Happy 100th, John Berryman!

Sam Leith at the Guardian (this seems to be Guardian day at LH) has a wonderful appreciation of John Berryman, one of my favorite American poets, who would have turned 100 yesterday; as I told my brother, who sent me the link (thanks, Eric!), I have two copies of The Dream Songs (one of which is a gift from PF when he visited me in Peekskill a decade or so ago — thanks, PF!), and I should take them down a lot more often. Here’s a taste of Leith’s essay:

Berryman is (relatively) unusual among poets because he’s funny. Daniel Swift, who has edited some handsome centenary reissues of Berryman’s work for Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US (Faber, feebly, isn’t marking the occasion in the UK), suggests that his status as a minor major poet – his not quite getting his due – is in part down to this. People still don’t think funny poets are as important as the non-funny kind. But Berryman is the proper sort of funny: the funny that is involved with heartbreak. His friend Lowell called him a “great Pierrot … poignant, abrasive, anguished, humorous” – and that seems to me an unimprovable description of the mix. The Dream Songs is a slapstick Book of Job. Most of what you might call the Greatest Hits – the lines and poem chunks most quoted in isolation – are funny. “Life, friends, is boring …”; “Bats have no bankers and they do not drink / and cannot be arrested and pay no tax / and, in general, bats have it made”; “Bright-eyed & bushy-tailed woke not Henry up”; “If I had to do the whole thing over again / I wouldn’t.”

One of his lines – even though I have no idea to what it refers – makes me laugh every time I think of it.

   – Are you radioactive, pal?
   – Pal, radioactive.
   – Has you the night sweats & the daysweats, pal?
   – Pal, I do.
   – Did your gal leave you?
   – What do you think, pal?
   – Is that thing on the front of your head what it seems to be, pal?
   – Yes, pal.

(That’s the end of Dream Song 51. Incidentally, there’s a typo in the last paragraph — Berryman committed suicide in 1972, not 1977.)


  1. IOW, “Are you a dickhead?”

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    Though I have only one copy of the Dream Songs, I have to say you’re absolutely right. Major poet, mystifyingly underrated. Exercising heroic self-restraint, I shall resist the urge to reproduce dozens of my own Favourite Hits below.

  3. As a writer myself, I always enjoy hearing one poet describe another one (because really nobody else can): “A great Pierrot”!

  4. @David Eddyshaw: Not knowing anything about Berryman, I’m sorry that your self-restraint has won out. Favourite Hits would be welcomed.

  5. By chance I came across a Romanian translation of selected Dream Songs yesterday. I was disappointed to find that the translators translated Mr. Bones’ lines into the same plain standard Romanian as the rest. Furthermore, the translators skipped over linguistically virtuosic no. 2, the first one a fan of Berryman might look for in a translation.

  6. How sad! For reference, here’s the text of no. 2:

    Big Buttons, Cornets: the advance

    The jane is zoned! no nightspot here, no bar
    there, no sweet freeway, and no premises
    for business purposes,
    no loiterers or needers. Henry are
    baffled. Have ev’ybody head for Maine,
    utility-man take a train?

    Arrive a time when all coons lose dere grip,
    but is he come? Le’s do a hoedown, gal,
    one blue, one shuffle,
    if them is all you seem to réquire. Strip,
    ol banger, skip us we, sugar; so hang on
    one chaste evenin.

    —Sir Bones, or Galahad: astonishin
    yo legal & yo good. Is you feel well?
    Honey dusk do sprawl.
    —Hit’s hard. Kinged or thinged, though, fling & wing.
    Poll-cats are coming, hurrah, hurray.
    I votes in my hole.

    There’s a discussion of the first line here; aside from the pun on zoned (“stoned” and “regulated under planning laws”) mentioned there, I’d point out that “Poll-cats” refers to both polecats and electoral polls (“I votes in my hole”). There’s as much going on in Berryman as in Joyce.

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