The Geography of Grief:
Mapping BerrymanÕs Dream Songs
structure for the paper:
*comment on a song from somewhere in the depths
* relate this to structure of poem as a whole
*explain analytical methods to be employed, proposed goal of paper
*comment on another song, near end or beginning
*relate this to context of BÕs earlier works
*discussion of earlier works, analysis of a sonnet or two
*relate this to a song
*relate this to a part/whole of Homage
*analyze a few more songs, relate them to previously mentioned pieces
*as more analyses are entered, drawing conclusions will take up more space in each analysis. Last analysis should be a preface to drawing conclusions from The Dream Songs as a whole
*make generalizations about Henry, suggestions as to what makes the Songs a coherent piece, if indeed it is
The briefest glance tells us that The Dream Songs will be complex. The songsÕ highly regularized form, and the numerology of their compilation, indicate that they must be read scrupulously, and even an approximate understanding of any single song must take into consideration its consistency with or variation from the "dream song form," with reference to surrounding songs, and with reference to the songÕs placement in the poem as a whole. This paper shall undertake several case studies of specific songs, using certain analytical tools which will be described, and will synthesize these case studies in an attempt to locate a framework or partial understanding of what it is that coheres these pieces into a single song, what the poem is "about."
BerrymanÕs very title suggests that any search for meaning in his poem will be problematic. Familiar as he was with Freudian jargon, it is undoubtable that our poet intended his work to be read on multiple layers of meaning, not directly allegorical but full of subterfuges and blind alleys, that their manifest structure and content, like that of a dream, serves not to elucidate but rather to obfuscate any latent, "deeper" content. The text of any song may be "about" any number of things, but the subtext must be read in terms of metaphor, slippage, and the subtle structures and structural variations within particular pieces. This paper will not assume any ability to deduce the "true" meaningof any particular song, and will not make speculations concerning the real person John Berryman, but will rather seek to illuminate possible readings of various songgs as examples for a reading of the poem at large, and will use its findings to suggest possible traits of the fictive and elusive Henry. A reader may wish to believe that Henry is John Berryman (and thatÕs certainly not a difficult presumption) and from there assume certain things about the poetÕs character; these assumptions may have a degree of truth, but this paper takes the position that anything we "discover" about Henry can, if read metaphorically, apply to any human, and as we most often see in a text most clearly those things weÕve brought to it, any psycho- or character analysis of John Berryman through his writing will likely reveal more about the analyst than about the poet. Tread lightly.
"I have strained everything except my ears," marvels Henry in song 166, yet his ears are "too dull," and he rises from the sea to gather "all them ears."
In Song 166 Henry strains himself, cracks his limbs, harms everything but his ears, in a monumental attempt to hear. "Thus his art started," in a striving from the "VenusÕ foam" of the sea toward the shore, where he believed he would find the ears he needed. He forsakes the seaÑhis mother (11), puts his entire body to harm, to get to the shore.
So what, in this poem, are the sea and the shore?
Why is hearing on the shore?
Why is escape from the sea a thing to be striven for?
While this paper will strive to make comments and assumptions about the character Henry and not the man John Berryman, comparison of BerrymanÕs biography with HenryÕs life is too inviting to resist. (thereÕs a good quote to go here) It may be unfair to analyze Henry and apply the findings to Berryman, but there is certainly a good deal of Berryman in Henry, and this paper will indulge in using BerrymanÕs life to elucidate parts of HenryÕs character.
I state this in an attempt to defend my assertion that the third line of this song refers to HenryÕs fatherÕs suicide. There are many references in the poem that seem to point to a suicide-dead father; as BerrymanÕs father killed himself I assume that HenryÕs did likewise, in HenryÕs dreams if not in reality (assuming there exists for Henry a reality beyond dreams). So "one childhood illness" is the trauma of experiencing a fatherÕs suicide, and the gunshots dulled childhood ears. ItÕs these ears that he needs to get back, they are waiting on "the grand shore" (line 8).
"Only his ears set with his theme/ in the splices of his pride." ThereÕs some suggestion that it is HenryÕs ability to hear that gives him identity as an individualÑ"his ears," "his theme," have been deprived him, and he strains all else to get free from his motherÕs grasp, this hearing taken from him so long ago remains unharmed. It is the only part of Henry that his mother, the sea, does not control. HenryÕs faculty of hearing has belonged to his father ever since those ears reported the sound of the gunshot. THis, then is HenryÕs theme: his father, and to reach his father he must escape his mother, "the almost unbearable smother."
This song suggests that ears, and the faculty of hearing, play a special place in HenryÕs dreams; they are associated with his father.
A song of hearing is followed by a string about books. "[L]iterature must spread, you understand" (song 169, lines 5-6) says Henry, whose arm has recovered from the bonebreaking escape to shore, so that he may "scratch his baffled head" (15). One arme is recovered; it seems that Henry has only one arm. In the poem that brings this up, 170, Henry mulls over his death, considers returning to that mather-sea he finally left behind (17-18). Identifying himself with Mark Twain Henry askse the critics after his death to "back down" (7), not to "alter the best anecdote/ that he ever invented" (11-12). Henry pleads not even to be analyzed, to be "free of dons & journalists," only to return to his sea.
the next one contemplates PlathÕs suicide
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