A brief look at ‘Dream Song 14’ by John Berryman

Most of my favourite poets are those that have a story behind them—not just technically skilful writers, but those that ‘have lived’. John Berryman certainly falls into this category with his backstory of suicide, loss, alcoholism, depression and more suicide.

His most famous work is the sequence of 385 three-stanza poems called Dream Songs. In #14 we meet the protagonist of many of these poems, Henry. Henry is semi-autobiographical but Berryman uses him, through his use of the first, second and third person, as a way of exploring the extreme parts of a life (and death)—the effect is a kind of poetic hall of mirrors which is simultaneously exhilarating and confusing.

Berryman’s choice of language in Dream Songs is curious too—flirting between archaic and slang—the combination of this and the identity-crisis of Henry makes the poems feel like we are witnessing a one-man stage routine.

The focus of #14 is boredom, and its key line comes between the first and second stanzas, which we can all remember our parents saying a version of: ‘Ever to confess you’re bored means you have no inner resources.’

But Berryman fully accepts this diagnosis – he is bored, really bored. How much is Henry, how much is himself, how much is he bored of Henry? (Presumably not much as he’s got most of his Dream Songs left to write.) Interestingly, he compares Henry to Achilles whose sulky and petulant demeanour in The Iliad reinforces the adolescent in us that we return too when faced with a period of boredom.

The language of the poem reinforces his boredom too—Berryman doesn’t consult his thesaurus for synonyms of ‘bored’—he rams home the message by using the word a good seven times. Other words are repeated too, particularly at the end of lines which gives the poem a rhythm, albeit one that emphasises the monotony he is describing.

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