Big Loves: L.S. Klatt on John Berryman

Today’s Big Loves contributor is L.S. Klatt, author of  Cloud of Ink (University of Iowa, 2011).

On John Berryman

I consider a song will be as humming-bird

swift, down-light, missile-metal-hard, & strange

as the world of anti-matter

where they are wondering: does time run backward—

which the poet thought was true; Scarlatti-supple;

but can Henry write it? (Dream Song #103)

I love The Dream Songs, their wit, their verve, their transgressions. John Berryman invented a form where he could cut loose in wild, impulsive “humming-bird/ swift” songs, where the sentences could be figured, sometimes wrenched, where words were plastic, stretched to the breaking point; the speaker, Henry, allowed the poet, Berryman, to be his flawed, boorish, uncensored self, a buffoon as fun to laugh at as Homer Simpson, always tomcatting, often on benders, frequently given to patricidal rage—a Neanderthal strangely familiar, therefore endearing.

The songs veer every which way, but they are a sequence, each song self-contained yet contributing to a larger plotline—the story of Henry, an antihero, who, I discovered somewhere along the way, was much like Berryman himself: a literature professor, a drunk, a womanizer, a man obsessed with death. And the songs, scattershot across the pages, turned out to be not as irregular as they first seemed, all conforming to a pattern of three sestets, so that though the lines go haywire there is a structure (formal & narrative) that stabilized my reading as I navigated the seismic shifts in syntax, grammar, vocabulary.

Berryman’s poems electrocuted me when I first started writing, when I was stuck in sing-song and monotones; they liberated me the way they exorcised Berryman; and they taught me that poetry is, as Eliot said, a kind of dream language—“it is not necessary, in order to enjoy the poem, to know what the dream means; but humans have an unshakeable belief that dreams mean something.”

This freedom to forsake straightforward sense and follow the sonic or graphic or metaphoric impulse into sideways revelations became for me a manifesto. Berryman gave me the courage to swerve, or as Dickinson said before him, to “tell it slant.”

Reading his biography, I learned that Berryman once lived in my hometown of Cincinnati. This was before The Dream Songs when he was in transition artistically, experimenting with dissonance and improvisation. I thought that the cacophony of cicadas, notorious in the Ohio Valley, were somehow fitting for my homage to this idiosyncratic poet:

berryman in cincinnati

A very pleasant city except for the cicadas

which crash-landed. After seventeen years

underground, a horde was born

outnumbering its predation. So, as I

was saying, a very pleasant city in spite

of the acoustics. Those were days

when in all my dreaminess

I could play no nocturne & I amplified

underground. For I was a dead

Berryman, & I ferried the souls

of the dispossessed across the Ohio.

There I met the ibis, its plumage a white

paintbrush. And with it I erased what I

knew was melody without hope

of noisemaking. That was a sign,

was it the last, that the lyre would be

heavy metal.

For original poetry, fiction, interviews, and art song, visit Memorious magazine at


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