blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "Dream Song 5"

Joel Conarroe

[Conarroe quotes the first stanza.]

As in many of the poems, the peculiar language, which adds a comic tone to the whisky broodings, presents no obstacles to a reader’s comprehension. Henry, sitting at a bar (perhaps The Brass Rail [in Minneapolis]), is reflected in a mirror, which is some distance from his glass of bourbon. He likens himself to St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who was stoned to death, and sees himself as "getting even" for his own martyrdom by being at odds with God, and by "getting stoned" in the bar. The "getting even" is played against "was odd," and "at odds," producing a play on "odds and evens." The cruel references to his wife is softened if we notice Henry’s habitual baby-talk, as in number 114 ("Henry is weft on his own") and translate "wife" to "life," so that the bitter comment is also self-directed. (It is curious that he also uses "wif," which makes a play with "wife," but not "nuffing." It is never possible to predict exactly where Henry’s verbal inventions will take him.)

from Joel Conarroe , John Berryman: An Introduction to the Poetry (New York: Columbia U P, 1977), 100-101. Copyright 1977 Columbia University Press.

Thomas Gardner

[Gardner quotes the second stanza.]

On a plane, passing over a statue of the virgin atop a mountain, Henry is so excited when the clouds clear and she seems to drop down a ray of light that he claims the plane’s turbulence as his own inner rocking and bucking. This feeling of union seems so powerful that when Henry apologizes to a lady he bumped in the turbulence he seems also to be talking to the virgin – who answers back! The third stanza, backpedaling, establishes a middle ground between the two – essentially, the middle ground that Henry will seek to inhabit throughout The Dream Songs:

[Gardner quotes the last stanza.]

Each pair of lines in this stanza shows Henry as both "free and determined": he is in "de netting" but sings; he is like Crèvecoeur, author of Letters from an American Farmer – limited by his heart and the crazy land but farming nonetheless; or he is a newborn, carrying an image of the dead with him even as he is told "De Day’s Yo’ Own." In each case, both action and limitation are inexorably linked.

from Thomas Gardner, "John Berryman’s Dream Songs," Chapter 1 in Discovering Ourselves in Whitman: The Contemporary American Long Poem (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1989), 37. Copyright 1989 University of Illinois Press.

Helen Vendler

The most original poems among The Dream Songs invent, with enormous buoyancy, the Henry-dialect, of which more needs to be said. This is not therapy-language as such; rather it is a cartoonish poetic equivalent of the aggression and regression permitted in the analyst's office. It includes baby-talk, childish spite-talk, black talk, Indian talk, Scottish talk, lower-class talk, drunk-talk, archaism and anachronism, megalomaniacal self-aggrandizing images, hysteria and hallucination, spell-casting, superstition, paranoid suspiciousness, slang, and primitive syntactic structures of all sorts—sentence-fragments, incorrect grammar, babble, and so on. Many of these are present in the famous Dream Song # 5: . . .

Haffenden glosses the last image as deriving from Cervantes' 'Colloquy of the Dogs,' in which the witch Camacha of Montilla was able 'to cause the living or the dead to appear in a mirror or upon the fingernail of a newborn child.' The image is made more plausible when we know that in an unpublished poem of the fifties, Berryman writes of himself as 'a sort of Don Quixote trickt out as Lucifer.' Still, the role the unglossed fingernail-image plays in the poem is a surreal one, as though even the newborn John Smith proleptically bore on his own body the picture of his dead father, which as John Berryman (he punned on 'bury-man ') he continued to exhibit.

The elegant three-part comic strip of Dream Song #5— locating Henry first in the bar, then in the plane, and lastly in the hospital—gives the sort of emotional access to Berryman's extreme mood-swings that the gloomy psychiatric diagnoses quoted in Haffenden's biography cannot adequately convey: 'Cyclothymic personality . . . Habitual excessive drinking'; 'After admission he became severely grossly tremulous, insomniac, experiencing some frightening dreams, and was obviously on the verge of delerium tremens.' These late medical diagnoses merely record, in psychiatric terms, the disorienting experiences which formed the given of Berryman's adult life, and out of which he made, so vividly, the Dream Songs.

from The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Helen Vendler

Return to John Berryman