The Dream Songs / John Berryman

A scholar and professor as well as a poet, John Berryman graduated from Columbia in 1936, then went to study at Cambridge University for two years on a scholarship. Early on he wrote a critical biography of the American writer Stephen Crane, and first achieved national attention for Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956), a dense, brilliant book-length dialogue with the seventeenth century poet Anne Bradstreet. Berryman taught at Harvard and Princeton, among other places, finally taking a position at the University of Minnesota, where he remained until his death. He was a major figure in American poetry in the second half of the 20th century and was considered a key figure in the Confessional school of poetry. He taught many well-known future poets , one of whom (Philip Levine) characterized him as brilliant, mesmerizing, difficult, and demanding, but the best teacher he ever had.

But it is The Dream Songs that made him famous and on which his literary reputation will rest. The book is listed on the American Academy of Poets website as one of their Groundbreaking Books of the 20th Century, and was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. There are 385 of them, composed in a form consisting of three stanzas divided into six lines per stanza, in free verse with irregular rhyme schemes. The songs are all numbered but some of them also have individual titles. The poems teem with allusions to past and present events (capturing the Fifties and Sixties decades very well) and to literary figures, many of which are elegies for Berryman’s recently deceased poet friends, including Delmore Schwartz,  Randall Jarrell, and Theodore Roethke. It is a veritable literary Spoon River Anthology with its many paeans to the great writers throughout history he felt connected to.

Its main protagonist is named Henry, a white American in early middle age who sometimes makes up in blackface as a minstrel.  An unnamed friend who speaks in several of the poems calls him “Mr. Bones” and he then often refers to himself as that in future poems. Although Berryman insists Henry is not him, the dream songs portray many experiences of his life, like his troubles with women and his obsession with death and suicide, mainly his father’s suicide. He compares Henry to Tolstoy’s treatment of Anna Karenina, in that, as Tolstoy did with his heroine, Berryman took Henry further than any normal life could take us.

The best summation of these poems I’ve read is by Kevin Young, an African-American poet  who edited The Selected Poems for the Library of America edition who states in his introduction to that volume “The voice shifts from high to low, from archaic language to slang, slant rhyme to full, attempting to render something of jazz or, more accurately, the blues—devil’s music. What emerges and succeeds is something of a sonnet plus some—a devil’s sonnet, say (the three sixes stanzas too obvious to be ignored). Berryman’s heresy is against the polite modernism that preceded him. That the poem can let in all sorts of Americanisms—… and not as signs of culture’s decay, but of its American vitality, is fearless and liberating.”

Among my favorite ones are Numbers 1, 4, 14, 28, 29, 40, 145, 149, 155, 187, 206, 224, 265, 301, 312, 324, & 347 – so many good ones I’d like to quote them in full but I’ll let you discover them on your own. The frankness of Berryman’s work influenced his friend Robert Lowell and other Confessional poets like Anne Sexton. Despite the grim subject matter of some they are often hilarious,  but can also bring you to tears.  Some of it is tough going and its not for the faint-hearted, but the improvident beauty studding every poem is well worth the effort.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wolf Solent / John Cowper Powys

Ah, the Powys family, from Shirley, Derbyshire, where to begin?  They were that rare commodity, a literary family (families who had more than two published members) who overshadowed the other two literary families, the Brontes and the Sitwells, in quantity if not in fame. The father, the Rev.Charles Francis Powys, and his wife, Mary Cowper Johnson, claimed direct descent from both John Donne and William Cowper;  7 of the 11 children (John, Theodore, Llewelyn, Philippa, Marian, A.R., and Katie) all  had books published, over 100 books among them all! John Cowper Powys, the author of Wolf Solent, was a remarkable admixture  of D.H. Lawrence (who compared to Powys was quite the prude), Tolstoy, and Thomas Hardy (particularly known as his successor), with a dash of Aleister Crowley thrown in. He made his  living traveling around the United States as a lecturer; an extremely powerful and charasmatic speaker, with the looks of a silent movie star, people often fainted at his performances. For most people he would be considered an acquired taste but I took to him immediately . I first heard the book mentioned in something I was reading by the Austrian writer Peter Handke and on his recommendation I immediately (figuratively and literally) checked it out. Over the years he’s had such champions (besides Handke) as Henry Miller, Robertson Davies, George Steiner, Iris Murdoch,  Elias Canetti, and Philip Larkin, and the book (as well as A Glastonbury Romance) is listed in Harold Bloom’s Western Canon so who am I to argue? Powys was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958, 1959, and 1962. He died in 1963 at the age ogf 90.

Wolf Solent  is set in the fictional towns of Ramsgard, Dorset, which is based on Sherborne, Dorset, where Powys attended school, as well as other towns in the area. The book itself concerns an extremely introverted man, Wolf Solent, a thirty-four year old history teacher returning to his boyhood home, and his courtship of two very different women. The supporting cast includes a lecherous sausage-maker, a peddler of antiquarian pornography, a homosexual clergyman, a voyeuristic country squire, a teenage boy who kisses trees, and a mad poet. It portrays his casual attitude toward polymorphous sex ( “Natural or unnatural,” one of the characters says, “it’s nature. It’s mortal man’s one great solace before he’s annihilated.”), but also his great compassion for the down-and-out, the aberrant, and the misbegotten. Many of the cast of unforgettable characters have equally unforgettable names: Wolf Solent (of course), Selena Gault (my favorite), Gerda Torp, Christie Malakite, Darnley Otter, Lobbie Torp, and Bob Weevil, just to name a few.

Powys wrote 21 novels and over 50 books in all; A Glastonbury RomanceWeymouth Sands, Wolf Solent, Maiden Castle, and his Autobiography, are his most well known works, but several critics consider an almost completely unknown work, Porius (almost 1600 pages) his masterpiece, comparing it to novels as disparate as One Hundred Years of Solitude, Finnegans Wake, and Alice in Wonderland.

There are many great books in this amazing writer’s ouevre, and I recommend you read them all,  but if you’re looking for his most accessible book, Wolf Solent is for you.