Formally Speaking: Screaming in Pentameter

In my first day in the Berryman archive, browsing through box 5, folder 6, I come upon the first draft of “Dream Song 4,” which famously begins:

Filling her compact and delicious body
with chicken páprika, she glanced at me

The astonishing thing about this draft is its closeness to the final version, including the bossy acute accent on páprika’s first syllable. It is written in thick pencil, using bold strokes on a scrap of paper. Over the next few days I would see many Dream Songs in something close to their final form, nearly always in pencil and scrawled on bits of paper, sometimes napkins, envelopes, or even the back of dust jackets. There were stains on some of the drafts, but most of them were pristine, sometimes cut out from larger sheets, and never in uniform sizes. After the initial draft would come typescript after typescript, making minute changes that would now be lost in a computer’s temporary memory.

The critic Al Alvarez interviewed Berryman for BBC TV in 1967, which opens with Berryman’s well-known remark that “I didn’t want to be like Yeats; I wanted to be Yeats.” He goes on to say that he worked through this influence, and also that of Auden and Rilke.

All these claims are true, but they also conceal a lie of omission. As Berryman writes in “Dream Song 312,” his poem about Yeats, “ingratitude is the necessary curse / of making things new….” Making things new was Ezra Pound’s influential and chaotic program. And it is Pound’s Cantos which are the overwhelming influence on The Dream Songs. Berryman would have agreed with Harold Bloom’s argument that new poems are made out of old ones, and that only strong poets survive their struggle with the old masters.

More successfully than Pound, Berryman incorporates an incredible range of diction and allusion into his work. His ear for speech is better than Pound’s. Even though the baby talk and minstrel-speak of The Dream Songs are bizarre, the oddness is often because of highly effective juxtaposition with Elizabethan vocabulary and the use of twisted Miltonic syntax.