Thursday, January 21, 2016

Dreamed. Sang.

In 1972, just before he died, Berryman said in an interview, in The Paris Review, “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. I hope to be nearly crucified.” It’s hard to take him entirely at his word, that he was lucky, especially since The Dream Songs are full of so much pain and whining about the pain. The key, though, is that he didn’t say the man is lucky. The artist is lucky. As a man, he arguably didn’t do so well. Unhelpably addicted to alcohol, constantly in and out of hospitals, shamed fairly often over some pretty humiliating even loathsome behavior, and maybe the worst of sin of all, he didn’t let the people who loved him love him, and he didn’t really love them back. At least not like he could have or should have. That is a betrayal. That’s what comes through of the man in the work. As a man, there’s isn’t a whole lot to recommend. As an artist, he garnered major accolades, is considered one of the preeminent poetic voices of the twentieth century, and his reputation hasn’t subsided yet. This artistic accomplishment was coupled with his great skill and passion as a teacher, the other thing he was very, very good at. I can only imagine that his energy was of the crazed, manic variety, but by all reports, he was electrifying when he was on, and that does matter. He made a mark as a teacher, but it’s as a poet that he’s remembered. A huge body of critical study is dedicated to his work. For the artist, the nearly crucified man was the source of a nearly endless stream of high-grade material. But it’s not easy material to comprehend.

I took on this project figuring that it would lead me in directions I couldn’t foresee, and in that much at least, I was right. I’ll talk about that below. I began this critical/creative blog on the basis of four or five Dream Songs, which I still love and still think are great, especially 14, the most famous of them all, and 46, still in my judgment one of the great poems ever written. I knew 4, 1, and 29 as well, and had dipped into a few others. All of my attempts at just sitting down and reading The Dream Songs had come up short, though. These poems were too confusing, too opaque, scrambled, took too much effort to unravel. In part, I began the blog because I was needing to take on a major challenge. I was in the mood to kick something’s ass. If there’s a violence-inflected tone to that line, well, I confess. I needed a test. The idea of the blog had been circling around for quite a few years, and I had almost taken the plunge the year earlier but stopped because when it came time, I knew I wasn’t ready to make the commitment. This time, I jumped in. I wrote the intro, talked about it with some colleagues at the university where I work, brought it to my writers’ group, a group of writer friends who meet once a month to share and discuss our work. They were encouraging but really nailed me for the tenuous, apologetic, and schoolboyish tone of the first draft, so I revised it with this in mind, got set, and jumped in. All I had to do was write one post a day, and if the inevitable day of sickness, busy-ness, or fatigue kept me away, that would be okay. I would catch up. I stuck to the schedule and have finished on time and under budget. Most entries took about an hour and a half or so out of the day, more or less, but many took much longer. Only a few took less than a half hour. Right away, any temptation to not do the work vanished. In the same way it would never occur to me to come into work without having taken a shower and brushed my teeth, the work proceeded on that level. It wasn’t something I gave myself a choice over. It just became part of the rhythm of the day. If I gain nothing else from having finished this project, it taught me something new about what discipline is. Early on, the project generated a huge amount of energy. Eventually that dissipated, but I kept working out of an odd, and newly discovered (for me) application of discipline. I used to think discipline was about being able to make yourself do something you desperately don’t want to do. Well, I’m here to report that’s not it at all. Discipline is about wanting to do what you know you have to do. It’s just part of the deal of being there. The main thing you have to do, then, in Woody Allen’s famous phrase, is show up. The rest follows. The other thing I learned about discipline is the very real power of it. Even on days when I wasn’t gung-ho about sitting down and writing the blog, the momentum that put me in the chair and got me going would generate ideas I had no idea would be coming. Just write. I’ve heard this before from writers and teachers but never really believed it: Maybe occasionally inspiration generates writing, but really, it’s writing that generates inspiration. I want to at least mention this because it’s important to me, a new understanding of the nature and power of discipline for someone—Libra, INFP, a Ferdinand the Bull smeller of flowers—to whom this has never come easy. I do have four degrees, though, including a Ph.D., MFA, and bachelors’ degrees in biology and English lit,, so one might think I would have some idea of what discipline is about. And for sure, desperation and intermittent episodes of intense desire made me occasionally behave in ways that might have seemed highly disciplined to an observer. But it wasn’t that. I’ve grown a lot over the past year.

