John Berryman's The Dream Songs are perhaps the funniest, saddest, most intricately wrought cycle of poems by an American in the twentieth century. They are also, more simply, the vibrantly sketched adventures of a uniquely American antihero named Henry. Henry falls in and out of love, and is in and out of the hospital; he sings of joy and desire, and of beings at odds with the world. He is lustful; he is depressed.
And while Henry is breaking down and cracking up and patching himself together again, Berryman is doing the same thing to the English language, crafting electric verses that defy grammar but resound with an intuitive truth: "if he had a hundred years," Henry despairs in "Dream Song 29," "& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time / Henry could not make good."
This volume collects both 77 Dream Songs, which won Berryman the Pulitzer Prize in 1965, and their continuation, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, which was awarded the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize in 1969. The Dream Songs are witty and wild, an account of madness shot through with searing insight, winking word play, and moments of pure, soaring elation. This is a brilliantly sustained and profoundly moving performance that has not yet-and may never be-equaled.
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About the Author
Michael Hofmann is an acclaimed poet, translator, and critic. He has published several books of poetry and has translated more than sixty books from the German, including Gottfried Benn's Impromptus: Selected Poems and Some Prose, as well as works by Ernst Jünger, Franz Kafka, and Joseph Roth. His criticism appears regularly in the London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, and Poetry. He currently teaches poetry and translation at the University of Florida.
Read an Excerpt
The Dream Songs
By John Berryman
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2014 Michael Hofmann
All rights reserved.
Huffy Henry hid the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point, — a trying to put things over.
It was the thought that they thought
they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
But he should have come out and talked.
All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry's side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don't see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.
What he has now to say is a long
wonder the world can bear & be.
Once in a sycamore I was glad
all at the top, and I sang.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.
Big Buttons, Cornets: the advance
The jane is zoned! no nightspot here, no bar
there, no sweet freeway, and no premises
for business purposes,
no loiterers or needers. Henry are
baffled. Have ev'ybody head for Maine,
utility-man take a train?
Arrive a time when all coons lose dere grip,
but is he come? Le's do a hoedown, gal,
one blue, one shuffle,
if them is all you seem to réquire. Strip,
ol banger, skip us we, sugar; so hang on
one chaste evenin.
— Sir Bones, or Galahad: astonishin
yo legal & yo good. Is you feel well?
Honey dusk do sprawl.
— Hit's hard. Kinged or thinged, though, fling & wing.
Poll-cats are coming, hurrah, hurray.
I votes in my hole.
A Stimulant for an Old Beast
Acacia, burnt myrrh, velvet, pricky stings.
— I'm not so young but not so very old,
said screwed-up lovely 23.
A final sense of being right out in the cold,
(— My psychiatrist can lick your psychiatrist.) Women get under things.
All these old criminals sooner or later
have had it. I've been reading old journals.
Gottwald & Co., out of business now.
Thick chests quit. Double agent, Joe.
She holds her breath like a seal
and is whiter & smoother.
Rilke was a jerk.
I admit his griefs & music
& titled spelled all-disappointed ladies.
A threshold worse than the circles
where the vile settle & lurk,
Rilke's. As I said, —
Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken páprika, she glanced at me
Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the fact of her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her
or falling at her little feet and crying
'You are the hottest one for years of night
Henry's dazed eyes
have enjoyed, Brilliance.' I advanced upon
(despairing) my spumoni. — Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls.
— Black hair, complexion Latin, jewelled eyes
downcast ... The slob beside her feasts ... What wonders is
she sitting on, over there?
The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars.
Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.
— Mr. Bones: there is.
Henry sats in de bar & was odd,
off in the glass from the glass,
at odds wif de world & its god,
his wife is a complete nothing,
Henry sats in de plane & was gay.
Careful Henry nothing said aloud
but where a Virgin out of cloud
to her Mountain dropt in light,
his thought made pockets & the plane buckt.
'Parm me, lady.' 'Orright.'
Henry lay in de netting, wild,
while the brainfever bird did scales;
Mr Heartbreak, the New Man,
come to farm a crazy land;
an image of the dead on the fingernail
of a newborn child.
