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On "Dream Song 76"


William J. Martz

The complexity of the problem of responding to "The Dream Songs" as a whole poem inheres, finally, in the relationship between the conception of the character of Henry and the degree of success of the individual Dream Song. It will be instructive to select a fairly representative Dream Song from 77 Dream Songs for commentary, and then to put it next to a fairly representative autobiographical passage from His Toy, His Dream, His Rest. Here is Dream Song 76, "Henry's Confession":

[quotes poem]

For purposes of analysis we can disregard the fact that the character of Henry has been previously defined and ask how this poem handles the key problem of characterization. It opens with Negro dialect, the voice of Henry, who is speaking with Mr. Bones, a friend, a vaudeville stereotype, an alter ego, a mere name suggesting death. Both characters are comic, with the comedy springing from Henry's premise that he normally expects something very bad to happen to him every day. We are at once in the world of the vaudeville skit. It is a charming and disarming world, and in its way a fit place to discuss the nature of man. But at the end of the first stanza the voice of Henry—and the vaudeville skit—is dropped, and the poet's voice enters. The handkerchief sandwich motif at the end of the first stanza continues the vaudeville joke but some of the tone of the joke is abandoned. There is nothing particularly funny in the second stanza about the death of a father or a bullet on a stoop, especially if it is read as a reference to the suicide of Berryman's father. But at the end of the second stanza we return to the voice of Henry, though the poet is also speaking the line "You is from hunger, Mr Bones." In the first line of the third stanza we return to the voice of Henry in his conversation with Mr. Bones, but the voice that follows seems to be more that of the poet than that of Henry, and the vaudeville humor is but slightly sustained. But if the poem is to realize its subject, which I take to be man's mortality or his isolation in the universe, then the handkerchief and the sea must become unifying symbols, must take us into the subject. This they do not do in a complete way. A fuller situation for the handkerchief offering is needed, and the relationship between the popular song phrase "by the beautiful sea" and "a smothering southern sea" is not at all clear—metaphor is detached from its subject. Part of the problem is that the reference to "a smothering southern sea" (with bullet, stoop, island, and knee) is itself vague. The referent of lines 9-11 is too personal to the speaker to have universal meaning. The "smothering southern sea" happens to be the Gulf of Mexico, but knowledge of this fact does not improve the poem as a poem. And yet the poem as a whole does have singleness of effect. ". . . hum a little, Mr Bones" becomes Henry's sprightly understatement, right from a vaudeville skit, of self-persuasion and universal affirmation, not to mention the suggestion of darker agony as we hear the line as the poet's voice, or one could say a nonvaudevillian Henry. And the last line seems particularly effective as a summary of the human condition that the poem has been defining: "I saw nobody coming, so I went instead."

from "John Berryman" in Seven American Poets from Macleish to Nemerov: An Introduction. Ed. Denis Donoghue. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1975. Copyright 1975 by U of Minnesota P.


Thomas Gardner

… "Song 76" is a quiet resolution of Henry’s despair about his father. If life comes to loss ("a handkerchief sandwich"), still Henry wants to taste it all. "You is from hunger, Mr. Bones," the interlocutor tells him. Now, he is able to manage that taste:

[Gardner quotes lines that begin "in a modesty of death" and end "by my knee."]

By "modesty" Henry means a smaller version of the death, a manageable joining with his father through art. (The play with ago-along-gone-one-agony in the word "agone" also seems to indicate distance.) Now, Henry is able to sing about death: "arm in arm, by the beautiful sea, / hum a little." If Henry’s father left him alone, then through these poems Henry will join him: "—I saw nobody coming, so I went instead."

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), 45.


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