My Favorite ‘Dream Songs’

Sometimes the neurotic aesthetic of Berryman’s Dream Songs just feels migrainous to me; other times it’s sublime. That said, I think these two poems are two of the best poems there are. Period.

Dream Song 145
by John Berryman

Also I love him: me he’s done no wrong
for going on forty years — forgiveness time —
I touch now his despair,
he felt as bad as Whitman on his tower
but he did not swim out with me or my brother
as he threatened —

a powerful swimmer, to take one of us along
as company in the defeat sublime,
freezing my helpless mother:
he only, very early in the morning,
rose with his gun and went outdoors by my window
and did what was needed.

I cannot read that wretched mind, so strong
& so undone. I’ve always tried. I — I’m
trying to forgive
whose frantic passage, when he could not live
an instant longer, in the summer dawn
left Henry to live on.


Henry’s Understanding

by John Berryman

He was reading late, at Richard’s, down in Maine,
aged 32? Richard & Helen long in bed,
my good wife long in bed.
All I had to do was strip & get into my bed,
putting the marker in the book, & sleep,
& wake to a hot breakfast.

Off the coast was an island, P’tit Manaan,
the bluff from Richard’s lawn was almost sheer.
A chill at four o’clock.
It only takes a few minutes to make a man.
A concentration upon now & here.
Suddenly, unlike Bach,

& horribly, unlike Bach, it occurred to me
that one night, instead of warm pajamas,
I’d take off all my clothes
& cross the damp cold lawn & down the bluff
into the terrible water & walk forever
under it out toward the island.