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.

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