in the London spring half-spent, only the grand gift in his head":
Negotiating the Visionary and the Everyday in John Berryman's The Dream Songs
by Kristina Marie Darling
In his book-length poem His Toy, His Dream, His Rest: 308 Dream Songs, John Berryman often alludes to the poetry of William Butler Yeats, and, in doing so, attempts to reconcile aspects of Irish folk tradition with the literary landscape he has inherited. Particularly apparent in his use of the same dream-like visions that appear in Yeats' early work, derived from the aisling of Irish poetry in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, Berryman invokes this form as a means by which to explore the relevance of the tradition to which Yeats adhered for his generation of writers. Frequently using such visionary strategies to depict the suffering inherent in becoming an artist, Yeats wrote from both autobiography and a literary heritage in which the poet occupied a privileged position in society as a creator of both myth and history, and, as a result, art retained a redemptive quality for him. In reworking and contemporizing these ideas, Berryman wrote from similar life experiences, but, because his generation of writers and artists remained dominated by tragedy, often struggled with such an idealized portrayal of the of the artist and his or her work. Approached with these ideas in mind, The Dream Songs reads as a tribute to Yeats and the folk tradition from which he wrote, but, in depicting them, Berryman also presents a critique of this idealized portrait of the relationship between the artist and his or her work, in which the redemptive tradition f the poet as mythmaker ultima tely proves insufficient when faced with depicting many of the losses that Berryman's generation suffered in the mid-twentieth century.
Although calling aspects of his work into question when writing The Dream Songs later in his career, Berryman regarded Yeats' poetry as being among the most innovative available to his generation of younger poets, and often looked to his poems when considering larger questions about the direction that his own writing would take. As biographer Paul Mariani argues, Berryman admired the "organization and massed splendour" of Yeats' work, but often perceived aspects of his poems and the tradition that they represented as being incompatible with his own aesthetic (61). Among the chief concerns for Berryman when reading the early works of Yeats was the preponderance of both God and redemption as continual themes around which the poems, even highly symbolic ones, appeared to be structured. Mariani writes, for example, in Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman, "The problem for the serious poet, Berryman was beginning to see, was to find the right system on which to hang one's poems. With this in mind, he began rethinking Yeats's symbology and Hart Crane's 'dynamic materialism.' His greatest struggle, though, was with the idea of God, whom he and his family had taken to calling 'Beetle.' The problem was particularly vexing to him because in every logicentric system he had encountered, God took center stage" (61-62). In other words, Mariani argues that Berryman perceived poetic approaches that centered on such deliverance as being incompatible with his worldview early in his poetic career.
In many of Yeats' early works, such as "Cold Heaven" and "Song of Wandering Aengus," the creative process did retain a transcendent quality, a theme that derives from the Irish tradition that idealized the role of the poet as a creator of myth. Biographer Richard Ellmann describes Yeats' life itself as being an enactment of this role, stating that "[b]ecause he was a myth-maker his autobiography was never pure" (3). Indeed, Ellmann describes Yeats as regarding himself as "not merely a poet, but the symbol of a poet," and, because of this "we see him slowly welding himself and his surroundings into his myth" (242). This tradition remains visible in early poems like "Cold Heaven," in which the speaker of the poem comes to terms with this role of myth-maker, ultimately imbuing it with a redemptive quality. Yeats writes in "Cold Heaven," for example,
thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season,
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light..." (48)
By invoking imagery of light overpowering the "casual though[s] of that and this" that comprise everyday life, Yeats depicts his role as poet and myth-maker as one that ultimately lifted his consciousness above the mundane. As critic David Rosen writes in his book Power, Plain English, and the Rise of Modern Poetry, "In the poem, he takes up the task of autobiography, which, for him, involves denying his own emotional development, his very selfhood, and rejecting the people closest to him in his early life. In return, he gains an established identity and emerges a visionary poet" (96). In other words, Rosen argues that, although Yeats acknowledges the cost of taking on this role of the visionary and mythmaker, he does not consider the decision as being destructive to his quality of life, but rather enriching it.
