Book Review: The Dream Songs by John Berryman

Since I’ve been writing more poetry, I’ve been reading more poetry lately. I’ve read some newer stuff, but I’ve also been reading many of the classics, including William Blake, T.S. Eliot, and W.B. Yeats.

I recently read an anthology of 20th century American poetry that was comprehensive regarding the poets it included. One of the poets that struck me the most was John Berryman, and the anthology included poems from his much-celebrated volume called The Dream Songs.

The Dream Songs is a compilation of two separate books of poetry: 77 Dream Songs (1964) and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968). The Dream Songs compilation contains a total of 385 individual poems that are narrated by a strange character named “Henry.” Henry is a kind of alter-ego for Berryman who, by all accounts, has many of the traits Berryman had. Berryman, however, insisted while he was alive that the poems weren’t autobiographical.

The poems of Dream Songs are strange, which is what I liked most about them. Some of the poems have titles, but many of them are simply numbered. Along with Henry, the poems contain a cast of bizarre characters like Mr. Bones and an unnamed friend that Henry usually refers to as “pal.”

The dream song poems all follow their own form, which is three stanzas divided into six lines per stanza. It seems to be a kind of free verse form that Berryman created for the poems, though there is much irregular and internal rhyme throughout. The syntax and word choice in the poems are equally bizarre, but it follows its own logic that I enjoyed.

Take, for instance, these lines from “Dream Song 29”:

And there is another thing he has in mind  

like a grave Sienese face a thousand years

would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,  

with open eyes, he attends, blind.

All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;  

thinking.

Source: Poetry Foundation

Strangely comforting

After reading them for a while, the weird logic of the poems grew on me. Another thing to note is about Henry, the narrator. Henry is troubled, much like Berryman was in real life, and his character has been described as “alienated, self-loathing, and self-conscious.” Henry is also obsessed with death and suicide, as some of the poems are elegies of Berryman’s fellow contemporary poets who committed suicide, such as Sylvia Plath.

The obsession with death and suicide is eerie because Dream Songs was published as a compilation in 1969, and Berryman took his own life shortly after that in 1972 by jumping off a bridge in Minneapolis. Berryman had been haunted his whole life by his father’s suicide.

Perhaps the echoes of this morbidity are what drew me so much to Dream Songs and Berryman’s poetry. Berryman was a complicated man, and there are some troublesome aspects about his life, including his alcoholism and philandering. Parts of Dream Songs also contain a kind of literary black face where the narrator speaks in an African-American dialect, which was hard to read.

(Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash)

Dream Songs wasn’t an easy read – Berryman’s characters are depressed and desperate and ill-behaved. But what I liked most about the poems was they offered a window into Berryman’s suffering, making me feel less alone in the ways I have suffered in the past. Berryman also has a cheeky and gallows’ humor in the poems, which lighten things up at times but is usually self-deprecating.

That Berryman ultimately took his own life was the saddest part of reading the book. After being so close to his alter-egos in Dream Songs, reading about the end of his life kind of feels like losing a friend. This is not in any way to romanticize the suicide and despair, but to view the book as a confessional journal that can comfort me when I’m down, like an empathetic friend sharing his struggles and saying, “Yeah, I’ve done that, too.”

(Cover photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash)

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