Ireland and the US both gained their independence from Great Britain, though we did it 190 years before the writing of this poem and the Irish did it just 40-some years before. The Brits are the “masters” here, and the implication is that having fought and won their freedom in 1919, nothing has really changed for the Irish. Ireland still struggles, while in London the double-decker buses still trundle past Trafalgar Square, where English prosperity reigns as always. The poem begins in establishing this common ground between the Irish and Americans. So, the poem is partially about the Irish/American cultural relationship, but the key lines move it into a critique of American culture: “We can’t help you.” Why? “Your filthy cousins will come around to you, / barely able to read.” While cousins, we are “filthy” and functionally illiterate and thus have little to offer in the way of high culture to a people producing “masters” in the “high Irish style.” Notice the repetition of “masters”? The meaning has morphed away from the first use, referring to the Brits as owners, virtual slave-holders over the Irish even, certainly the ones historically in political and economic control. The second use refers to the high literary accomplishment of the Irish masters, poets and masters of the magnificent Irish-inflected English, embedded in the politically ravaged “foul ground” of the great green island. The first use of “master” is filled with irony and more than a touch of contempt for political/economic domination. The second use is literal; the great writers of indigenous Irish are true cultural masters. This poem is interesting in how it flashes so abruptly with irony, with fairly crude condemnation, and with fairly exalted praise.
It is marked most of all by an underlying sense of artistic elitism. To call Americans “filthy” is actually pretty strong stuff; meaning something like “low” or “unwashed.” Consequently all of the world-wide influence that American culture had garnered through the twentieth century—jazz, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, Broadway musicals, all of our folk arts—is painted with a single, broad sweep: low and unwashed, not serious, implying that we might imagine it associated with Negroes, hillbillies, gangsters, shallow Philistine business-men in plaid suits, all lumped into an abrupt, bigoted dismissal. He does something similar with Ireland: ruin and squalor predominate, the enemies of fine accomplishment, but out of that have nevertheless arisen moments of rarified art.
Berryman’s technique can sometimes be bafflingly flat and dull, but even the highest, most brilliant literary master has those days. He just gets rid of the stuff, either by cramming it in a folder and hiding it in some forgotten drawer, or crumpling and flinging it into a trash can. B’s main issue in The Dream Songs is that in putting the volumes together, he wasn’t ruthless enough with his crappier work. Bad poems that should have been thrown out weren’t thrown out. Instead, they were inexplicably published, probably because when it came time to engage in this work, his mental faculties and physical vitality were ravaged. But when he’s good, he can be really good, and an endless lineup of critics and writers have kept their attention on his work over the last half century because of that. He’s almost universally recognized as one of the great American stylists. His daring, candid inventiveness, his jarring juxtapositions, the linguistic collisions, the collage aspect of his work, and his sensitivity to semantic nuance are all pretty impressive, and they are emblematic, even defining, in terms of his artistic moment. This poem, for instance, has a neat take on a single word, “master,” and the use he makes of that is great in how it arranges and frames the progression of the poem’s ideas. But I’m acutely aware at the moment that there’s also this other thing all through his work that begins to really grate, especially in the kind of sustained engagement that I’ve had with it for going on a year now. It’s not stylistic, it’s not about technique, not about literary brilliance, and it’s not about the confessional record of addiction, physical decline, age, humiliation, an appetite for sex and booze, racist and misogynistic bigotry, all that. I can deal with all that. What grates on me more than anything else is this snotty elitism, coupled with an obsequious fawning at the feet of those who have achieved membership in the Elite Pantheon of the Greats, which he so pins his hopes on joining. This poem is governed by that. The English are masters, but of a brutalizing and vulgar kind of self-absorbed mastery—at least that’s the implication I detect. The Americans are simply low and filthy, because their vast democratic energy obviates the kind of titled literary exclusion that B. professes to value. That literary exclusion is rarified, and more than anything else it’s patrician and aristocratic. To say this must sound odd in Berryman’s case, because he’s such an obvious, self-professed schmuck. And it sounds odd to ascribe this kind of literary aristocracy to Irish literature also because that literature and language is so indigenous and has such a folkish quality. But this is all part of B.’s overall comfort with irony. Ultimately, though, there is an unreachable, unstainable reserve regarding just one thing with him: Some masters have made it, and once they’ve made it, they’re untouchable. He grovels in front of that, but also in proclaiming them as masters he makes a bid at inclusion in their membership, because only the highly educated elite are capable of recognizing other elites. He’s the groveling aristocrat, the filthy-born American who has worked his way into the company of the exalted. B. doesn’t let go of this, and probably can’t let go of it. It’s what enables the kind of sweeping proclamations he tosses off here.