Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman

To anybody inclined to be the least bit mistrustful of the literary authorities, John Berryman’s career offers much to ponder. In Berryman, after all, we have a poet whose 77 Dream Songs won the 1965 Pulitzer Prize, followed by the 1969 National Book Award for His Toy, His Dream, His Rest. What’s more, two aspects of his work would seem to guarantee academic enshrinement: its incomprehensibility and Berryman’s public enactment of the myth of the artist as fornicating, drunken, roaring boy. Indeed, by the end of Paul Mariani’s fascinating, if not quite persuasive, biography, Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman, readers may be forgiven the suspicion that even the poet’s 1972 suicide — by plunging off the Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis — constituted, in its way, as shrewd a career move as Berryman ever made.

To this day, critics debate whether the series of 385 interlocking lyrics Berryman called ”dream songs” — upon which his reputation rests — displays a meaningful literary structure. Or not. Blatantly autobiographical, and combining the erudition and allusiveness of The Waste Land with slang and sexual crudities, the dream songs make a strong impact. ”These songs are not meant to be understood, you understand/ They are only meant to terrify & comfort,” Berryman wrote. Even reviewers at the time suggested that footnotes would have helped.

Though detailed enough to supply the context for many an otherwise bewildering passage, Mariani’s book adds little to the criiical debate. A reader wondering why Berryman matters won’t find a persuasive answer here. As a fully enrolled member of the Berryman cult, Mariani, also the biographer of William Carlos Williams, tips his hand in the book’s odd preface when he says that the idea of ”indenturing” himself to his subject came to him during a hypnotic trance. Also that ”the price I have had to pay in spirit and in my physical well-being has been enormous.”

Mariani’s passionate identification with his subject renders him incapable of taking a hard look at the contemporary myth of the suicidal poet. Devastating enough in Berryman’s own generation — what with Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, Randall Jarrell, and Delmore Schwartz — the linking of self-destructive behavior with poetic sensibility has become a public menace in the age of the electric guitar. To Mariani, Berryman’s booze-addicted descent into madness and oblivion makes him the hero of a romantic quest — ”every bit as complex as Hamlet, every bit as driven by dizzying contrarieties as Macbeth.” You won’t hear talk like that from the surviving members of the Who or the Rolling Stones.

Outwardly, at least, Berryman could hardly have lived a more humdrum existence. Praised for his linguistic brilliance as an undergraduate at Columbba University, he railed against the philistinism and stupidity of professors but remained one all his life — protected from paying for his excesses not only by academic tolerance but by the mutual back-scratching of other poets whom, between feuds, he assiduously courted. After the University of Iowa fired Berryman for screaming drunken obscenities and defecating on his landlord’s porch, Allen Tate persuaded Minnesota to hire him practically overnight. Sober, he was a brilliant teacher.

Inwardly, however, Berryman suffered the tortures of the damned. To the tragic events of the poet’s private life, Mariani gives an insistently Freudian reading — as did Berryman himself. Indeed the ”dream songs” began as an effort in self-analysis, centering mostly on his father’s suicide when Berryman was 12 and his subsequent love-hate feelings for his mother. The poet kept a detailed diary of his nightmares and hallucinations. ”It was as if the universe — or God — actually sent him signals,” Mariani writes. ”He knew it sounded ridiculous speaking like this, except that it was true.” No doubt Berryman thought so. All psychotics do. As early as his 20s, Berryman wrote of his ”manic depression fits of terrific gloom and loneliness and artistic despair alternating with irresponsible exultation.” The poet’s entire adult life reads like a case study of that disease. Berryman’s boozing, his alternating grandiose and persecutory delusions, his extreme irritability and outbursts of (mostly ineffectual) violence, his history of appallingly crude sexual behavior, even his suicide — as well as his father’s, since mood disorders can run in families — all point toward that diagnosis.

If so, Mariani’s dismissal of ”those deluded by their own self-complacency and supposed ‘sanity”’ is worse than silly. It’s irresponsible. Manic depression is a treatable physical illness, but no more responsive to talk therapy than diabetes is. Berryman may not have known that; his biographer should. B

Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman
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