March 23rd, 2011 / 6:13 am

Petrosino on Berryman

“I don’t know how to talk about Berryman after Berryman. It’s like trying to trace the sonic imprint of hip-hop after Run-DMC revolutionized all the beats. How do you describe the dimensions of a heartbeat? Where’s the end of one thing, and the beginning of the next? Open to any page of The Dream Songs and you’ll find much of the irreverence, wordplay, and formal variety that today’s poets currently display in service of the long-form poem. In this seminal work, Berryman doesn’t weave a tight crown of traditional sonnets, nor does he recapitulate the long, loose lines of Song of Myself. His imagination is a blade cutting a unique path through his material. He develops and applies his own odd, tri-stanzaic form to each installment of The Dream Songs. He twists syntax, makes up words, and takes overt pleasure in mixing lowbrow diction with high lyric concerns. The Dream Songs is a world in its own right, and the personality of Berryman’s randy doppelgänger, Henry, is what makes that world go round.” – Kiki Petrosino on John Berryman’s His Toy, His Dream, His Rest.


  1. NLY

      Strained praise.

  2. Parker

      Thanks, Kyle.

  3. Mark Folse

      I wonder if she feels obliged to rein in her praise because of her concerns about Mr. Bones (which I posted about on the remote site, and which she answered). At least she admits he’s a foundational figure in modern poetry.

  4. deadgod

      Well, Petrosino does clearly flag Berryman’s gender and ethnic “insensitivities”, which, I guess, are “cringe-inducing” in a way that Whoopi Goldberg’s go-to Valley Girl just isn’t.

      But, to me, she gets Henry quite wrong – “Berryman’s randy doppelgaenger”:

      “What wonder is / she sitting on, over there?” leers Henry, who may as well have hooves and a pan flute at this point in the collection.

      Here are the next, and final, three lines of Song 4:

      The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars.
      Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.
      –Mr. Bones: there is.

      – surely not a Hef moment!

      Too much of The Dream Songs is self-pitying, poetry not of frailty and failure, but rather clammily clinging to grief. I wish it were more defiant in its appetites, every bit as distraught and lashing but more insensitive to Henry’s misery.

  5. deadgod

      Here’s an example of Berryman’s humor and intelligence: wit (the first stanza of Song 233, Cantatrice):

      Misunderstanding. Misunderstanding, misunderstanding.
      Are we stationed here among another thing?
      Sometimes I wonder.
      After the lightning, this afternoon, came thunder:
      the natural world makes sense: cats hate water
      and love fish.

  6. Anonymous
  7. John Domini

      Anything that calls attention to Berryman’s rough-hewn yet perfect whittles of idiocy & longing, perhaps the poetry that most steeply tipped my heart, is worth celebrating. Thanks.