Does anyone read Berryman, these days? Or has he become one of those once feted poets now lost in the cracks of oblivion?
Current fashions and trends do not augur well for his survival. His drunken testosterone-driven poetic rants and sentimental attachment to racial stereotypes raise every red-flag imaginable. His privileged academia-confined background reeks of entitlement in an age in which the apparent outsider is king.
And yet there is still something exhilarating and liberating about reading the Dream Songs. The way that Berryman strips away everything that is decorous about the sonnet form, leaving only its barest essence: a sort of cogent lack of cogency, like logic going over a bumpy road. The unbridled honesty; the sheer sprawling, oozing scope of the confessional yet non-confessional work that is nonetheless totteringly controlled.
Myth has it that Berryman wrote these poems fast, one each morning, a night of dreams still fresh in his mind. He would then slip the poem under the glass top of his desk and just look at it. Then he would start in on the booze. After a few drinks, he would take the poem out again from under the glass, make a few alterations, file it away, and spend the rest of the day binge-drinking and arguing on the telephone with his ex-wives.
Myth or not, this bizarre routine reminds me of the Greek historian Herodotus’s account, repeated and embellished by Baudelaire in Les paradis artificiels, of the ancient Persians’ political decision-making process. They would, according to these imaginative and frankly racist and orientalist accounts, first come to a collective decision during a communal orgy of alcohol and hashish consumption. Then soberly, the next morning, they would take the very same decision and, if the two votes concurred, the decision was ratified.
Exaggeration and racist stereotyping apart, this has always struck me as rather a good way to make decisions and it is, in fact, mutatis mutandis, what modern democratic parliaments do. Wining, dining and lobbying are followed by more sober deliberation in a more formal setting.
Berryman, however, does the reverse. He writes sober but refuses to allow himself to edit his work until slightly drunk. He writes his first draft when still half-befuddled by sleep but refuses to let his growingly conscious mind edit or censor it until it is befuddled again by alcohol.
I hazard a guess that until the 1950s in America, no poet would have imagined working this way. Poets, for sure, have always had their drug-filled recreational breaks, but the actual writing of poetry, guided by obedience to stern rhythms, required a certain discipline and sobriety. Baudelaire and Verlaine consumed their fair share of absinthe and opium, but did not deliberately write under its influence. Inebriation, in their world, was romanticized and seen from the outside: a variation on the sublime. It was not seen as anything approaching a method or a technique, Jackson Pollock style.
The US artists and poets of the 50s and 60s changed all this. Their principal metaphor, as On the Road testifies, was the motor car. And just as motor cars need to be fuelled by gasoline, so poets and artists needed to be fuelled by drugs and alcohol.
In Berryman’s work, somewhat shockingly to modern mores, inebriation runs through the poetry like an original scar, actively informing the structure and content of the work, as glibly as his casual misogyny and racism does.
Berryman’s true genius, however, concerns the way he re-invents poetic form: enriching the poetic canon by bringing in the vernacular and vulgar without losing touch with the sound sensitivities of traditional forms.
In this, he uses techniques similar to those developed by the much soberer William Carlos Williams: long flowing streams of poetic prose broken conscientiously and intriguingly into often very short lines. But, while Williams’s verse aims to achieve an at times pastorally mawkish resolution of conflicts, Berryman seems to relish chaos and his poems often end with some kind of metaphysical/psychological challenge that is reflected in a jumpier more jarring form, more akin to the feisty repartee of vaudeville than to Williams’s exquisitely executed painterly thought experiments, which are always carefully wrapped up in flowers and bows at the end.
My favorite Berryman poem is Dream Song #4, even though it is controversial and perhaps not one of his best. I like it because it presents a master-class in his peculiar poetic technique and also because it exemplifies the way Berryman elevates the vile and the vulgar to an almost transcendental, if still troubling, status. It is brash, it is swaggering; it is apparently America at its best… And, of course, it is half-drunk on its own success.
The poem is written from the point of view of a male character observing a woman he finds attractive across a crowded restaurant. It could not be more banal a situation, but it looks back humorously and critically to earlier tropes in the Petrarchan tradition of love poetry and forwards to modern-day feminist literary criticism regarding the ‘male gaze.’
The poem itself starts off in the manner of a hipster menu extolling the virtues of an expensive restaurant. The lines go on to pick through the sensorial and intellectual delights of the scene, like knives and forks tucking into a gourmet meal, though unable to disguise the essentially bestial nature of the act of eating.
[1-3] Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken páprika, she glanced at me
The first tercet is, as it should be, almost perfectly turned out. Beginning with the gerund ‘filling’ introduces an element of pronoun ambiguity. The grammar speaks of the woman filling her body with food but, stuck ambiguously at the beginning of the poem, the gerund also suggests right from the outset the lecherous gaze of a male onlooker imagining filling her with something else.
