Although it would be wrong to read John Berryman’s Dream Songs as a poem about the madness of a nation, since they are so achingly about the madness of a man, it is also to do them wrong as poems not to see that Berryman knows that to communicate madness and isolation as he does ought, if it is to feel fully realized, fully a part of a world, to communicate also the shape of that world’s time, its future as well as its past. Sometimes, Henry’s isolation is measured against that time, separated from it; but at other times, Henry’s isolation seems to be at one with it, in so far as both are divided against themselves, and the language that seems an invention of Henry is also the invention of the nation, despite itself; it is the scar tissue of American history.
That is true nowhere more than in the controversial, critically divisive incorporations into “blackface” dialect into the poems, along with racist language (“coon” appears several times), which Henry adopts to reflect on himself, this second voice addressing Henry as “Mr. Bones.” There is no easy answer to a critical question about the justification for the stereotyped and stereotyping racist language in the poem; but critics might find more clarity if they assumed that the poems are about race, and about the language available to Henry, as well as being about the history that such language carries and is carried upon. And that assumption would in turn gain critical force if coupled with the recognition that these poems are about vulnerability, and that they dramatize not only alienation to oneself, but alienation to language in which one expresses oneself and struggle to articulate, from within that condition of alienation, judgments suitable to it that also transcend it, to communicate with others.
Most often the “minstrel” voice takes place in a conversation with Henry, as in Dream Song 36:
The high ones die, die. They die. You look up and who’s there?
–Easy, easy, Mr Bones. I is on your side.
I smell your grief.
I sent my grief away. I cannot care
forever. With them all again & again I died
and cried, and I have to live.
–Now there you exaggerate, Sah. We hafta die.
That is our ‘pointed task. Love & die.
–Yes; that makes sense.
But what makes sense between, then? What if I
roiling & babbling & braining, broon on why and
just sat on the fence?
–I doubt you did or do. De choice is lost.
–It’s fool’s gold. But I go in for that.
The boy & the bear
looked at each other. Man all is tossed
& lost with groin-wounds by the grand bulls, cat.
William Faulkner’s where?
(Frost being still around.)
The question is in what circumstance could we plausibly interpret Berryman’s decision to write in a minstrel dialect as other than a perpetuation of unthinking racism, as other than an insensitivity to American history? And I think that the answer comes in the poem itself, where we are supposed to understand what a minstrel dialect in American history is, the sundering of language from subject, and to see that it is appealing to Henry for just that reason. Without Henry’s equating his own experience with that of African Americans, Berryman is nonetheless drawing attention to the estranging effect of Henry’s own artificial and grotesque speech…which is nonetheless capable, as some of Mr Bones’ statements are, of transcending itself.
In a sense the stylistic choice can be thought through in terms of decorum in its neutral sense—that of language appropriate for a situation—and we can ask what for what possible situation the minstrel dialect could be appropriate? The answer would be: one in which a voice and identity has been coopted; a situation of violent estrangement and displacement of a people’s history. The minstrel voice is public performance of a voice that has no authentic public life, that is a travesty of what a democracy should be, of what communication is; in that sense, it represents the “other” of the American public at its most isolating, the white American public that has no voice to speak in of its own, but can only ape others for the sake of entertainment that derides and disempowers. I do not know if Berryman would have felt fully the weight of the voice, but that weight being let into his poetry is granted its historical significance. The poetry does not subvert minstrelsy, per se; it asks us to recognize it for what it is, and to place it accordingly.
We could look also at the matter in the terms of Auerbach’s registers of style. The “low” register is never simply “low”—it is, because it is low slang and dialect, situated at a level of historical experience that is most susceptible to flux, and not a source of language in which history is usually narrated by those in power, even if they would have recourse to the dialect in their private lives. In the minstrel voice, Berryman does not give readers a low register; he gives them instead a parody of a low register, one that is used in performances that occlude the history of a group by suggesting that they are incapable of participating in history itself.
Once again, one temptation for a critic is to find that Berryman is asking us to equate that voice with Henry’s own, to believe that Henry’s suffering is an equivalent to that of African Americans in the late 1950s and early 1960s; on this reading, the critic would defend Berryman from a charge of racism by insisting that he understands the nature of the minstrel voice, and wants for us to see Henry’s adoption of that voice in his inner dialogue as a symptom of his own isolation. That reading is not wholly wrong, but it errs in implying that we are invited to equate the suffering and quality of alienation implied by the minstrel voice with Henry’s.
Henry would not need to speak in another voice—Henry would not need to address himself as Mr. Bones—if the other voice and persona, the blackface minstrel, were merely a double of himself. The blackface minstrel is the other that is available to Henry; it is the only interlocutor he has from the American public, aside from the authors he reads and, as the elegies dominate the series, mourns. The nature of their relation is not a common suffering (for one thing, the minstrel voice does not claim to suffer, could not, since the minstrel shows denied their own underlying violence), but instead it is a shared condition: both voices are artificial, parodic; both voices are consciously inauthentic performances; and both voices are alienated from the centers of American life. All of that can be said without going a step further and claiming that the real Henry’s alienation and situation, his powerlessness and suffering, are the same as the real African Americans whose voices are misrepresented as minstrelsy.