But enough of discipline. That’s boring. What did I actually learn? Here’s what I expected when I started: A record of a spiritual quest. Intelligent, inspired commentary on the state of the world, in the late-middle twentieth century, which would shed new light on the analogous challenges and fears of some fifty years later. In place of nuclear Armageddon we are facing environmental apocalypse. Two different ways of ending the world, but both highly effective. Would you rather be guillotined or hanged? Different cultural traditions, but both will leave you in the same existential spot once they’ve run their course. The death-row anxieties of a prisoner facing one approach should shed light on the other. In the end, these expectations did have some play in The Dream Songs and in my responses. As far as a spiritual journey, The Dream Songs strike me simply as a record of almost total failure. Henry never comes close in the poems to the relationship Berryman reportedly reached before he died, with a personal God who is a caring presence in our lives and who answers our prayers. But there is indeed much spiritual questing in the poems, and even though Henry ends up in darkness, the quest is meaningful. I learned much from accompanying him. Overall, I’ve learned a lot from this standpoint about what I am, where I stand, what I fear and love, and where I fit in. I have a better understanding, too, of what and who I’m not. All of this is worked out in my commentary and in the poems I wrote.

More to the point for me, though, are the things that arose totally unexpected out of The Dream Songs. I have now been through a sustained engagement with depression, uninhibited alcoholism, and yearning for suicide. Holy shit! This is all worked out in the commentary too. My feelings fluctuated wildly between loathing, pity, and empathy. He’s not a likeable character, but so what? One thing I never expected was to be charmed. I expected to have my tail existentially kicked. The work delivered on that score. But I think I fought through it and got out unscathed. At times I was exhausted, but I can also say that for the most part while this dark business often got under my skin, and turned more than one day away from bright singing life toward this this dark, bitterful dreck, in the end it’s not permanent. I took this work on and did it deeply, and learned from it, but I don’t feel consumed. I feel stronger for it. Tired, but stronger. And while I’m at it, the work is still utterly brilliant in its way. Not always, but often enough that it maintained its excitement for someone who will always respond to the complex interplay of words.

All of this I might have seen coming had I paid attention to what I more or less already knew about this poet. It’s okay that I didn’t. We know more than we know we know; it’s not possible to bring it all up into full contemplation. No one has the room in their days, or the space in their heads to take on everything they don’t know they know and then really fully know it. (If you know what I mean…) It was a privilege to have the space in my life to take this on. It’s what writers do, and why I’ve worked to become a writer.

I could have, and on some misty level did, see the depression, suicide and addiction coming, with all its attendant psychological turmoil. I didn’t come to The Dream Songs entirely ignorant of their content. And of course we’ve all read dark, horrible shit before. Steven King is a billionaire writing this kind of stuff. People still read Poe. We love it. One thing arose however, that I really didn’t expect, and it may be the most important lesson of everything I learned. It’s about the body. I think I’m reasonably in tune with my body. A surgeon who was asking me about how I was feeling after a fairly important procedure finally remarked, “You seem like you’re really in touch with your body.” I was giving more detail, I guess, than he needed, and it was his circumspect, tactful way of suggesting that it was time to knock it off. Maybe he was impressed, I don’t know. Well, this was the guy who told me, “While I was in there I went ahead and fixed, actually just sort of adjusted, your belly button.” Oh, really? My navel was just fine, thank you very much. I didn’t think it needed adjusting. Who in the world “adjusts” someone else’s belly button? That strikes me as a bit too intimate, especially since he was coming at it from the inside and all. But I digress. The Dream Songs, in their record of the existential dilemma that arises from a rapidly decaying body, have accentuated for me, in ways I have never considered and never would have expected, the importance of the relationship between spirit-mind-body. These things are not separate; they all exist together in the person on a continuum. Millions of people before me have known this, to the extent that there is even a whole sentimental pop-culture industry devoted to it, but it has been a discovery for me nonetheless. In order to achieve a high spiritual awakening, or to safeguard ones spirituality, the brain must be nurtured, and the body the brain is a component of needs to be exercised, nourished, watered, and protected from poisons. Well—go figure, huh? But this is news to me. It was news to Berryman too, but the news got to him too late. For all his brilliance, talent, intelligence, and desperate ambitious desire, his body failed him because he abused it, and he abused it in a sustained, systematic way. He failed his body before it failed him. He didn’t acknowledge in a real way that it was part of him. That’s actually what brought the spiritual quest crashing down. He was mentally and physically sick most of the time, over the course of the fifteen or so years spent on the writing of this cycle. Any wonder it’s so damn dark?

