Drunks are afflicted with a disorder of the self. It’s never rightly proportioned, being too big or too small. You might argue this is true of all humans, drunks or not, and I would answer, yes, drunks are like everyone else -- only more so. They are difficult to ignore even when not drinking. A drunk’s ego, like nature, abhors a vacuum. He fills it with charm or vitriol or murderous rage. A drunk is never content merely to be.
My brother found videos of John Berryman talking and reading. I’ve heard recordings of him reading Dream Songs, but had never seen him on film, and the experience, for a reader who has known and loved his work for 40 years, is sad and disturbing. Clearly, he is drunk but not incoherently so, and probably he’s convinced he’s perfectly sober. His gestures and speech are histrionic. He over-enunciates in order not to slur. He lectures when he might as easily converse.
The film was shot for the BBC in Dublin in 1967, when he was as much a celebrity as a poet can be. During the same visit he spent four days in the company of the journalist Jane Howard, who wrote a story about him, “Whiskey & Ink,” for Life magazine. The interview is with A. Alvarez, the English poet and critic who championed Berryman’s work. In the first video, Berryman talks about Anna Karenina and his biography of Stephen Crane. At one point he says, “Things so ghastly that you cannot respond to them directly,” then reads “Dream Song 14”:
“Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) `Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no
“Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as Achilles,
“who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.”
In the other video, Berryman sounds a bit drunker as he reads “Dream Song 29”:
“There sat down, once, a thing on Henry's heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry's ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.
“And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;
“But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody's missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.”
His reading is agonizingly slow. You wait for him to – what? Collapse, weep (as he almost does on “weeping”), scream? The “thing” that sits on Henry/John’s heart is the suicide of Berryman’s father when the poet was 12. The membrane between Berryman and Henry, if it ever genuinely existed, seems to have dissolved. His reading is masterful but almost too painful to watch, like Lear’s lines after Cordelia’s death. But Berryman’s humor, in this case very black wit, as always, burns through. In his introduction to Henry’s Fate (1977), the posthumous collection of previously unpublished Dream Songs and other poems, John Haffenden quotes Berryman’s introduction to a reading of “Dream Songs” at Harvard in 1966:
“Prepare to weep, ladies and gentlemen. Saul Bellow and I almost kill ourselves laughing about the Dream Songs and various chapters in his novels, but other people feel bad. Are you all ready to feel bad?”