Over at An Hind, Bennet begins our informal discussion of John Berryman's The Dream Songs with a few questions about how to approach them as a more-or-less first-time reader.
I tried to make a few suggests in his comment box, some of which I'll reproduce below, but then I'd like to offer up a couple of observations borne from last night's foray into revisiting The Dream Songs, from the beginning, for the first time in quite a few years. It turns out that a few things I thought I knew about the project as a whole are not entirely correct, or my understanding of them is at best, incomplete.
First, in response to Bennet's preliminary questions: 1) what is the relationship between Henry and Berryman; does it matter?; does JB's prefatory note to the "collected" Dream Songs fundamentally alter how we, the readers, approach the poems? Should it? Why the minstrelsy? Who is Mr.Bones?
These aren't Bennet's questions verbatim, but my brief recounting of concerns we both share. I counseled Bennet that we should take Berryman's note with a heavy dusting of salt. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Berryman's actual biography will recognize the poet-as-Henry-the-protagonist here. Furthermore, Berryman has to know that we, the readers, know this and we're not buying his denial. My suggestion is that, yes, we are supposed to read these poems as biography.
I also noted that "Mr. Bones" is intended to be a sort of "nickname" for Henry/Berryman, uttered by his unnamed interlocutor. Many readers, it seems, consider them to be different characters. Now, if we're not to trust Berryman regarding his claims about biography, then how are we to trust that Bones and Henry are one and the same? Good question--one that I think our readings of the poems in the coming days should illuminate.
Now in a rather artless segue, I read the first 40 songs last night. Concerns/thoughts which may or may not be obvious:
1. While the poems generally follow a form: 18 lines divided into 3 stanzas of 6 lines of varying length, sometimes rhymed and sometimes not, in the first 40 JB deviates from this form, usually by adding lines in 3 or 4 of the poems.
2. In the note I discussed above, JB tells us that Henry is "sometimes in blackface." A quick reading of the actual poems makes this claim confusing in that at least part of the time, it's Henry's sidekick who seems to be speaking in a minstrel dialect--in that he interrupts / addresses Henry / Bones and what follows is often in this dialect. Some of the poems are written almost entirely in dialect with no interruptions from a second speaker, so my first assumption is that this could be Henry, "in blackface," but we also have to consider the possibility that his sidekick assumes this mask as well. Why did JB leave this seemingly important detail out of the preface?
3. It's a good idea to read these poems quickly at first, just to "take it all in" as it were. I was struck by how many of them I did not remember, and of those, how many I really didn't understand on this re-reading. Best not to linger over that for now, methinks.
4. These poems, this sequence, is mostly about death. But we knew that already. Sometimes a reminder is a good thing. Another way to look at the project: one long suicide note, over a dozen years in the making.
5. While we are aware of Henry / Bones as aspects of the speaker, there are other assumed personas here, some of which are quite amusing and / or affecting. My favorite on this read, so far, is the lonely sheep that narrates #28. "I wish the barker would come."
That should be enough to get us started. More later.