There’s more. The nature of ambition and its relationship to life is something else I didn’t expect to encounter. I learned that damnation is a real thing, though not in the simplistic, fundamentalist Faustian sort of way. But human spirits, it turns out, really do become lost beyond recovery because they choose to become lost. Love, it turns out, is the key to it all. Rejecting love is one quick route to damnation. I thought more than I expected to about death. The main thing that came to me though (and I’m grateful for it), is an understanding in new, unexpected ways, through profound revelations, that I’m fairly healthy. I do love life and other people; I’ve not damned myself yet and aren’t likely to; I’m still ambitious after all my vast experience with failure; I’ve taken good enough care of my body that I don’t have cause to regret the consequences of sustained self-abuse. Age will change things, but that’s different. Age adds things to the person as it detracts other things from it, right up to the end, and then it’s okay. Addiction merely steals. I’m not an addict. Finally, I can promise this: Given the choice between watching, even if only for thirty seconds, a zebra swallowtail fluttering as it sips nectar from a coneflower on one hand, and a tormented alcoholic painful damned manic crazed famous loveless prize-garnering literary achievement on the other, I swear to God I’ll take the thirty seconds with the butterfly. If fame and accomplishment don’t include butterflies, then I’m not interested.

This blog had just under 12,000 page views over the year. If anyone silently reading—Portugal, Germany, France, Poland, Russia, Ireland, other countries, all seem to have had regular readers—I’d love it if you’d comment and say “hi” or just once say what you thought. Just a few readers were with me all the way. I thank you for the support, and you have my love. The blog is now done. This is the last post. I’ll be moving on to another big project after a bit of a rest. I wouldn’t do this one again, like many things I’ve taken on, but it was a big deal for me, and I’m satisfied I did it. What an amazing life we get to briefly live in! It’s all about the life. In its backhanded way, that’s the most important, last thing The Dream Songs taught me. I’m grateful for that.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


The Hindenburg weighed just under 250 tons, which is about 500,000 lbs. A Boeing 747 weighs about 900,000 lbs. The Saturn V rocket weighed 6.5 million lbs. These astonishing things lifted off the ground and flew. Heavy, but up there.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


Fairly unambiguous this, in its rage, a garish pronouncement: Tear open his father’s grave and axe him dead again, for good measure. There are several ways to read this poem. One way is likely how he would have had us read this, as the emotional explanation for all that has happened to him, that thing that sat down on Henry’s heart from the infamous DS 29, where Henry thanks his lucky stars that he hasn’t yet horribly murdered some woman and hacked her body to pieces, out of the depths of his anguish. Well, there is a major difference between being afraid of doing something and planning on doing it, give him that much. He wasn’t physically a violent person. He never actually visited his father’s grave, from what I gather, so the return pilgrimage in this poem is imaginary. Certainly he thought about it enough. Another way to read this poem, though, is as a great, passionate smokescreen—methinks the poet doth grieve too much. The scholarly opinion these days seems to be that at some level, both in his heart, but also liberated through psychotherapy, he knew that his father didn’t really shoot his own heart out. He was murdered externally. There is maybe, just maybe, one spot in the whole 385-poem cycle of the Dream Songs where B. lets slip that he knows this. But the pose of the emotional cripple this sets up was too valuable to let go of, too perfect an excuse for poor choices and bad behavior that followed in his adulthood, so he never let on. Lest we forget, he drives the point home in the penultimate Dream Song. Couldn’t afford to let on that things might have been otherwise. There was too much invested. And indeed, if it was a pose, it was a pose that carried him a long way, and got him everything he wanted. It even excuses the addiction. Well—that’s another reading. An uncharitable one, to be sure.

