On Form: Kevin Young
"Both the writer and the reader of long poems need gall, the outrageous, the intolerable—and they need it again and again. The prospect of ignominious failure must haunt them continually... It is no good looking for models. We want anti-models."
In his National Book Award acceptance speech, quoted above, John Berryman goes on to say, "I set up the Dream Songs as hostile to every visible tendency in both American and English poetry." One of these visible tendencies on both sides of the Atlantic was the "cult of impersonality" cultivated by T.S. Eliot, whose Waste Land Berryman countered in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet by including "personality, and plot—no anthropology, no Tarot pack, no Wagner." Instead, as with the later Dream Songs, Berryman attempted "the reproduction or invention of the notion of a human personality, free and determined." The Dream Songs may be Berryman's most famous poem, but ironically not his most successful—that prospect of ignominious failure haunts them as much as the ghost of Berryman's father's suicide.
I have long been interested in poems that may be called "successful failures"—those overreaching, underplanned, ill-conceived messy delights that do not enact a perfect marbleized form (nor wish to) but nevertheless delight with their sense of surprise, of sound—their personality. They are poems you'll sit and listen to awhile, their stories too wild to ignore; or maybe you'll dial them up: long poems are nothing if not loyal.
Recently a student of mine encountered a poetic emergency. He brought in a many-voiced poem, structured not to obtain the jarring juxtapositions of Eliot and Pound, but to describe love, its many moods, its danger. But the student had no map, so I steered him to Berryman. Certainly the bearded one is not for everyone—as Marianne Moore said of poetry, I too, dislike it—but there is something in him that provides a model, or at least an anti-model, something to fight for or even against. Berryman is difficult to imitate, much less to model; we are better off trying to let his obscurities wash over us. It would be hard to be as obsessed with drink, women or blackface as Berryman, which may prove problematic even for the most tolerant reader. His use of "black dialect" is frustrating and even offensive at times, as many have noted, and deserves examination at length. Nonetheless, the poems are, in part, about an American light that is not as pure as we may wish; or whose purity may rely not just on success (the dream) but on failure (the song). Berryman allows us to admit our obsessions, both as writers and as Americans. In turn, the poems are not a song of "myself" but a song of multiple selves. Instead of a cult of personality, we have a clash of personalities—the poems' protagonist Henry speaks not just as "I" but as "he," "we," and "you."
That Henry might be "you," the reader, is the point. That Henry is not simply Berryman's stand-in is also the point: the Dream Songs are too often read as mere confession. Unlike Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath, who purposely relied on the tension between their own personality and the form of the poem to give it power, Berryman relied on the shifting form to explain in part his disparate personalities.
Each of the Dream Songs consists of three sestets, or 18 lines of varying length and rhyme scheme. They scheme all right: just as the Dream Songs sets up what feels like a form, it proceeds to dismantle it; this dismantling is integral to the form. The voice shifts from high to low, from archaic language to slang, slant rhyme to full, attempting to render something of jazz or, more accurately, the blues—devil's music. What emerges and succeeds is something of a sonnet plus some—a devil's sonnet, say (the three sixes stanzas too obvious to be ignored). Berryman's heresy is against the polite modernism that preceded him. That the poem can let in all sorts of Americanisms—not just Greek, as Eliot would have it—and not as signs of culture's decay, but of its American vitality, is fearless and liberating.
I've seen other student writers using Berryman's form to hold Southern dialect; urban slang; television talk; anything. How else do we achieve a poem of many voices—one which dares to be fragmented, full of feeling and embarrassed at that feeling, held together not by meter, war or even gods, but by force of personality? Some of the poems are speeches, binges, come-ons or crank calls; all vary wildly between dream and song:
Nothin very bad happen to me lately.
How you explain that? —I explain that, Mr Bones,
terms o' your bafflin odd sobriety.
Sober as a man can get, no girls, no telephones,
what could happen bad to Mr Bones?
—If life is a handkerchief sandwich,
in a modesty of death I join my father
who dared so long agone leave me.
What can rhyme (and reason) with a voice that calls life a handkerchief sandwich? With such a large "If"? "If" is the only close rhyme to "sandwich," which leaves us back where we began, questioning. The Dream Songs let in tragedies—the handkerchief sandwich—in ways few other poets allow. While they do not so much move as rant, they do so with a humor, heartache, and risk that we find often in life, but rarely in genteel poetry. No wonder "Henry's Confession" is no confession at all and ends with a dance in the last stanza—the handkerchief transformed from sandwich into offering, sustenance for the soul.
--Originally published in Crossroads, Fall 1999.