In praise of Berryman

I perfect my metres
until no mosquito can get through…

Beryman, Dreamsong 297

In the vagaries of poets’ reputations, Berryman is now up, while Lowell is down. This is a reversal of thirty years ago. Who can say why? I fell in love with Berryman’s Dreamsongs in my early twenties. They have two ongoing personae: Henry, a stand in for Berryman himself, and Mr. Bones, a wisecracking minstrel who sees through Henry. In my innocence and arrogance I wrote a Henry poem, in imitation and homage, and sent it to Berryman. He responded with a wonderfully kind letter.  This wasn’t long before his suicide in 1972.

Famously drunk and troubled, he stumbled through many a public humiliation, but wrote and wrote and wrote it all down. I’ve posted Cantatrice before. But the first book of them, 77 Dreamsongs contains most of my favorites. This one describes the end of the movie, High Sierra, a terrific film noir with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino.  The poem, with Henry standing in for Bogart, seems to me applicable to many things.  I love so many parts of it.  The language seems pitch perfect; the story unfolds clearly whether you’ve seen the movie or not, the language beautifully compressed–nuanced, tragic.  And I love the ending especially:

Dreamsong #9

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 Sherrif’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.
Its 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.

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