In commemoration of the centenary of John Berryman’s birth (October 25, 1914), FSG’s Work in Progress is celebrating this icon of twentieth-century American literature by having authors write about what they admire about him and his work.
I first read The Dream Songs when I was nineteen. I had that intuition you get sometimes when you pull a book off the shelf that it might be the one you are meant to read. I don’t know what drew me to it. Maybe it was the strangeness of its cover (black, white, green and pink); maybe it was the unabashed lyricism of the title. It was a used book and I remember thinking it was heartbreaking that someone had given it away. I thought this because there was an inscription on the front flap that said: For sweets, from Eric.
So many things seemed heartbreaking to me then. I hadn’t yet realized that all this sadness and dread was coming from me. It was like that story where a woman receives threatening phone calls and then is told by the dispatcher “The calls are coming from inside the house. . .” My brain kept flickering into darkness, and the only thing that helped me was to read obsessively. The Dream Songs was one of the books I carried around that year. The weight of it in my backpack felt comforting.
I used to tell my students that the beginning of a great book always contains a gesture towards its end, a sign of what the writer’s abiding obsessions will be. It seemed true at the time, but now I wonder about it. Great books are nothing if not idiosyncratic. And yet here is Berryman making my glib words come to life in the first of his Dream Songs.
Huffy Henry hid the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point,—a trying to put things over.
It was the thought that they thought
they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
But he should have come out and talked.
All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry’s side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don’t see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.
What he has now to say is a long
wonder the world can bear & be.
Once in a sycamore I was glad
all at the top, and I sang.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.
It is a long wonder, this world, and that anyone can bear the small and large defeats of it is a wonder too. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t turned over Berryman’s last moments on the bridge in my head. The wave? Did he really wave?
I’d like that not to be the end of the story. I’d like to pause here at the railing. All I know is that The Dream Songs was one of the books that kept me tethered to this world when I felt like there was nothing beneath my feet. Take notice, it seemed to say. Take notice of every heartbreaking, maddening, stupidly glorious thing. Because in the end you’ll have to wave goodbye to it.
Happy birthday, John Berryman. I wish you’d stayed.
Jenny Offill is the author, most recently, of Department of Speculation.
Photography by Bob Peterson. (©Bob Peterson)