Berryman, like many of his contemporaries, liked to use ampersands. He does this to control both the rhythm of the poem and the degree of connection between ideas. The adjectives ‘compact & delicious’ here are meant to go together metrically and conceptually. Note also how the first line draws the reader’s mind’s eye back and forth over various visual, olfactory, gustatory and tactile stimuli the way both food and sex do.
In the second line, Berryman introduces the menu, being careful to put an accent on the first syllable of paprika, both to mark it out, in the way of menus, as something exotic and to indicate the correct metrical reading of the line in a seemingly fussy way, Gerard Manley Hopkins-style. Here, however, Berryman is clearly taking the piss out of both pretentious uses of the diacritic by playing them off against each other.
The comma in the middle of the second line marks not only a sort of hiatus but also an almost cinematic shift of perspective. It is followed by the banal but flirty ‘she glanced at me’, amusingly carried on by way of enjambment onto the third line by the single word ‘twice’, as if it were a wink. We are already laughing and lusting along with Berryman and his alter ego Henry and the devices used to effect this quick outburst of mirth are both metric and concrete. Note also how the first three lines flow together as a perfectly natural and pleasingly rhythmic prosodic whole. Mid-twentieth century American poems tend to start like this and then become more stuttering.
[4-6] Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the fact of her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her
“Fainting with interest’ in the fourth line introduces pronoun ambiguity again although this is rapidly cut short by the comma and the abrupt introduction of the first person singular pronoun. “Fainting” we should note is an historically gendered word, applied more to women than men, and thus it comes as a slight surprise when the second half of the line reveals that the narrator is actually using it to refer to himself.
‘Hungering’ especially in the continuous form of the verb, picks up the already established eating=sex motif and the subtly ambiguous ‘back’ provides a little rakish grammatical and visual playfulness and echoes metrically back to ‘twice’. American free verse is especially fond of this kind of rhythm rhyme.
Line 5 is much longer and more matter-of-fact than the previous four. This produces an ironic and apparently jarring metrical effect of upping the pace, as if the hunt were now on, while, in fact, the content puts a damper on Henry’s priapic enthusiasm. The comic use of the ampersand to link together the ogled woman’s husband and his four dinner guests, as if they were just a blur, serves to reinforce both the fixedness and inconsequentiality of Henry’s lustful gaze.
“Kept me from springing on her” speaks for itself, comically using a springing conclusive rhythm to convey a sense of sexual failure, frustration and impotence.
[7-12] or falling at her little feet and crying
‘You are the hottest one for years of night
Henry’s dazed eyes
have enjoyed, Brilliance.’ I advanced upon
(despairing) my spumoni.—Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls.
A grammatically unjustified line-break now marks a marked change of tone. The quixotic confidence of the previous climactic line now turns to pathos. Predator becomes suppliant; the imagined direction of domination is turned around.
At this point, Henry tries a little poetry of his own, a poem within a poem if you like. It begins with vulgar language but manages to lift itself up to a certain lyricism by the end, vitiated by Henry’s insertion of his own name in the third person, as if Berryman were using his alter ego to mock himself. This is swiftly followed by an ‘I” focusing back on Henry’s high-dining. We are left with a confused sense of who the real Henry is: the one who lusts after women in restaurants or the one who dutifully, if despairingly, tucks into his spumoni. Bones, a recurrent Berryman antagonist/alter ego, based on therapists and characters in racist Minstrel shows, chips in here with a blackface version of the platitude that ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea.”
Note also the huffingly alliterative sequence of ‘f’ sounds in this poem (filling, fainting, falling, feet, stuffed, feeding, feasts), conveying both a sense of breathlessness and suffocation and one of fullness, of being overfed and, ultimately, fed up.
The poem now descends in lines 13 to 16 into a shameless syntactically and visually chopped up (almost cubist) representation of the male gaze.
It concludes with two stark lines of dialogue.
[17-18] Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.
—Mr. Bones: there is.
The first of these lines is delivered by Henry to himself “Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry,” the second by his blackface alter ego/comedy duo partner, introduced stage direction wise: “There is.” Note that all the ‘f’ sounds now have suddenly gone silent.
The last lines are clearly, in their abruptness, brevity and prosaic quality, designed to make us sit up and think. Henry/Berryman has produced an almost perfect poetic expression of the banality of the male gaze, barely veiled by various layers of irony and self-deceit. But now the law comes down and the poem is dramatically concluded by a grammatically austere but empty edict that seems to come from a higher power but is expressed by an imagined member of a minority group trapped in an oppressive stereotype.
Berryman may well be the Bart Simpson-like prankster in the pantheon of dead American poets but he sure does still serve up food for thought and still has much to teach us regarding the impeccable orchestration of free verse in a broadly vernacular mode.