For Berryman, whose life remained riddled with loss at the time of authoring the revised edition of The Dream Songs, such a tradition of deliverance through poetics and mythmaking remained incompatible. As Joel Athey writes in his article on Berryman's life and work, the poet was haunted by the memory of his father's suicide in 1926, and, at the time of writing His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, the suicides of Delmore Schwartz, Sylvia Plath, and other prominent writers of his generation remained recent memories. Stephen Matterson argues in his book Berryman and Lowell: The Art of Losing that personal tragedy, rather than an idealized perception of mythmaking, proved integral to the creative process for Berryman. He writes, for example, in this text, "...Berryman and Lowell came to use loss in a different way from the other poets. They came eventually to seek a poetics of loss, a form or idiom that would differ sharply from earlier poetics. From Yeats, Tate and Ransom they had learned a poetics of recovery, of restitution. That is, the form of the poetry was totally bound up with the desire to recover past experience. But Berryman and Lowell realized that loss demanded an alternative poetics" (13). In other words, Matterson argues that, for Berryman, the poetic strategies of Yeats remained a formative influence, but proved incompatible with the life experiences that Berryman hoped to depict . Because Yeats often structured his poems around restitution and recovery of past experiences through art, Berryman sought to redefine the manner in which loss is depicted in poetry.
In analyzing Berryman's search for an alternative poetics, one must take into account the way he perceived his relationship to the well known modern poets like Yeats who preceded him. While a student at Columbia University and Cambridge, Berryman viewed the study of the poetry of one's own time as essential to creating one's own body of work, and, in doing so, came to view Yeats as "the Master" from whom he would glean lessons on form and technique. As Paul Mariani argues in Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman, however, Berryman remained aware of such relationships between well-known and aspiring artists, and viewed his eventual surpassing of "the Master" from whom he learned as a natural phase in the creation of new literature. Mariani describes a talk that Berryman gave at the California Writers Conference, for example, in his biography, "Poetic development was, as in his relationship to Yeats, having a master and developing past that master. Without Laforge, would 'Prufrock' have been possible? Without Beethoven, could Eliot have so shaped 'The Wasteland'?" (360). Read with these ideas in mind, Berryman's looking beyond Yeats for an alternative poetics that could depict the losses suffered by his generation of writers remained a natural part of the creative process for him.
Berryman establishes this search for an alternative poetics early in His Toy, His Dream, His Rest: 308 Dream Songs, most notably when he invokes a few of the great modern writers who came before him, and points out there deficiencies when faced with depicting loss. He writes, for example, in "Op/ Posth. No. 11,"
in the London spring half-spent,
only the grand gift in his head
going for him, a seated ruin of a man
courteous to a junior, like of the boarders,
or Dylan, with more to say
now there's no hurry, and we're all a clan. (13)
In these lines, Berryman invokes the same visionary strategies as Yeats to convey his criticisms of his approach to depicting loss. Portraying Yeats in the midst of dream-like scene in which the speaker "visit[s] the violent dead/and pick[s] their awful brains," Berryman uses this strategy to convey his perception of the well-known poet as retreating from everyday life into the realm of mysticism and symbols. As Paul Mariani writes in his biography, "For all his grand rhetoric, Berryman saw now, Yeats had understood 'nothing about life.' The trouble, as Berryman saw it, was that Yeats's overweening ego had turned everything he came into contact with into a symbol..." (426). This perception of Yeats as disconnected from the trivialities and tragedies of everyday life remains omnipresent in the poem, particularly as Yeats appears with "only the grand gift in his head...a seated man of ruin," lines that suggest that Berryman had indeed learned from Yeats and moved past "the Master" in his desire to depict loss without redemptive rhetoric.
