So I ask the speaker(s) of Bly’s poems: What country do you come from whose violence is so familiar to mine? How did the cruelties of your era take the shape of the cruelties of your own individual heart? What were the challenges in finding a language to map the wells from which those cruelties were drawn? What would have happened had you kept asking, if you had found we all have hauled the endless atrocious draughts from those very wells—haven’t we all taken long, sweet swigs from them before we sang?

Patrick Rosal is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive (Persea, 2003), which won the Members' Choice Award from the Asian American Writers' Workshop, and most recently My American Kundiman (Persea, 2006), which won the Association of Asian American Studies 2006 Book Award in Poetry and the 2007 Global Filipino Literary Award. Awarded a Fulbright grant as a Senior U.S. Scholar to the Philippines in 2009, he has had poems and essays published widely in journals and anthologies, including Harvard Review, Tin House, American Poetry Review, The Literary Review, the Beacon Best, and Language for a New Century. (Photo credit: Stephen Sullivan)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Denise Levertov for The Sorrow Dance
  • W.S. Merwin for The Lice
  • Kenneth Rexroth for Complete Poems
  • Louis Zukofsky for A-12 

Poetry Judges that Year: Donald Hall, Harvey Shapiro, Theodore Weiss

The Year in Literature:

  • The Hard Hours by Anthony Hecht won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • William Jay Smith was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

Other Information:

  • Robert Bly (1926- ) was born in La qui Parle County, MN.
  • The University of Minnesota purchased Bly’s archive in 2006. The archive contains more than 80,000 handwritten manuscripts and a journal that spans almost fifty years.
  • Bly has also translated the works of several other well known poets, including Pablo Neruda and Federico García Lorca. 

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Nights and Days

By James Merrill

Original Publisher: Atheneum
Current Publisher: Out of Print

James Merrill also won the National Book Award in Poetry in 1979 for Mirabell: Books of Number.

Megan Snyder-Camp writes:

Over the course of his career, Merrill won just about every literary award available, including two National Book Awards—the first for 1966’s Nights and Days, and the second for Mirabell: Books of Number, which was first published in 1978 as the second in a trilogy of long poems which together would comprise his 560-page epic work, The Changing Light at Sandover (1982).

Nights and Days shows early Merrill at his best—formally brilliant, wryly observant, and loyal to beauty. Merrill’s speakers are often set apart from their subjects even while peering deeply into them. Here are my favorite lines in the book, in which the poet speaks of his father in “The Broken Home”:

Each 13th year he married. When he died
There were already several chilled wives
in sable orbit—rings, cars, permanent waves

These brutal, unforgettable lines are balanced by the tenderness in “Little Fanfare for Felix Magowan,” where the poet celebrates the birth of a friend’s child:

Welcome to earth, time, others; to
These cool darks, of sense, of language,
Each at once thread and maze.

Merrill’s early formal mastery drew critical praise, but it was his later work, starting with The Book of Ephraim, riskier and more personal in subject matter while still retaining the same strict attention to form, that earned him widespread acclaim.

Merrill, the son of investment banker Charles E. Merrill, was wealthy enough to dedicate most of his life to poetry. Rather than fitting his poetry into the corners of his days, after the needs of work and family have been met, as most poets do, Merrill could make of his days what his poems wanted. Mirabell: Books of Number finds Merrill at home in Connecticut with his longtime partner, the painter David Jackson, engaged in sessions at their Ouija board that quickly turn from playful to urgent. Merrill’s and Jackson’s voices at the table are interspersed with transcriptions of their lengthy sessions, in which voices from the beyond address a wide range of historical and scientific questions as well as the nature and purpose of literary endeavor. As they descend farther into this otherworld, Merrill’s doubts anticipate the reader’s own, one of many gestures toward the postmodern concern with parsing what it is poetry is made from. Here Merrill quite literally receives his words through a cup, writing down the dictations and shaping them into lines of varying length and structure according to each session’s many unseen speakers.

Mirabell relays a wild, prophetic folding of poetry into the evolution of man, matter, and the soul. Here there are symbolic numbers, pyramids, twins, the work of “God B” (B is short for Biology), and threats of atomic destruction in pursuit of a disturbing-sounding purity, all told through the jostling of a large and varied recurring cast of otherworldly voices, which include recently deceased personal friends of the poet, W.H. Auden, Plato, and the archangel Michael. The voices of this other world—funny, gossipy, aloof, barking mad—are set apart in the text by all caps, and differentiated by unique tonal and metrical signatures.