A Capital at Wells
During the father's walking — how he look
down by now in soft boards, Henry, pass
and what he feel or no, who know? —
as during hís broad father's, all the breaks
& ill-lucks of a thriving pioneer
back to the flying boy in mountain air,
Vermont's child to go out, and while Keats sweat'
for hopeless inextricable lust, Henry's fate,
and Ethan Allen was a calling man,
all through the blind one's dream of the start,
when Day was killing Porter and had to part
lovers for ever, fancy if you can,
while the cardinals' guile to keep Aeneas out
was failing, while in some hearts Chinese doubt
inscrutably was growing, toward its end,
and a starved lion by a water-hole
clouded with gall, while Abelard was whole,
these grapes of stone were being proffered, friend.
'The Prisoner of Shark Island' with Paul Muni
Henry is old, old; for Henry remembers
Mr Deeds' tuba, & the Cameo,
& the race in Ben Hur, — The Lost World, with sound,
& The Man from Blankley's, which he did not dig,
nor did he understand one caption of,
bewildered Henry, while the Big Ones laughed.
Now Henry is unmistakably a Big One.
Fúnnee; he don't féel so.
He just stuck around.
The German & the Russian films into
Italian & Japanese films turned, while many
were prevented from making it.
He wishing he could squirm again where Hoot
is just ahead of rustlers, where William S
forgoes some deep advantage, & moves on,
where Hashknife Hartley having the matter taped
the rats are flying. For the rats
have moved in, mostly, and this is for real.
The weather was fine. They took away his teeth,
white & helpful; bothered his backhand;
halved his green hair.
They blew out his loves, his interests. 'Underneath,'
(they called in iron voices) 'understand,
is nothing. So there.'
The weather was very fine. They lifted off
his covers till he showed, and cringed & pled
to see himself less.
They installed mirrors till he flowed. 'Enough'
(murmured they) 'if you will watch Us instead,
yet you may saved be. Yes.'
The weather fleured. They weakened all his eyes,
and burning thumbs into his ears, and shook
his hand like a notch.
They flung long silent speeches. (Off the hook!)
They sandpapered his plumpest hope. (So capsize.)
They took away his crotch.
Deprived of his enemy, shrugged to a standstill
horrible Henry, foaming. Fan their way
toward him who will
in the high wood: the officers, their rest,
with p. a. echoing: his girl comes, say,
conned in to test
if he's still human, see: she love him, see,
therefore she get on the Sheriff's mike & howl
'Come down, come down'.
Therefore he un-budge, furious. He'd flee
but only Heaven hangs over him foul.
At the crossways, downtown,
he dreams the folks are buying parsnips & suds
and paying rent to foes. He slipt & fell.
It's golden here in the snow.
A mild crack: a far rifle. Bogart's duds
truck back to Wardrobe. Fancy the brain from hell
held out so long. Let go.
There were strange gatherings. A vote would come
that would be no vote. There would come a rope.
Yes. There would come a rope.
Men have their hats down. "Dancing in the Dark"
will see him up, car-radio-wise. So many, some
won't find a rut to park.
It is in the administration of rhetoric,
on these occasions, that — not the fathomless heart —
the thinky death consists;
his chest is pinched. The enemy are sick,
and so is us of. Often, to rising trysts,
like this one, drove he out
and the gasps of love, after all, had got him ready.
However things hurt, men hurt worse. He's stark
to be jerked onward?
Yes. In the headlights he got' keep him steady,
leak not, look out over. This' hard work,
boss, wait' for The Word.
His mother goes. The mother comes & goes.
Chen Lung's too came, came and crampt & then
that dragoner's mother was gone.
It seem we don't have no good bed to lie on,
forever. While he drawing his first breath,
while skinning his knees,
while he was so beastly with love for Charlotte Coquet
he skated up & down in front of her house
wishing he could, sir, die,
while being bullied & he dreamt he could fly —
during irregular verbs — them world-sought bodies
safe in the Arctic lay:
Strindberg rocked in his niche, the great Andrée
by muscled Fraenkel under what's of the tent,
torn like then limbs, by bears
over fierce decades, harmless. Up in pairs
go we not, but we have a good bed.