While searching for an alternative poetics, Berryman continues to draw from the tradition that Yeats represented, frequently incorporating many of the same visionary strategies to depict loss in a fundamentally different way than his predecessors did. Particularly apparent in the poems that preface the dream songs (Op. Post.. 1 though 14), the influence of the aisling form remains particularly noticeable at the start of many of the poems, in which Berryman blurs the boundaries between dreaming and wakefulness. He writes, for example, in "Op. Posth. No. 12,"
a blue series toward his sleepy eyes
they slid like wonder, women tall & small
of every shape and size
in many languages lisp 'We do'
to Henry almost waking. What is the night at all,
his closed eyes beckon you... (14)
Similar to other poems in the sequence, which begin with phrases like "In the night reaches dreamed he..." and "In slack times visit I the violent dead....", Berryman often establishes a liminal state of consciousness that proves revelatory, a convention of the aisling that Yeats invokes in such poems as "The Song of Wandering Aengus," which begins in a similar manner. Yeats writes, for example, "I went out to the hazel wood,/Because a fire was in my head,/And cut and peeled a hazel wand..." (22). Alike in their depiction of a state of consciousness that resides between dreaming and wakefulness, Yeats and Berryman both begin by establishing their speaker as being privy to a heightened state of mind that often gives way to emotional truths not possible in one state or the other. As with the Romantic notion of "reverie," which critic Wayne E. Chapman describes as being part of the "Victorian aesthetic apparatus" from which Yeats wrote, such dream-states often correlate to flashes of insight and wisdom for both Yeats and Berryman (60).
Although drawing from this folk tradition, Berryman also continually grounds these dream-like visions in mundane everyday imagery, suggesting that, although such liminal states of consciousness may prove revelatory, the emotional truth that they reveal should help the poet to live in the world, rather than differentiate him or her from it as in many of Yeats' poems. This trend is exemplified by "Dream Song 235," in which he depicts the preponderance of suicide among his literary contemporaries. In doing so, Berryman uses the Yeatsian device of the dream vision to contemplate the ethics of Hemmingway's suicide through the use of an associative, dream-like logic, into which daily life intrudes. He writes, for instance,
girl at the door: 'a few coppers pray'
But to return, to return to Hemmingway
That cruel & gifted man.
Mercy! My father, do not pull the trigger
Or all my life I'll suffer from your anger
Killing what you began. (164)
In this passage, Berryman allows Henry's revelation to be interrupted by a knock at the door, an event that ultimately prompts the character to relate the emotional truth that has been revealed to him to the life that he will continue to lead. In doing so, Berryman's decision to introduce the "girl at the door" and thus encourage Henry to integrate the everyday and the visionary reads as a response to many of the criticisms of Yeats within the book. By suggesting that Yeats' poetics of restitution and recovery remain divorced from everyday life, particularly through the initial description of him "in the London spring half-spent/with only the grand gift in his head," Berryman presents an alternative variation on the aisling, in which revelatory experiences illuminate the manner in which one experiences loss in everyday life, rather than distance one from it.
This approach remains prominent throughout The Dream Songs, appearing in a number of poems within the collection. Also apparent in "Dream Song 370" and "Dream Song 376," Berryman's tendency to allow the everyday to intrude upon the visionary often prompts the speaker of the poem to negotiate the two. As critic Rob Jackaman writes in Broken English/Breaking English, John Berryman, as well as contemporaries like Robert Lowell, remained well aware of such visionary strategies from British and Irish poetry, and presented themselves as being concerned with the direction that this tradition would take in the future. He describes the presence of this perspective in literary criticism, for example, "He justifies the inclusion on the grounds that these writers (Lowell and Berryman) have already concerned themselves 'with the problems that some of the generation of poets over here are beginning to face': this remark clearly puts the American in the position of being the 'New' and the "Beyond'..." (31). Such concerns remain apparent in "Dream Song 370" and "Dream Song 376," which revise and rework the visionary tradition from which Yeats wrote. Frequently presenting a visionary experience from which the speaker must return to his everyday life, Berryman reconfigures the aisling tradition of Yeats while searching for an alternative poetics. He writes, for example, in "Dream Song 370," "Henry saw with Tolstoyan clarity/his muffled purpose. He described the folds--/not a symbol in the place..." (302). In the poem, the speaker must return from such clarity to his profession, ultimately facing life with this visionary knowledge. Berryman writes in the final lines of the poem, "The horizon is all cloud./Leaves on leaves on leaves of books I've turned/and I know nothing, Henry said aloud,/with his ultimate breath" (302). Using the landscape upon which the speaker gazes to mirror the anxiety this visionary experience has caused upon return to his life and profession, Berryman presents a version of the dream-vision which complicates everyday life, rather than separates one from it.
