Monday, July 04, 2005

A July 4th poem by John Berryman

This is a poem by John Berryman, from his groundbreaking collection Dream Songs, first published in 1965:

Of 1826

I am the little man who smokes & smokes.
I am the girl who does know better but.
I am the king of the pool.
I am so wise I had my mouth sewn shut.
I am a government official & a goddamned fool.
I am a lady who takes jokes.

I am the enemy of the mind.
I am the auto salesman and love you.
I am a teenager cancer, with a plan.
I am the blackt-out man.
I am the woman powerful as a zoo.
I am two eyes screwed to my set, whose blind--

It is the Fourth of July.
Collect: while the dying man,
forgone by you creator, who forgives,
is gasping 'Thomas Jefferson still lives'
in vain, in vain, in vain.
I am Henry Pussy-cat! My whiskers fly.

Just one quick note: "Henry" and "Henry Puzzy-cat" are variations on the poetic persona in the Dream Songs -- a cynical, lechy, middle aged white man, similar (one gathers) to Berryman himself.

Here I like the first two stanzas. They're mostly the poetic equivalent of one-liner jokes, but as well done as it gets in that vein. The third stanza is more puzzling to me.

Incidentally, notice the rhyme scheme. Many (but apparently not all) of the Dream Songs have one or another scheme. The emphasis on form is what separates Berryman from many of his less-disciplined contemporaries. Thematically he has much in common with people like Ferlinghetti or Ginsberg.


Anonymous Adam Wiedewitsch said...

I have been thinking about your discussion of Dream Song 22. The third stanza, which is as puzzling to me, is referring to the death of John Adams, the 2nd president of the USA. In researching this further, I found that both Jefferson and Adams died on 7/04/1826. I am assuming, according to line 16, that Jefferson was the latter to expire.

Given Berryman's affinity for caustic humor, I believe that the first two stanzas are an irreverent joke aimed at the founding father under the guise of Henry's self deprication and diffidence.

Maybe it was the powdered wig that made Berryman switch genders throughout the poem? Funny as hell.

Thanks for your site. Adam. Los Angeles, CA

4:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this was from a while ago but I'll post anyway. Thomas Jefferson had died earlier that day, before Adams. John Adams never heard about his death and died thinking that Thomas Jefferson was still alive.

3:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also believe that Berryman has a lot in common with Ginsberg, and looking at the poem "Howl" there are many references to Ginsberg's own life.

I personally enjoy the different personas that Berryman takes on with Henry, though I am having trouble what the persona "Henry pussy-cat" really symbolizes, and if it relates to anything in Berryman's life, because I have found that many of the events that Henry experiences in the poems, can be easily related to Berryman's life. It seems like "Henry Pussy-Cat," in this instance seems very proud (much like a cat in real life), perhaps "Henry Pussy-Cat" symbolizes when Henry is proud in his life...

To some degree, I don't like the fact that the poem makes more sense after one understands the deaths of Adams and Jefferson. It makes the poem more puzzling to people in general, unlike William Carlos Williams, and Billy Collins. Granted, Berryman is nothing like those poets, I find the difference intriguing.

4:16 PM  

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