Samuel Fisher Dodson, Berryman’s Henry
(Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2006)
ISBN 978-90-420-1689-7 / 90-420-1689-2. €40. 176 pp
Tom Rogers (Sheffield Hallam University)
John Berryman’s The Dream Songs has a well-deserved, but somewhat cultish, reputation as being a landmark in American poetry. Berryman has always had his small band of critical advocates, but he is yet to be one of the “usual suspects” on twentieth-century poetry courses at university. This is partly because, as Christopher Beach has observed, his “work is so idiosyncratic that it has not yet been fully understood by critics and readers”. Consequently, attention to the poet has been sketchy and sporadic, and his major work, The Dream Songs, still seems like vast uncharted territory. Samuel Fisher Dodson sums up the situation well in his introduction, by noting how “many of the critics who have written on Berryman’s opus have a few favourite Dream Songs they have examined with true illumination, but a view of the continuity of the poem as a whole is lacking”.
Exactly how much, and what sort of, continuity The Dream Songs possesses, however, is a matter of debate. Scholars have noted how the Songs, which the poet turned out with increasing rapidity, quickly outgrew whatever thematic schemas Berryman originally conceived for them, and the work’s complexity presents a challenge to any critic attempting to establish one. The open-ended narrative, such as it is, represents the evolving personality of its protagonist Henry as he makes his way in the world; and, in view of this, Dodson outlines the purpose of his book as providing “the beginning reader of The Dream Songs with a vehicle for approaching this large work and to find the unity through its elegiac structure”. He is right to point out that the “the elegiac chord is the loudest, most sustained note in the Songs”, and he compartmentalises, with readings of individual poems, the three different types of elegy that the Songs are concerned with: those addressed to the poet’s (or Henry’s) suicide father, those to his deceased literary heroes and friends, and those to himself, contemplating as he does his own projected death.
The elegiac character of The Dream Songs arises out of what Dodson argues is its nature and status as a twentieth-century epic. The author portrays Henry as a new archetypal hero of this modern epic; and, in doing so, he outlines the history and features of the epic form from Homer through to Walt Whitman’s “celebration of self”. In comparing and contrasting Berryman’s long poem with this tradition he illustrates how the poet has both emulated and developed aspects of it. Above all, “the modern hero’s epic quest is to survive and find meaning, even thrive, in an empty, hostile world, a world of no absolutes, no heroes”. The general thesis is ably demonstrated, with these key components of the poem being established in their literary, historical, and biographical context; and his structured study does indeed offer “a way in” for any intimidated newcomer to the Songs. Those already well-versed in Berryman scholarship, however, may be disappointed by the amount of new research on offer here, though still persuaded by the author’s overall argument. Furthermore, they may be surprised by a number of apparent oversights which seem hard to account for, and can sometimes undermine his interpretations.
The main problem is that the author does not appear to have consulted, or at least taken on board, certain key studies of the poet and his work which are already out there; as he seems, on occasions, unaware of facts and sources which are well-established. For instance, at one point he speculates that the poet may have derived the name “Mr Bones” – the term of address used by Henry’s negro-dialect interlocutor – from a scene in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It is well-documented, however, that the whole minstrelsy trope of the Songs, which features Henry (“Mr Bones”) performing with his black-face interlocutor, was influenced above all by Berryman’s reading of Carl Wittke’s Tambo and Bones. Whereas Dodson’s might be considered a useful additional insight to include if he had acknowledged the primary source – especially since Berryman regarded himself as a friend of Ellison’s – in its absence it merely exposes a perplexing gap in the author’s research.
Other such examples could be cited; for instance, Dodson proposes that Dream Song 56, specifically Henry’s declaration that “Hell is empty”, expresses the idea that “existentialism and modernism killed both God and the devil”. It is an interesting reading, but left unsubstantiated, and furthermore it ignores, and possibly conflicts with, the second part of Henry’s declaration: “O that has come to pass / which the cut Alexandrian foresaw”. This relates to Berryman’s interest in Origen of Alexandria’s theory of apocatastasis – the notion that God is so merciful that everyone, even the Devil, will ultimately be redeemed. Strangely, the Wittke and Origen allusions are both explained in authoritative, and readily available, annotations by John Haffenden, which the author refers to (but, unfortunately, only twice) on other matters elsewhere in the book.
Other original readings, interesting in themselves, need to be constructed on firmer foundations; for example, the proposition that consistent references to Henry’s “daughter” throughout The Dream Songs refer both to the poet’s literal daughter and to the poetic work itself. It’s a nice idea, but it is undermined by another misinformed conjecture: “He published his girl’s bottom in staid pages” (Song 122) hardly refers to his young daughter, as Dodson suggests, but, more appropriately, to the sexual image of his “lady” with “white rear bare in the air” mentioned in Song 93, which was previously published by the poet in The Nation. Again, in such cases greater consultation of previous Berryman scholarship would have provided for a more persuasive reading. In contrast, quotations from other critics can be used too readily at times, the author allowing others to make key points for him. Sometimes highly significant issues are introduced vaguely and left hanging; for instance, “the number seven emerged as an interesting challenge” represents the extent of his comment on the Dream Songs’ intriguing numerology.
The odd such omission of detail can be considered a comparatively trivial matter, but in this case they accumulate to the extent that they can be seen to overshadow the many positive aspects of the work. It may, of course, be countered that one need not necessarily fall victim to the “intentional fallacy”, and be obliged to interpret the poems with reference to Berryman’s biography or source material. However, much of Dodson’s commentary is in fact informed by such biographical information; he provides long accounts of the poet’s upbringing, the suicide of his father, and his relationship with his mother, for example. Furthermore, this kind of source material is important to The Dream Songs because the poem, through the use of the persona Henry, is so ironically self-referential. As the poet stated, despite his initial protestations in the poem’s foreword, “Henry both is and is not me, obviously.” Berryman, in effect, makes his own life part of the text, littered as it is with explicit local detail, supplying numerous biographical traces for the critic to follow up. The most satisfying readings are surely those that fully take up the poet’s invitation – especially since many Songs seem incomprehensible without doing so.
In relation to this, it is a shame that Dodson does not seem to have taken full advantage of the most valuable resource of all; that is, the wealth of archival material contained within the John Berryman Papers, at the University of Minnesota. He has clearly visited this archive, since facsimiles of draft and unpublished Dream Songs are liberally reproduced. These often take up whole pages, and unfortunately they completely disrupt the continuity and spacing of the text, leaving the book looking as if it has not been prepared with the appropriate software (though the author may not have been well-served by his publisher in this regard). In themselves, these generous reproductions serve very little purpose, beyond the mere curiosity of seeing the spidery scrawl of the poet’s own hand (one example of this, in fact, would have sufficed). The author tends to let the facsimiles speak for themselves, typically following them up with little more than a brief comment about a minor word change.
In another example of the author’s superfluity he quotes two whole stanzas of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, merely because it apparently “makes a similar point” to an unpublished Dream Song he has also seen fit to reproduce in its entirety. There is no analysis to illustrate this, or establish why it has any greater connection to the Song than any other poem concerned with one’s “fear of death and desire to reason our final end”. Consequently, there is much room for improvement in the book’s presentation. As it stands, the book fulfils its stated purpose of mapping a useful overview of Berryman’s expansive poem, but it is in its attention to detail, and commentary on individual Songs, that the unsuspecting might find themselves led off course.