Book Review

77 Dream Songs by John Berryman

Photo on 10-10-2013 at 16.08 #4

I’m reading less because I’m busy, yeah, I have a life and whatever. Today I read 77 Dream Songs by John Berryman, originally published in 1964. It’s a strange, often haunting collection that weaves together many recurring themes, a protagonist (Henry, Mr Bones), who travels internationally, has existential crises, works, writes, loves, regrets… It is both a portrait of a person and an opportunity to delve into the dreams of another. As a reader it is very difficult to work out if the narrative, the action, the events, of the piece are “real” or a dream – occasional rhyme and alternating metres provide an almost lilting musicality that can at times be quite pleasantly soporific.

I enjoyed the focus on unhappiness, summed up in the opening of Song 14: “Life, friends, is boring.” Life is boring, I find, and I enjoyed reading someone twice my age drowning amongst the same feelings of fatiguey ennui. It was good, reassuring. Some of the poems I loved, many included arresting images, sharp comment… There were a few passages written in something approaching patois, which I didn’t really understand the point of, other than to alter vowel sounds or rhythmic/tonal texture. There was an internationalism too that I liked – I was able to enjoy travelling with Henry, seeing with Henry, reminiscing with Henry, dreaming with Henry…

There are more poems in this sequence, written later, and I am tempted to look them up. Though not immediately. Good stuff, a nice read. Though not life-changing…

3 comments on “77 Dream Songs by John Berryman

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  3. Peter Jacobs

    There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
    só heavy, if he had a hundred years
    & more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
    Henry could not make good.
    Starts again always in Henry’s ears
    the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

    And there is another thing he has in mind
    like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
    would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
    with open eyes, he attends, blind.
    All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;

    But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
    end anyone and hacks her body up
    and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
    He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s mismsing.
    Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
    Nobody is ever missing.


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