The other way in which the claims go wrong is in insisting that the poem needs to be understood too exclusively in terms of Henry’s psyche, as if that could be divorced from the social landscape in which that psyche was formed, and in which it (barely) lives. As a matter of fictitious biography, Henry probably, as a child would have absorbed minstrel voices in popular culture, and could have had recourse to them in his fantasies and imagined conversations; but as a matter of the poetry’s formal arrangements, when they appear in the early 1960s and late 1950s against a backdrop of Civil Rights, their distance from American politics and society is jarring, one of the many instances when The Dream Songs, by virtue of its grotesquely disjointed grammars as well as its subject matter, becomes a poem about how American life doesn’t hang together; the diagnosis is social as well as psychological, with Henry serving as a vantage point onto America looking ahead into the 1960s and beyond.
The most perplexing of the poems with a minstrel voce is “Dream Song 60.” It appears after “59. Henry’s Meditation in the Kremlin” and before a poem bearing skeptical witness to the militarism behind American holidays. It lies in a span of poems, then, that has its sight squarely on the sharp corners of the nation’s life.
Afters eight years, be less dan eight percent,
distinguish’ friend, of coloured wif de whites
in de School, in de Souf.
—Is coloured gobs, is coloured officers,
Mr Bones. Dat’s nuffin?—Uncle Tom,
sweep shut yo mouf,
is million blocking from de proper job,
de fairest houses & de churches eben.
—You may be right, Friend Bones.
Indeed you is. Defy flyin ober de world,
de pilots, ober ofays. Bit by bit
our immemorial moans
brown down to all dere moans. I flees that, sah.
They brownin up to ourn. Who gonna win?
—I wouldn’t predict.
But I do guess mos peoples gonna lose.
I never saw no pickle wifout no hand.
O my, without no hand.
The poem is confusing because it would seem that Henry’s usual voice is absent; instead, it is an exchange between two minstrel voices. The usual minstrel voice addresses the other still as Mr. Bones, but the Mr. Bones here is not the Henry we recognize. The poem is, instead, a representation of a dialogue emanating from Henry, but not with or about him; in it, we have Henry’s version of a conversation among two minstrel voices discussing integration and national affairs. It’s not easy to know what to make of it, what to do with it, but we are supposed to recognize that it comes from Henry’s fractured self, from Henry’s vantage point onto American life, from Henry’s history—and we are supposed also to recognize the voices for what they are: representations that misrepresent, but that are nonetheless here engaging in a discussion that, usually at least, would have been absent from a minstrel show. It is a demonstration of Henry imagining a situation, from within a world where he has no place; Berryman has him do so in the minstrel voices not, I think, because Berryman wants for us to think that these voices are adequate to the conversation, but to show their inadequacy. The voices are themselves parodic; but the parody here is Henry, who is shown incapable of imagining and representing voices any other way. This poem is another measure of Henry’s limitation, estrangement, and failure. Of all of the registers to which he has recourse in the poem—and some are rhetorically aloft, others slang—none rattles with the injustices of history as much as this one, and none reveals itself to be as broken.
But it is also not intended to be a pitch-perfect replication of the minstrel voice. At the end of the second stanza, something shifts with the lines: “Bit by bit | our immemorial moans | brown down to all dere moans. I feels that, sah. | They brownin up to ourn. Who gonna win?” The language here is elevated and dialect; parodic and transcendent of parody; it exceeds its own conditions, carried aloft by “immemorial moans” and by the word-play on “brown” which means first “broken” and then, in the “brownin” most apparently, refers to applying the blackface to make oneself look like something other than what it is. If I had to hazard a paraphrase it would be: “Bit by bit, our immemorial moans from suffering as we have, have been broken down to the moans of all of the white people (them), who are now appropriating our identity, facing off against us.” That comment seems to both reflect on the minstrel voice that Henry had adopted, but also to answer the charge that Henry’s suffering is being equated with the history of African Americans—as if those could be broken down to Henry’s. I’m not confident in the reading, given some questions I have about the rest of the poem, but I think it a plausible way of making sense of the difficult lines.
To appreciate the ambition of Berryman’s Dream Songs, to attempt read them generously on their own terms, it can, paradoxically, be helpful to have in mind a few principles about what literature can be expected to do. Take as a starting point the thought that it is in nature of literature to get within its judgments the condition of those judgments, where those judgments are both about what is possible and where, arranged into a grammatical unity, those judgments form a nexus of possibilities; take as a further starting point that the judgments in a work of literature, though not always about history or the body, are nonetheless conditioned by an openness to, and understanding of, history, and a consciousness of bodily life; and as a final starting point the thought that the judgments are effected through language and its formal arrangement.
Why make such a statement? In part, to orient reading practices, in part to orient judgments about literature so that it can be entered on its own terms. With such a statement, we are guided in what to read for, and we are offered suggestions for how to arrive at an understanding of a text—with room left for interpretation both in relation to the judgment to the conditions of judgments, and for articulating the relation of possibilities contained within a work.
Such a statement risks, of course, prescribing rather than describing; if a poet does not seem to do any of these, then we might think they have disappointed. But I would instead think that it offers a clue as to what it should mean to interpret a poet charitably: it should always be possible, if we are moved by a poet’s language, to make sense of how a poem is conditioned by, and gains meaning from, the poet’s sense of past and present. It is on these grounds that I’ve sought to make sense of, and appreciate, what John Berryman achieves in The Dream Songs, focusing on one of the most nettlesome aspects of the poem’s language.