The gulf between the poem’s source and the poet’s lifelong act of sitting down to receive and shape, is sharply manifest here, and Merrill’s attempts to bridge that gulf is Mirabell’s main work. In harnessing these voices Merrill is able to approach from several perspectives the role of metaphor in poetry, the poet’s struggle to compose a work that “HAS NOT BEEN OVERSPICED WITH SELF,” as well as the connection between the world’s structure and a poem’s structure. Formal poets often speak of the freedom they find within the confines of their chosen poetic constraint, and here Merrill’s self-silencing each time he records these other voices rather than his own is a convincing extension of the argument that poetry is made of a ready, rapt heart rather than a clear, articulate mind. As he notes towards the end of Mirabell:

[…] Art—
The tale that all but shapes itself—survives
By feeding on its personages’ lives.
The stripping process, sort of. What to say?
Our lives led to this. It’s the price we pay.

Or, as one of Merrill’s spirits offers earlier:


A caveat: the messages Merrill transcribes in this book do contain odd, startling moments of anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism, as they build a bizarre sort of universe-structure weighted in favor of homosexuals and poets. But if you read these Ouija transcriptions as casting insight into the creative process via one man’s ambition, his fear and wonder as he struggles with what-it-is that puts words on the page, with the daily and otherworldly beast of creative inspiration, then the odd prophecies find their tether in Merrill’s mind, a la John Malkovich. Where else will you find yourself talking numerology with a hornless unicorn and a peacock?

Megan Snyder-Camp's first book of poems, The Forest of Sure Things, is a deconstructed domestic narrative set in a small, historically preserved village on the Pacific Northwest coast. Her poems have appeared in Field, the Antioch Review, Smartish Pace, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere. She recently received an Individual Artist grant from Washington's 4Culture Foundation to support her current work. (Photo credit: Laura M. Hoffmann)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • John Ashbery for Rivers and Mountains
  • Barbara Howes for Looking Up at Leaves
  • Marianne Moore for Tell Me, Tell Me
  • Adrienne Rich for Necessities of Life
  • William Jay Smith for The Tin Can and Other Poems 

Poetry Judges that Year: W.H. Auden, James Dickey, Howard Nemerov

The Year in Literature: Live or Die by Anne Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • James Merrill (1926-1995) was born in New York, NY.
  • Merrill published his first collection of poetry, The Black Swan, when he was just twenty years old.

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Buckdancer’s Choice: Poems

By James Dickey

Original and Current Publisher: Wesleyan University Press

Patrick Rosal writes:

There’s something to be admired in James Dickey’s impressive capacity for formality and expression. When he’s at his best in Buckdancer’s Choice, the poems carve exquisite rhythms and images. In “Reincarnation,” for example, he breaks the long syntax, enjambing the long lines, to portray a cosmic metaphor: a man reincarnated, transformed into a simpler deadliness, a snake. The poem’s other primary image is a rusting wheel—technology upon which the earliest civilizations were built—in utter decay and on its side. At the same time, in the mulch, this writhing being thrives, having concocted its toxic spit “from bird eggs and thunderstruck rodents, / Dusty pine needles, blunt stones, horse dung, leaf mold.” The serpent has the decaying wheel as “the place to wait” for its victim. In contrast to its eyes as a man, the snake’s eyes are “unclosable.” The natural ability to keep one’s eyes open seems an equal and opposite curse to the compulsion (physiological and metaphorical need) to close one’s eyes from anywhere between an instant and many hours at a time.

The poem that follows begins in a quiet, night-time narrative and quickly transforms into terror and astonishment, as a trucker finds himself circling a hospital, able to hear from his cab those who are suffering inside the building. He eventually enters the hospital and walks through the nightmarish cold of labs and hallways. The anguish of all the injured and the infirmed is stifled, which makes all their ghoulish wailing louder to the trucker:

An awakening, part-song sound
Calling anyone out of the life
He thought he led: a sound less than twelve
Years old, which wakes to the less-than-nothing
Of a bent glass straw in a glass

With small sleepless bubbles stuck to it:
Which feels a new mouth sewn shut

In a small body’s back or its side
And would free some angelic voice

From the black crimped thread,
The snipped cat-whiskers of a wound—
A sound that can find no way
To attack the huge, orderly flowers.

The vision bursts open with a door through which the trucker encounters the loved ones of those he’s seen in the hospital. (I can’t help but think of Dante—at least the second oblique reference to The Inferno in the collection—and the fifth circle of sullenness and rage, i.e. anger suppressed and anger expressed.) The italicized ending becomes a sort of phantasmic chorus—chilling.

