Friday, March 20, 2015

#79 Op. posth. no. 2

The effect of this poem is terrific. The effect depends on a technical trick: Check out the rhymes. The rhyme scheme varies, but they’re perfect rhymes mostly, especially flat and clear in the 3rd stanza. B.’s not using the more frequent and more subtle half-rhymes that often show up in The Dream Songs, and he does it for a reason. So all is dandy and rhymingly in place until the second last line in the third stanza, which should rhyme with “returns” but gives that phrase instead “lest he freeze our blood.” He does this to shatter the rhyme scheme and make that seemingly sinister line jump out even further. (I did something like that with the sonnet I wrote in response to #27, so it’s interesting to me to see it here.) The effect works something much like this: The poem is comic as well, maybe not quite to this extent, but the poem and the film clip are working in exactly the same comic mode right up to the startling moment. There is a comically overstated drama and then a “gotcha!” One difference is that the scene from the film plays it strictly for laughs. Berryman does too, except the laugh is much more complex, with all the overtones of Henry’s complicated, graceless life hovering over the humor that the tragicomic mode of The Dream Songs has established: heartbreak, bewilderment, futility, Henry’s buffoonery. In the end, the overtones overwhelm the humor, which is really the point. The other difference is that the film clip catches you right at the peak of dramatic overstatement, whereas the poem takes a dip downward into “let too his giant faults appear”, recalling something of the droop and dope we’ve always known, giving us a break before the return to the overblown celebration of the entire town, region and cosmos, and then the startle, making it that much more sophisticated, more unexpected, and more startling. Henry’s speaking from the grave casts the whole thing in a creepy, even threatening light, though it’s hard to see Henry as capable of anything like “terrible returns” unless he’s dead and thus invested of supernatural influences he never had in life. So in spite of the chill it causes, the whole thing is a joke in the end anyway—probably. The only return he is capable of is through his art, which has indeed shown a pretty formidable potency, giving the fear of the returns some heft. The poem ends on a suspended emotional double entendre: Extreme, grand fright, or joke? It’s both, though the distance between these two modes is so extreme that that in itself is comical. I tend to think it’s the joke that finally prevails, though there is a poetic brilliance in its complex layers.

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