In doing so, Berryman's presentation of Henry's revelatory moments contrasts sharply with early poems by Yeats, such as "A Dream of Death" and "The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland." Often invoking the dream-vision in such poems as a means by which to suggest the power of the visionary over the everyday, Yeats, unlike Berryman, privileges the revelatory as having sway over everyday life. As critic Laura O'Connor writes in Haunted English, "The sense of estrangement enhances receptivity to the poem's theme of how worldly composure can be unexpectedly ambushed by traumatic incursions of the otherworld. The folkloric locale is picturesque, but its pictorial quality is one in which any given here oscillates to an 'away, come away' singsong to create an uncanny place of reverie" (95). This trend remains especially apparent in the way Yeats presents mundane things like "money cares and fears" in both of the poems (16). Often introducing such imagery early in the work, only for unremarkable things like the "crowd at Dromahair" and the man at the market pouring "fish into a pile" to be eclipsed by the mythical, Yeats presents a variation on the aisling that privileges transcendence of the everyday . He writes, for example, in "The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland,"
mused beside the well of Scanavin,
He mused upon his mockers: without fail
His sudden vengeance were a country tail,
When earthly night had drunk his body in... (16)
In this passage, the dream-vision that Yeats presents differs sharply from Berryman's "Dream Song 235." Rather than presenting a scene into which everyday life intrudes upon such revelatory moments, prompting the speaker of the poem to negotiate the two, Yeats' narrative allows the mythical to eclipse the imagery of the speaker's daily concerns that appear at the start of the poem. Particularly apparent in such phrases as "He mused beside the well of Scanavin/He mused upon his mockers," this tendency in Yeats' poetry to privilege the transcendent also remains apparent in his use of anaphora, which gives the lines a stately quality. While Berryman clearly draws on this condition in creating his Dream Songs, many of these strategies remain absent from the poems, which favor an integration of the dream-vision with the speaker's day-to-day life.
This tendency in Yeats' early poetry to privilege the mythical and the transcendent derives in part from his perception of the poet's role in the Irish tradition. As biographer A. Norman Jeffares argues in his book W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet, the early poems of Yeats present the reader with a contemporized and reworked version of many Celtic myths, a trend that remains especially apparent in The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems, which he published in 1889. Jeffares writes, for example, in this book, "There was a sufficient hint of belief unlike the temporary breakup of a religious conviction which distressed him. There was a mystic link between the ancient legends and the present folklore, and an escape into a larger world than he imagined for himself in his earlier dreams" (35). In doing so, Yeats continually revises the function of the poet as mythmaker in many of these stories, frequently rendering this role and the oral tradition from which it derives relevant to the cultural moment that he inhabited. Similar in a sense to Berryman's reworking of Irish mythological influences, this trend in Yeats' work is described by critic David Rosen as being incompatible with the everyday. He writes, for example, in Power, Plain English, and the Rise of Modern Poetry, "As an expression of the self, of the identity amassed from lived experience, as a vehicle for political opinions or moral beliefs, the visionary mode is worse than useless: the turn to this mode occurs at a moment annihilating to the ordinary self. Inevitably, the visionary turn is accompanied by an attempt to quarantine it from the rest of the poet's life..." (97). Suggesting that, in revising this tradition, Yeats ultimately created a poetics that remained incompatible with many of the life experiences he would later hope to depict, such criticism remains prominent in Berryman's His Toy, His Dream, His Rest: 308 Dream Songs, which strive to negotiate the visionary with the concrete.
