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.