I have said what I had to say.
There is an eye, there was a slit.
Nights walk, and confer on him fear.
The strangler tree, the dancing mouse
confound his vision; then they loosen it.
Henry widens. How did Henry House
himself ever come here?
Nights run. Tes yeux bizarres me suivent
when loth at landfall soft I leave.
The soldiers, Coleridge Rilke Poe,
shout commands I never heard.
They march about, dying & absurd.
Toddlers are taking over. O
ver! Sabbath belling. Snoods converge
on a weary-daring man.
What now can be cleared up? from the Yard the visitors urge.
Belle thro' the graves in a blast of sun
to the kirk moves the youngest witch.
God bless Henry. He lived like a rat,
with a thatch of hair on his head
in the beginning.
Henry was not a coward. Much.
He never deserted anything; instead
he stuck, when things like pity were thinning.
So may be Henry was a human being.
Let's investigate that.
... We did; okay.
He is a human American man.
That's true. My lass is braking.
My brass is aching. Come & diminish me, & map my way.
God's Henry's enemy. We're in business ... Why,
what business must be clear.
I couldn't feel more like it. — Mr Bones,
as I look on the saffron sky,
you strikes me as ornery.
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 mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.
Let us suppose, valleys & such ago,
one pal unwinding from his labours in
one bar of Chicago,
and this did actual happen. This was so.
And many graces are slipped, & many a sin
even that laid man low
but this will be remembered & told over,
that she was heard at last, haughtful & greasy,
to bawl in that low bar:
'You can biff me, you can bang me, get it you'll never.
I may be only a Polack broad but I don't lay easy.
Kiss my ass, that's what you are.'
Women is better, braver. In a foehn of loss
entire, which too they hotter understand,
having had it,
we struggle. Some hang heavy on the sauce,
some invest in the past, one hides in the land.
Henry was not his favourite.
Henry's pelt was put on sundry walls
where it did much resemble Henry and
them persons was delighted.
Especially his long & glowing tail
by all them was admired, and visitors.
They whistled: This is it!
Golden, whilst your frozen daiquiris
whir at midnight, gleams on you his fur
& silky & black.
Mission accomplished, pal.
My molten yellow & moonless bag,
drained, hangs at rest.
Collect in the cold depths barracuda. Ay,
in Sealdah Station some possessionless
children survive to die.
The Chinese communes hum. Two daiquiris
withdrew into a corner of the gorgeous room
and one told the other a lie.
Muttered Henry: — Lord of matter, thus:
upon some more unquiet spirit knock,
my madnesses have cease.
All the quarter astonishes a lonely out & back.
They set their clocks by Henry House,
the steadiest man on the block.
And Lucifer: — I smell you for my own,
by smug. — What have I tossed you but the least
(tho' hard); fit for your ears.
Your servant, bored with horror, sat alone
with busy teeth while his dislike increased
unto himself, in tears.
And he: — O promising despair,
in solitude — — End there.
Your avenues are dying: leave me: I dove
under the oaken arms of Brother Martin,
St Simeon the Lesser Theologian,
Bodhidharma, and the Baal Shem Tov.
A Strut for Roethke
Westward, hit a low note, for a roarer lost
across the Sound but north from Bremerton,
hit a way down note.
And never cadenza again of flowers, or cost.
Him who could really do that cleared his throat
& staggered on.
The bluebells, pool-shallows, saluted his over-needs,
while the clouds growled, heh-heh, & snapped, & crashed.
No stunt he'll ever unflinch once more will fail
(O lucky fellow, eh Bones?) — drifted off upstairs,
No more daily, trying to hit the head on the nail:
thirstless: without a think in his head:
back from wherever, with it said.
Hit a high long note, for a lover found
needing a lower into friendlier ground
to bug among worms no more
around um jungles where ah blurt 'What for?'
Weeds, too, he favoured as most men don't favour men.
The Garden Master's gone.
Excerpted from The Dream Songs by John Berryman. Copyright © 2014 Michael Hofmann. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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