But the book is filled with affecting personal lyrics as well, gorgeously composed, many of them meditations that take place in Southern landscapes and settings. I’ve read that Dickey squarely identified as a Southerner, though he rejected the romanticism of the Southern Agrarians who preceded him and didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a regional poet. It’s clear the land of the south gave him a fertile history, a way to contemplate grief and complicate memory: from the grotesque thrill of a carnival he and his parents attended when he was a child to the burial place of his forebears: “From my great-grandmother on, My family lies at Fairmount…” The speaker buys his own plot at that ground “For thirty-seven dollars and a half.” In this poem, “The Escape,” we realize about a third of the way into the piece that the speaker is standing at the edge of the burial grounds and just behind him is a modern hospital. That is, he stands between madness and death and he pronounces: “I have escaped from Fairmount…”  The rest of the poem hinges on the hospital’s towering presence, its windows reflecting the sun except for one open window.  It’s the light that’s missing, the speaker says, through which he has escaped.

I can’t abandon this blog entry without mentioning the controversy that surrounded the book; perhaps the most well-known of the poems in the collection is “The Firebombing,” a lyric that flashes from a suburban present to the bomber pilot’s experience of firebombing the Ryuku Islands in World War II. Among the poem’s most vocal critics was Robert Bly, who was strongly anti-war as the conflict in Vietnam was entering its most deadly years.

Reading the poem now, as a poet in a country at war, I’m astonished by the poem. It is, frankly, marvelously made. The language is not just scintillatingly violent; it cuts from memory to present and back without obvious transitions, splicing together the innocuous-kitchen-cupboard life of the speaker with the horrors of his war-time experience.  There is a moment, late in the poem, where the speaker seems to praise his own actions as a soldier, or at least grieve for little more than his own failure to feel: “It is this detachment, / This honored aesthetic evil, / The greatest sense of power in one’s life / that must be shed in bars.” Here, I think, the poem does become problematic. The imagination stops short, fails, and in its own language, detaches itself.

A few years ago, I sat for the first time in front of a full class of Asian-American poets at the Kundiman Summer Retreat. I wish I’d known this poem as well back then. I would have liked to know what the young poets there thought of it. My own relationship to it is complicated, having lost two uncles (dug their own graves and then were stabbed in the back by bayonets) and other relatives who fought as scouts alongside Americans in the Pacific theater. And only two generations before that, two of my granduncles were hung to death by American tribunals who were trying to establish colonial control of the Philippine Islands. I often ask my students what’s at stake in their writing. I am learning there is always more. I think a poem isn’t everything. So there is always more.

Patrick Rosal is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive (Persea, 2003), which won the Members' Choice Award from the Asian American Writers' Workshop, and most recently My American Kundiman (Persea, 2006), which won the Association of Asian American Studies 2006 Book Award in Poetry and the 2007 Global Filipino Literary Award. Awarded a Fulbright grant as a Senior U.S. Scholar to the Philippines in 2009, he has had poems and essays published widely in journals and anthologies, including Harvard Review, Tin House, American Poetry Review, The Literary Review, the Beacon Best, and Language for a New Century. (Photo credit: Stephen Sullivan)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • W.H. Auden for About the House
  • Elizabeth Bishop for Questions of Travel
  • Richard Eberhart for Selected Poems
  • Irving Feldman for The Pripet Marshes
  • Randall Jarrell for The Lost World
  • Louis Simpson for Selected Poems 

Poetry Judges that Year: Ben Belitt, Phyllis McGinley, Elder Olson

The Year in Literature:  

  • Selected Poems by Richard Eberhart won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • James Dickey was also named the Consultant in Poetry for the United States. 

Other Information:

  • James Dickey (1923-1997) was born in Atlanta, GA.
  • Dickey died six days after he taught his final class at the University of South Carolina.

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The Far Field

By Theodore Roethke

Original Publisher: Doubleday 
Current Publisher: Out of Print

Theodore Roethke first won the National Book Award in Poetry in 1959 for Words for the Wind.

An appreciation of Roethke’s work may be found here >

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Ben Belitt for The Enemy Joy
  • John Berryman for 77 Dream Songs
  • James Dickey for Helmets
  • Jean Garrigue for Country Without Maps
  • Galway Kinnell for Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock
  • Robert Lowell for For the Union Dead
  • William Meredith for The Wreck of the Thresher

Poetry Judges that Year: Howard Moss, May Swenson,
Allen Tate

The Year in Literature:

  • 77 Dream Songs by John Berryman won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Stephen Spender was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

Other Information: 

  • Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) was born in Saginaw, MI.
  • Roethke died two years before he received the National Book Award for The Far Field. 

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