Sunday, April 12, 2009

John Berryman

This Easter weekend finds me reading -- and enjoying -- The Dream Songs. Funny, I ordered it from Amazon at least three years ago, and since then the book has sat in my bookcase, untouched. Must have to do with sheer size -- at 427 pages, it's a door stopper. Also I just couldn't seem to work up the mood to delve deeply into the brilliant but wounded thrashings of a this sad-sack suicide of a poet. But the book called to me -- especially after reading a number of relatively tame contemporary collections. And now it's yielding its rewards.

The video above captures the man in full flight. Even slur-drunk (as he is here, & often was), the man was, as Victoria Chang recently put it (not to describe him, but a friend who's doubtless like him), a walking, talking intellectual storm.

As for the poetry itself, it's edgy, intense, wildly innovative even today (perhaps I should add, especially today) ... as one critic put it, Berryman is an American original, & the character of Henry, a permanent addition to its literature. Within the odd formalist constraint of his celebrated 3-stanza, 18-line form, B. took total liberty to twist the language into a slapdash, colloquial yet erudite aesthetic. Check out this diction:

Henry sats in de plane & was gay.
Careful Henry nothing said aloud
but where a Virgin out of a cloud
to her Mountain dropt in light,
his thought made pockets & the plane buckt.
'Parm me, lady.' 'Orright.'

At times he reminds me of Creeley with his tight, nervy confessions. At times, of blowzy, ribald Bukowski. Like Bukowski, Berryman is as likely to end a poem with a wisecrack as with an image. At times, too, I hear the gravelly intonations of Tom Waits. The video ends with a remarkable recital of one of his signature poems, Dream Song #14 ("Life, friends, is boring"). In any case, in Berryman's bleakness there's feisty delight -- proof positive that a well-put downer can be an upper.

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