John Berryman

February 27, 2007


John Smith
Poetry has an air of authority although it is often extremely eccentric, intensely personal
Father shot himself outside John’s window
Nervous, tense man; prone to overdrinking
Lived turbulently, married three times
Threw himself from a bridge in Minneapolis to end his life
Sense of agony pervades poetry, and is often funny
Saw the autobiographical element in his poems as all-important

The Dream Songs (1964)

Major work, 385 songs in all appearing in separate volumes
Tone is often wildly humorous, but turns quickly toward melancholy again
Berryman’s traits are easily recognizable in Henry’s character
Berryman wrote in the prefatory note to the sequel

“The poem then, whatever its cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the thrid, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses himself as Mr. Bones and variants thereof.” 

“Its plot is the personality of Henry as he moves on in the world.”



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.


Filling her compact & delicious body / with chicken paprika, she glanced at me / twice. / 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 restuarant buzzes. She might as well be on Marx. / Where di it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry. / -Mr. Bones: There is.


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.


There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart / so heavy, if he had a hundred years / & more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time / Henry could not make good. / Starts again always in Henry’s ears / the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.
And there is another thing he has in mind / like a grave Sienese face a thousand years / would fail to blur the still profained reproach of. Ghastly, / with open eyes, he attends, blind. / All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears; / thinking.
But never did Henry, as he thought he did, / end anyone and hacks her body up / and hide the pieces, where they may be found. / He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing. / Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up. / Nobody is ever missing.

Three around the Old Gentleman

His malice was a pimple dow his good / big face, with its sly eyes. I must be sorry / Mr Frost has left: / I like it so less I don’t understood- / he couldn’t hear or see well- all we sift- / but this is a bad story.
He had fine stories and was another man / in private; difficult, always. Courteous, / on the whole, in private. / He apologize to Henry, off & on, / for two blue slanders; which was good of him. / I don’t know how he made it.
Quickly, off stage with all but kindness, now. / I can’t say what I have in mind. Bless Frost, / And add god around. / Gentle his shift, I decussate & command, / stoic deity. For a while here we possessed / an unusual man.

Henry’s Confession

Nothin very bad happen to me lately. / How you explain that? -I explain that, Mr Bones, / terms o’ your bafflin odd sobriety. / Sober as 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. / A bullet on a concrete stoop / close by a smothering southern sea / spreadeagled on an island, by my knee. / -You is from hunger, Mr Bones,
I offers you this handkerchief, now set / your left foot by my right foot, / shoulder to shoulder, all that jazz, / arm in arm, by the beautiful sea, / hum a little, Mr Bones. / -I saw nobody coming, so I went instead.


Also I love him: me he’s done no wrong / for going on forty years – forgiveness time- / I touch now his despair, / he felt as bad as Whitman on his tower / but he did not swim out with me or my brother / as he threatened-
a powerful swimmer, to    take one of us along / as company in the defeat sublime, / freezing my helpless mother: / he only, very early in the morning, / rose with his gun and went outdoors by my window / and did what was needed.
I cannot read that wretched mind, so strong / & so undone. I’ve always tried. I-I’m / trying to forgive / whose frantic passage, when he could not live / an instant longer, in the summer dawn / left Henry to live on.


This world is gradually becoming a place / where I do not care to be any more. Can Delmore die? / I don’t suppose / in all them years a day went ever by / without a loving thought for him. Welladay. / In the brightness of his promise,
unstained, I saw him thro’ the mist of the actual / blazing with insight, warm with gossip / thro’ all our Harvard years / when both of us were just becoming known / I got him out of a police-station once, in Washington, the world is tref / and grief too astray for tears.
I imagine you have heard the terrible news, / that Delmore Schwartz is dead, miserably & alone, / in New York: he sang me a song / ‘I am the brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz / Harms & the child I sing, two parents’ torts’ / when he was young & gift-strong.


I’m cross with god who has wrecked this generation. / First he seized Ted, then Richard, Randall, and now Delmore. / In between he gorged on Sylvia Plath. / That was a first rate haul. He left alive / fools I could number like a kitchen knife / but Lowell he did not touch.
Somewhere the enterprise continues, not- / yellow the sun lies on the baby’s blouse- / in Henry’s staggered thought. / I suppose the word would be, we must submit. /
Later. / I hang, and I will not be part of it.
A friend of Henry’s contrasted God’s career / with Mozart’s, leaving Henry with nothing to say / but praise for a word so apt. / We suffer on, a day, a day, a day. / And never again can come, like a man slapped, / news like this

Son Long? Stevens

He lifted up, among the actuaries, / a grandee crow. Ah ha & he crowed good. / That funny money-man. / Mutter we all must as well as we can. / He mutter spiffy. He make wonder Henry’s / wits, though, with a odd
…something … something lll not there in his flourishing art. / O veteran of death, you will not mind / a counter-mutter. / What was it missing, then, at the man’s heart / so that he does not wound? It is our kind / to wound, as well as utter
a fact of happy world. That metaphysics / he hefted up until we could not breathe / the physics.
On our side, / monotonous (or ever-fresh) -it sticks / in Henry’s throat to judge – brilliant, he seethe; / bettern than us; less wide.


I have moved to Dublin to have it out with you, / majestic Shade, You whom I read so well / so many years ago, / did I read your lesson right? did I see through / your phases to the real? your heaven, your hell / did I enquire properly into?
For years then I forgot you, I put you down, / ingratitude is the necessary curse / of making things new: / I brought my family to see me through, / I brought my homage & my soft remores, / I brought a book or two
only, including in the end your last / strange poems made under the shadow of death / Your high figures float / again across my mind and all your past / fills my walled garden with your honey breath / wherein I move, a mote.


The marker slants, flowerless, day’s almost done, / I stand above my father’s grave with rage, / often, often before / I’ve made this awful pilgrimage to one / who cannot visit me, who tore his page / out: I come back for more,
I spit upon this dreadful banker’s grave / who shot his heart out in a Florida dawn / O ho alas alas / When will indifference come, I moan & rave / I’d like to scrabble till I got right down / away down under the grass
and ax the casket open ha to see / just how he’s taking it, which he sought so hard / we’ll tear apart / the mouldering grave clothes ha & then Henry / will heft the ax once more, his final card, / and fell it on the start.

Henry’s Understanding

He was reading late, at Richard’s, down in Maine, / age 32? Richard & Helen long in bed, / my good wife long in bed. / All I had to do was trip & get into bed, / putting the marker in the book, & sleep, / & wake to a hot breakfast.
Off the coast was an island, P’tit Manaan, / the bluff from Richard’s lawn was almost sheer. / A chill at four o’clock. / It only takes a few minutes to make a man. / A concentration upon now & here. / Suddenly, unlike Bach,
& horribly, unlike Bach, it occurred to me / that
one night, instead of warm pajamas, / I’d take off all my clothes / & cross the damp cold lawn & down the bluff / into the terrible water & walk forever / under it out toward the island.


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