Aphasic Workshop: John Berryman & Things so Ghastly You Cannot Respond to Them Directly

“The More Sin Has Increast, the More Grace Has Been Caused to Abound”
John Berryman, the mysterious death of whose father haunted his fitful eruptions through faith, its loss, and the development of his poetic audacity preceded his ’72 suicide leap from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis with his birth in Oklahoma in 1914, a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and a National Book Award. He graduated from Columbia in ’36, garnered his graduate credentials from Cambridge and Princeton, and taught at Wayne State, Harvard, Princeton, Iowa, the University of Washington, and Cincinnatti before he settled into his long, wracked tenure in belles lettres in the employ of the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis in 1954.

His 77 Dream Songs, published in ’64, was the volume that fetched the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and the follow-up volume of poems in his dream song cycle, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (’68) won for him the National Book Award.

Berryman’s Dream Songs were worked in a multiply lonely idiom of changing faces and voices whose true identities were at times fluid and difficult to pinpoint. Confounding in the face of the assumption of time’s linear passage, John Berryman’s poetry describes an open circuit of life as one endless dream. It is a dream wherein time is perforated by warrens of back-tracing corridors. Protagonist Huffy Henry House’s sullen solitude is suffused with somnolent feel as, committed to transforms and assumed roles, he cycles through many of the poems and new accidents of trouble having already died. Throughout his game of shapeshifting and suffering, taking leisure and forcing it (or mocking it), he is engaged in a conversation with an unnamed interlocutor referring to him as Mr. Bones, a conversation partner who may very well just be another figment of his own personality.

There is a thread running through the Dream Songs of learnéd criticism bound to be ignored. The poems are infused with the voice of a Lost Generation poet defeated before he makes his own glory, defeated by the legacy of poetic giants the likes of Eliot and Pound, and by the accelerating disingenuousness and misdirecting insanity of his century- his century that moved from one atrocity to the next in a blind panic to dispose of all unifying narratives, as though in the hope it could rid itself once and for all of the one narrative that fuels the gaining, encroaching accusing blame and recompense the 20th century will demand in unrelenting perpetuity.

Above it all, the Dream Songs are infused with the voice of a poet steeped in scholarship and technical capability bolstering a spectacularly daring talent.

In 1971, responding to an interviewer’s question on whether he agreed with some critics’ take of the Dream songs as a vindication of divine goodness in the contradictory view of the existence of evil, he contrasted the spirit of his work with that of Whitman:

Whitman denies that “Song of Myself” is a long poem. He has a passage saying that he had long thought that there was no such thing as a long poem(…) But here it is, sixty pages. What’s the notion? He doesn’t regard it as a literary work at all, in my opinion– he doesn’t quite say so. It proposes a new religion– it is what is called in Old Testament criticism a wisdom work, a work on the meaning of life and how to conduct it. Now I don’t go that far– The Dream Songs is a literary composition, it’s a long poem– but I buy a little of it. I think Whitman is right with regard to “Song of Myself.” I’m prepared to submit to his opinion. He was crazy, and I don’t contradict madmen.

– Paris Review Interview, 1972

Simply taking a few of his Dream Songs as examples and chewing over the dread throughout, we can see how he does not positively “propose a new religion,” as he puts it, but instead critiques those amnesiac religions that exist already.

Dream Song 46

I am, outside. Incredible panic rules.
People are blowing and beating each other without mercy.
Drinks are boiling. Iced
drinks are boiling. The worse anyone feels, the worse
treated he is. Fools elect fools.
A harmless man at an intersection said, under his breath: “Christ!”

That word, so spoken, affected the vision
of, when they trod to work next day, shopkeepers
who went & were fitted for glasses.
Enjoyed they then an appearance of love & law.
Millenia whift & waft– one, one– er, er…
Their glasses were taken from them, & they saw.

Man has undertaken the top job of all,
son fin. Good luck.
I myself walked at the funeral of tenderness.
Followed other deaths. Among the last,
like the memory of a lovely fuck,
was: Do, ut des.

And, in song 20, The Secret of the Wisdom, there is the direct accusation of any god who may be extant in the final lines of the poem:

Hurl, God who found
us in this, down
something… We hear the more
sin has increast, the more
grace has been caused to abound.

Song 46 speaks directly to the willful ignorance of the 20th century, with its focus on the choices and ways of seeing of the people in it. The quotidian and benign civilian life of the shopkeepers and the man on the street is concatenated with the panic that rules, ongoing, outside- elsewhere in the rest of the bloody century. The everyday, boring, unreproachable act of opening up shop flows into the front line slaughter happening in other places through the proxy of politics- the election of fools by fools. The outside to which he refers becomes every outside. The only separation between the beatings and the panic he describes and the uneventful civilized life is the way in which the culpable choose to see it and distance themselves from its unpleasant aspects. Where “fools elect fools”, the blame rests on a process outside of the individual, and the problem for humanity is solved simply by by Looking a different way, in a separate direction. The indictment is written into the text that politics is the sacrificial proxy, the broken juncture between violence and peace, the wheelhouse of all-purpose narratives and zero-feedback communication through which information can flow in only one direction to create change in the world. Politics is the sniper’s rifle.

Berryman talks a bit below at around 3:20 about devices he employs to approach the problem of, as he puts it, accounting for things that we choose not to engage in, things “so ghastly you cannot respond to them directly.”


As Bolaño wrote of the eye that has tried so hard to forget one thing it has forgotten everything else, as Pynchon rightly wrote of his Lethe-water baptized Americans, Berryman, in monstrous solitude, himself mulled on the century and mulled brightly, flashing and yearning with his own power and worked to admit what people so often do not in order to presume toward a critique.

That is to say, Henry to some extent was in the situation that we are all in in actual life– namely, he didn’t know and I didn’t know what the bloody fucking hell was going to happen next. Whatever it was he had to confront it and get through.

-Paris Review Interview, 1972

“Getting through” here itself is the minstrel’s own misdirection. The extraordinary excess of Henry’s solitude in the face of a world otherwise unified in its collective commitment to obscuring fault and impeding improvement is itself not a victimization, but a critique. In the very first Dream Song He chooses danger and being apart in the face of the morbid harmony of society’s shared joke. Henry could very well have shelved his disagreements and questions, going to work with the shopkeepers mentioned in Song 46 day in and day out, and eschewing the right to introspection. It is only the monstrous power of the individual, the excess of his presence and the anti-social and discomfiting assertion of the free will of which that excessive presence is a reminder that can criticize, abstain, rescind. In the helical miming of the partnership of people and pariah, it is only the exile who can mirror in himself for everyone to see what pains him in his reading of the world at large: that the world of men is so often built out of the lazy narrative convenience of call and response. That “the more sin has increast, the more grace has been caused to abound.” It is only the monster of solitude, too, who can point to the third way that is not pure diffidence, who can utter the positive “no”, the “no” to all arguments that means there is something other we can do, even if we do not know yet what it is.

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 continuously. Whitman, our greatest poet, had all this. Eliot, next, perhaps even greater than Whitman, had it too. Pound makes a marvelous if frail third here. All three dazzlingly original, you notice, and very hostile, both Pound and Eliot, to Whitman. It is no good looking for models. We want anti-models.

– National Book Award Acceptance Speech