For the last pairing of January men poems, I’m featuring poems so opposite in tone it’s giving me an idea for a buddy comedy.
First up is John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14.” “Dream Song 14” is one of 385 dream songs told through Berryman’s alter-ego character of Henry. Henry sometimes speaks in the first person (as in this poem) and sometimes is referred to in the third (see second stanza).
I left it nestled in a display of graveyard blankets. (I had never heard of such a morbid thing till I moved to Michigan. Wonder if other Midwest states market greenery in this way.)
Dream Song 14
by John Berryman
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,
who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.
Confession: I don’t like this poem. Never have. Snark irritates me. I love the real, and snark is its opposite; or more precisely, snark hides the real and must be wiped off like clown make-up to see the truer facial expression.
At the risk of sounding like the awkward girl whispering what she doesn’t like about the popular girl (not denying I have been in this position before), let me run down a list of what bothers me about this famous poem, beginning with that killer first line:
- Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
This strikes me as dishonest. An avoidance of pain. Which may be the point. Boredom hides depression and despair.
- Tranquil hills & gin
Sounds try-hard to my ears, but maybe when the poem was published in 1969, this juxtaposition had a fresher, more original sound.
- Peoples bore me.
Peoples? I get that Berryman needs to differentiate groups of people, however you classify them—ethnicity, nationality, religion—from love of people (in the third stanza, referring to Henry’s more open-hearted nature), but peoples will never not make my skin crawl.
So I ask you: is this heavily-anthologized poem over-rated? Or is my reaction just a matter of personal taste?
Berryman’s biography is exhausting. Suffice it to say he was born in 1914, had a complicated childhood (suicide of his father), extra-marital affairs, three marriages, a late-life religious conversion, a history of alcohol abuse and depression. He jumped off a bridge in Minnesota in 1972.
Now let us move on to a more emotive man, at least on the page. The speaker in Edward Field’s “A Journey” is feeling all the feels on his train ride. I taped the poem to a pole at an Amtrak station.
by Edward Field
When he got up that morning everything was different:
He enjoyed the bright spring day
But he did not realize it exactly, he just enjoyed it.
And walking down the street to the railroad station
Past magnolia trees with dying flowers like old socks
It was a long time since he had breathed so simply.
Tears filled his eyes and it felt good
But he held them back
Because men didn’t walk around crying in that town.
Waiting on the platform at the station
The fear came over him of something terrible about to happen:
The train was late and he recited the alphabet to keep hold.
And in its time it came screeching in
And as it went on making its usual stops,
People coming and going, telephone poles passing,
He hid his head behind a newspaper
No longer able to hold back the sobs, and willed his eyes
To follow the rational weavings of the seat fabric.
He didn’t do anything violent as he had imagined.
He cried for a long time, but when he finally quieted down
A place in him that had been closed like a fist was open,
And at the end of the ride he stood up and got off that train:
And through the streets and in all the places he lived in later on
He walked, himself at last, a man among men,
With such radiance that everyone looked up and wondered.
“You just need a good cry,” I used to tell my kids, “then you’ll fell better.” Talk about a good cry—the poem’s speaker has a cry so good that
A place in him that had been closed like a fist was open
His transformation to a man among men is especially affecting because it was brought about by behavior not considered, even today, manly.
This is not a perfect poem. The claim that men didn’t walk around crying in that town seems a little silly (in what town do women walk around crying), but considering the rigid gender rules of the 50’s, the time in which the journey takes place (see link at end of post for more details), the phrase sets the context for the man’s newfound freedom.
Not perfect, but more importantly, real, and honest, and universal.
Since I’ve given short-shrift to Berryman’s biography, in fairness I can’t give too much space to Field.
Born 1924, he played cello in the family trio with his sisters on the radio, served in the Air Force as a navigator in WWII, worked as an actor and a typist, had a short affair with poet Frank O’Hara, taught poetry and published fiction with his long-time partner Neil Derrick.
I assume he’s still alive and if so he’s 94.
I love this anecdote he tells in an interview in Westbeth:
I gave a reading in Youngstown, Ohio—I guess at Youngstown State—and after I read, a woman who was a psychology teacher jumped up on the stage and said, “Yes, we must be free!” And then they carted her off. I guess I was a little too far out for Youngstown.
To learn more about the occasion for “A Journey” from the poet himself, link here.