Sunday, March 09, 2008

Poem of the Week 3/2/2008: Dream Song 14

Dream Song 14

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no
Inner Resources." I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as Achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

John Berryman

I like poetry that captures something, that puts its finger right on a certain experience, and Berryman's Dream Songs (a set of more than 300 16 line poems) often brilliantly manage this. The poem's narrator is named Henry. At some point in his life--unknown to the reader--Henry suffered something tragic. He sets forth the story of his life in a series of songs that seem to almost arise from his subconscious, hence the title of the book. Moreover, he does not always speak as "Henry" as a unified person; "Henry" frequently speaks of himself in the third person, and sometimes dresses in blackface, speaking from that.

What strikes me about this poem is the split character of the narrator and the presence of memory revealed in the final stanza, and the humour this engenders. Regarding Henry's split nature: we are presented in the first stanza with a Henry who is as active as Achilles: he "flashes" and "yearns," and has "plights and gripes." One aspect of Henry has a whole set of concerns and interests in his life with which other parts of him are bored to tears. Some Henrys worry about a woman or are depressed about life or are annoyed with a customer. But the narrative Henry in this poem is, "heavy bored." It's so funny, Henry's different attitudes to his life.

Also interesting to me is the way that Berryman writes the clinging, responsive aspects of thought into the end of this poem; the dog sticks in the memory of Henry after it has gone: an exit leaves the lingering impression of the original presence; we cling even though something has left.

It's always fun with Berryman to do a deeper psychological reading; that these poems are "dream songs" is an invitation to do so, I believe. So the question becomes: why does Henry call up the dog leaving? Does this have to do with his psychological trauma early in life, or is it just an incidental impression that rises to the surface for this poem? I might play with the idea that the dog's leaving represents whatever trauma happened once upon a time in Henry's life; an abandonment of some kind leaves a memory, and is left alone with "me" and an impression.

My Brit Lit professor said that it's a great compliment to treat a poetic character as if s/he is real; I have done so with Henry because he is so perfectly devstated and disunified in these poems. It is a great compliment to Berryman indeed, and picking up The Dream Songs at any time is really rewarding and fun.

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