On a day like today, tasked to respond to Dream Song 55, it helps to remember this, from Mr. B. himself in DS 366: “These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand. / They are only meant to terrify & comfort.” And yeah, there’s a bit of terror at work in this one—not much comfort, though. Someone else (Stephen Akey) wrote that The Dream Songs are unique in their hilarity and despair, and he also claims that “The overall tenor of the book might be roughly stated as follows: Just because we’re buffoons, it doesn’t mean our lives aren’t tragic.” The Dream Songs’ wallowing in self-pity turn out to be one of their glories. Unlike Flannery O’Connor, in Akey’s estimation a pretty cruel and pitiless writer, who never indulged in self-pity even given the loneliness and the terrible disease that eventually did her in, B. wailed out loud. As to O’Connor: “What was wrong with this woman?” Sometimes self-pity is the appropriate response, stoicism be damned. Akey’s essay turns out to be comforting today.
There is an element of questioning in 55, wondering what the heck went wrong. The details of the interview are out of my reach—new job interview? after B. screaming at his landlord and (unforgivably) defecating on his front porch? It was that last part, especially, that likely got him fired, I’m thinking. This is conjecture. Allen Tate helped get him a job soon after at the U. of Minnesota, but perhaps there were those days between the disaster/humiliation and the academic rebirth, where you have to sit in an interview and try to put on a brave face. Hire me. Hire me! Affirm how worthwhile I am. Despair covers it, though I understand you’re supposed to rise to the occasion and take control and make it yours, yadda yadda. Not if you’ve got such a humiliation tugging at you. I sympathize.
Berryman claimed in an interview that DS 55 is similar to the graveyard scene in Joyce’s Ulysses: “The resurrection and the life. Once you are dead you are dead.” None of this Lazarus business, in other words. The graveyard is full of worms and maggots, and that kind of thing is pretty final. Well, that fits. In the poem, “I feel my application failing. It's growing dark, / some other sound is overcoming. His last words are: / ‘We betrayed me.’”
Who’s the “we” here? It’s that composite Henry/B. both, I think, screwed up royal this time. None of that Lazarus stuff here either. Self-pity looks appropriate, but there’s more as well—self-disgust. Sorrow. That age-old question, “What have I done?”