As I read this again, for the 10th time or so since last night, contemplating what to say about it, it just now struck me that this DS 384 looks very much to me like Berryman’s answer to Sylvia Plath’s "Daddy." Not everyone loves Plath (though many more do than don’t), but there’s no doubt that she’s indispensable. Good luck getting through an undergraduate Intro. to Lit. class without encountering “Daddy” or “Lady Lazarus.” I’ve taught “Daddy” a dozen times myself. I generally try to nudge the class toward an understanding of the poem as a love poem to Plath’s father, an idea that I got from one of the Intro. to Lit. textbooks I used long, long ago. The “Daddy” she’s destroying isn’t the real one (of course—he’s already dead), it’s the image of him that she’s dispensing with, the reified or calcified collection of stereotypes in her memory that she breaks apart so that her memories can maintain the kind of spontaneous freshness that is characteristic of relationships with the living. It’s all she has, since he’s not among the living. It’s this one moment in a cycle of destruction and rebirth of the father’s memory that makes the poem so great and so heartbreaking, because it’s all necessitated by the fact that he’s dead and she needs him. But he’s not there. She still struggles with needing him. B. was in exactly the same boat, and there should be no doubt that his grief over the violent death, suicide or murder, of his father was terrible. He was just a boy. That will have to have a lasting effect, and here, he’s still trying to deal with it in the same way Plath tried to deal with her father’s death. It looks like anger. It’s not anger. It’s still grief, reverberating from a deep and terrible need based in love. This is all quite possible.

Sylvia Plath died in 1963, and this DS 384 was written somewhere around 1967 or 1968, so she had been gone only a few short years. Even though the world in 1968 was already immensely different from 1963, her reputation was on the rise. Knowing Berryman as well as I think I do now, I can’t see that he’d let pass the opportunity to ride this poet’s and this great poem’s coattails upward into the realms of literary immortality. It was too perfect an opportunity. I’ll see your “Daddy” and raise you “Dream Song 384”—don’t forget that literature was a competitive enterprise for this cat. In the end, this isn’t a charitable reading of the poem and its inspiration and purpose either. But I don’t put anything past him. He had a heavy streak of weaselry in him.

To me, it’s not a poem that invites a sympathetic response, even though I believe it was meant to bludgeon the reader into a high-sentimental empathy. Woe is me—is anyone watching?—Woe is me! Many, many readers have fallen for it if that’s so. What rescues the whole thing, though, is that image of the eleven year old boy finding his father dead outside of his window. It’s real, and it’s so sad that we’ll forgive anything after that. Almost anything. Doesn’t matter why it happened, it happened. If I voice doubt, accuse him as an adult of posing, of being a weasel, there’s something in me that just cries out to knock it off. Grief is grief, and there is something unseemly and harsh about ever judging it, even after forty years. So, I can bow to that and let it go.

In the end, I think, these various charitable or uncharitable readings don’t compete. They all hover around this poem and contribute to or detract from its validity. But that ambiguity raises the whole thing into a new level of validity! The whole Dream Songs project is about this ambiguity—does he or doesn’t he? Did he or didn’t he? Who was he really? Confessional my foot! But there is that sadness, in the end. That is constant, and what the poem finally leaves you with. If he built an existential house of cards out of the mistakes of his life, it’s that emotion that keeps the whole poetic structure glued together and has saved it so far from blowing away.