As Berryman raises such questions about Yeats' tradition and searches for an alternative poetics, he continues to draw on Irish folk traditions through Yeats' influence, namely as an antithetical or double self often serves as a point of entry to this type of dream vision. Derived from Irish mythology, this notion of the double self appears in Yeats' work in the form of masks, which critic A. Norman Jeffares describes as being intended to allow the poet to discover his true self through opposite or antithetical selves (141). Although this fascination would become more pronounced later in his career, Yeats took an interest in masks as an artistic metaphor early in his career. Jeffares quotes the young write, for example, in W.B. Yeats: Man and Poet, "I have been looking at some Venetian costumes of the sixteenth century as pictured in The Mask--All fantastic; bodily form hidden or disguised...One feels that if they still fought and hunted their imagination was not with these things. Does not the same thing happen to our passions when we grow contemplative and so liberate them from use. They also become fantastic and create the strange life of poets and artists" (141). In this passage, Jeffares quotes Yeats as he begins to contemplate the mask as an artistic metaphor for the self or the self being rendered unrecognizable. A trend that would become increasingly prominent in Yeats' work, this excerpt evokes ideas about the disguising of the self as being a catalyst for the imagination that would later dominate Yeats' poems.
This idea of the double or antithetical self takes on a variety of forms in Berryman's His Toy, His Dream, His Rest: 308 Dream Songs, but remains most noticeable in his decision to use recurring characters Henry and Mr. Bones, in addition to an unnamed speaker in the poems. As author Jerome Mazzaro writes in Postmodern American Poetry, the main character from the dream songs, Henry, serves as a double figure for Berryman, and, likewise, Mr. Bones similarly doubles Henry throughout the book. He writes, for example, comparing this strategy to the Yeatsian idea of the mask, which he intended as a method for discovering his opposite "true" self, "Henry is obviously intended as a double figure for Berryman, and he functions psychologically in that way as Mr. Bones (Henry's death urge) and the blackface interlocutor of Henry form a still further breakdown" (113). Exemplified by Berryman's "Dream Song 114," Berryman uses the dialogue between Henry and Mr. Bones to reveal to the reader the speaker's perceived multiplicity of selves when experiencing and contemplating loss, as well as the anxiety that this breakdown of identity elicits. He writes, for example, in the poem,
in trouble whirped out lonely whines.
When inch when was ever not in trouble?
But did he whip out whines
Afore? And when check in wif ales & lifelines
Anyone earlier O? --Some, now, Mr. Bones,
Many.--I am fleeing double:
Mr. Past being no friend of mind,
all them around...
I can no foothold here; wherefore I pines
For Dr. Present, who won't thrive to use
Hand over neither hand.... (41)
this passage, Berryman presents a speaker who, rather than embracing the
process of doubling as a means toward discovery, is "fleeing
double." Comparable to the Yeatsian idea of discovering one's true
self through opposite or antithetical selves, Berryman's poem offers a myriad
of selves, none of which become a point of entry toward an idealized notion of
restitution and discovery. In drawing from the folk traditions that
influenced Yeats' writing, Berryman continually presents them as being bereft
of an idealized end result, ultimately paying tribute to such forms as the aisling when revising and reworking them. In
doing so, Berryman presents a vision of loss in which an idealized notion of
restitution and recovery of past experience, like the discovery of a
"true" self, remain absent from the everyday experience in which
Berryman grounds his poems.
As a result of such revisionist strategies, the poetics of suffering that Berryman presents ultimately relies less on an idealized vision of the relationship between loss and restitution, but instead presents the speaker with what critic Stephen Matterson terms a "survival epic." Berryman accomplishes this task through his use of Henry as a character, often rendering his ability to endure loss as being analogous to that of Berryman. Matterson writes, for example, in Berryman and Lowell: The Art of Losing, "Being about Henry's survival, it represents Berryman's survival. A fresh thrust is given to the familiar analogy between a life and a text, since Berryman can only survive through the creation of an alternative text, or series of texts. Henry's life is of course really a text..." (88-89). Particularly apparent in his characterization of Henry as inextricable yet separate from his life experiences, Berryman often uses these parallels to suggest that the influence Yeats had on him early in his career also remains inextricable from his construction of this "survival epic." He writes, for example, in "Dream Song 324,"
Henry in Ireland to Bill underground:
rest well, who worked so hard, who made a good sound
constantly, for so many years:
your high-jinks delighted the continent and our ears:
you had so many girls your life was a triumph... (256)
As Paul Mariani argues in his biography of John Berryman, this poem remains part of a period in which Berryman actually wrote in Ireland, coming to terms with a number of deaths of his contemporaries (425). In doing so, Berryman's use of hyperbole in such phrases as "your high-jinks delighted the continents" as well as his mixing an elegiac tone with "high-jinks" and "girls" evokes a sense of joy being taken in Yeats' life work, all the while differing sharply from the Irish tradition. Rather than seeking to recover past experiences, the speaker in "Dream Song 324" ultimately parodies an idealized desire for restitution through such incongruities as high and low diction and the discontinuity between tone and content, suggesting that such attempts to recover past experiences remain less efficacious than simply acknowledging and accepting loss.
