The dreamer wakes

If the dominant tone is serious, before long the poem undercuts this with bladed comedy. Often that shift comes through a collapsing of old and new. Berryman fluently references classical mythology, Christian allegory, world history. He broods with Shakespearean drama, and gushes like a Romantic (which sometimes requires exclamation points!). But within this field of nostalgia lie more contemporary land mines in the form of pranks, punch lines, inebriated chatter, hip idiom, blackface dialect, and baby talk. Taken together, this dark humor drops like a shower of rhetorical fallout from Cold War America.

Berryman holds this seemingly discordant mix together with impeccable metrical finesse and a pervasive personality. Sometimes the voice becomes incoherent ("Millenia whift & waft--one, one--er, er...") But it turns dangerously acute at any moment ("Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.")

After finishing his triumph, Berryman lost some of his touch, publishing two volumes that don't rate as highly. Love & Fame and Delusions, Etc. tend to be more self-consciously confessional, as if the author can no longer hide behind the doppelgänger that is Henry. After winning a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for Dream Songs, Berryman cringed at seeing Love & Fame panned in reviews. He heard the same criticism in letters from some old friends, including Allen Tate, who also scolded the author for being vulgar and patronizing.

Berryman's recklessness was catching up to him. Even though he made some real attempts to go sober, even writing a novel called Recovery, Berryman never entirely changed his self-destructive ways. He'd started to drink again just before his death. The last poem he wrote, found crumpled in his wastebasket, was a return to the old form of The Dream Songs.

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