Although reworking and revising the tradition from which Yeats wrote, Berryman often presents his precursor as having made this rhetoric of loss possible. This trend proves particularly apparent in his characterization of Yeats as being both a master who has been surpassed and an influence that remains omnipresent in the poems. Berryman writes, for example, in "Dream Song 230,"
love great men I love. Nobody's great.
I must remember that.
We all fight. Having fought better than the rest,
He sings, & mutters & prophesies in the West
And is our flunked test.
I always come in Prostrate; Yeats & Frost. (159)
In this passage, as with many individual poems in His Toy, His Dream, His Rest: 308 Dream Songs, John Berryman suggests that a tribute to Yeats and an effort to work beyond his poetry can exist within the same narrative space. Although critiquing aspects of the visionary strategies that his predecessor invoked throughout his early writings, Berryman depicts his presence in American literature as being both influential and revered. Although arguing that "Nobody's great," Berryman immediately presents Yeats, along with Frost, as disproving this generalization, suggesting that the work of these two poets, although imperfect in his assessment, remains unparalleled in American literature. By introducing such passages that pay overt tribute to Yeats and other earlier poets, Berryman's poems suggest that such expansions on the work of Yeats as the one he has created remain a natural part of the creation of new literature. Just as he presented a literary model in which a poet studies under a master and then matures beyond that person's work, Berryman suggests that such revisionist strategies as those that appear throughout The Dream Songs remain a tribute in themselves.
Throughout this revised edition of the original seventy seven Dream Songs, John Berryman invokes the visionary strategies of William Butler Yeats, and, in doing so, revises and rethinks them. Although paying tribute to the influence that W.B. Yeats had on his aesthetic, Berryman recognized that such poems often rested on an idealized idea of restitution or recovery of past experiences, and, in reworking this approach, searched for a poetics of loss that could depict suffering without such redemptive rhetoric. While offering a critique of some aspects of Yeats' early poetry, Berryman continued to draw from the same Irish folk tradition as his predecessor, rendering the poetic tropes of the dream-vision and the double or antithetical self relevant to the life experiences and cultural environment that he hoped to depict. In doing so, Berryman frequently presents a visionary poetry that remains grounded in imagery of the everyday, in which the speaker is called upon to negotiate the two. While differing from Yeats, who privileged the mythical over the mundane, Berryman continually built on the same mythological foundation as Yeats, who also revised and reworked Irish folk traditions before Berryman wrote The Dream Songs. Although critiquing Yeats' approach in many respects, Berryman continually acknowledged that the rhetoric of loss that he created could not be constructed without the groundwork laid by Yeats, and, in doing so, presents a vision of literary and cultural tradition an ongoing dialogue between generations.
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Kristina Marie Darling is a graduate of Washington University, where she received both an undergraduate degree in English and a master's degree in American Culture Studies. Eight chapbooks of her work have been published, among them Fevers and Clocks (March Street Press, 2006), The Traffic in Women (Dancing Girl Press, 2006), and Night Music (BlazeVox Books, 2008). A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, her poems appear in such journals as Gargoyle, Miller's Pond, Illya's Honey, Big City Lit, and Janus Head: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. Recent criticism has also been published in issues of The Boston Review, Modern Language Studies, New Letters, The Colorado Review, Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review, and other periodicals. Additional awards include residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, the Centrum Foundation, and the Prairie Center of the Arts, as well as scholarships to attend the Squaw Valley Writers Conference and the Ropewalk Writers Retreat.