John Berryman – Dream Song 29
This performance goes in the face of many of the metrics I have used for a giving a good poetry reading:
- *Dial down your intensity when performing in an intimate setting.
- Try to minimise distracting physical gestures and tics.
- Don't drink too much before reading, in fact, try not to drink at all.
For a while, after I discovered this poem, I used it as an example of just that: how not to perform a poem.
But then something changed with my tastes and with the general tastes of poetry audiences. As Spoken Word became more winsome and rehearsed, with mentors and producers ironing out all the intensity and awkwardness from a perfomance — or from producers ignoring intense and awkward performers altogether — I began to find something of great value in this performance. Similarly, at the more literary end of things, poets were becoming more mannered and tactiturn, shrinking behind their lecturns, bucklijng under the weight of poetry's importance, funnelling their carefully wrought lines through the reedy frequency of poetry voice . This is when the poets are given the opportunity to read their own work now that certain high profile awards prefer to outsource that duty to ac-TORS. All of a sudden, Berryman's drunken recital of Dream Song 29 becomes a token of a vanishing quantity in the literary and Spoken Word spheres: authenticity.
So what is it that works about this performance? Well, it helps that at the heart of it, the words that become apparent through the slurred and disjointed speech all add up to make a very good poem. Not only that, the poem, like many of the Dream Songs, is fragmented, disjointed, resistant to any common sense reading and yet utterly compelling. How else are you meant to read the poem? It's not always necessary to read a poem in the mood it was composed in but I don't see any other way around this one.
And then there's the loud, exclamation of "But!" as Berryman jabs his finger towards the viewer and then momentarily sags downwards before his head winds back round in an anti clockwise motion to deliver the rest of the line " errrr never did Henry, as he thought he did…" There is nothing in the printed version of the poem to suggest that this "but" should be invoked so dramatically. This was once a source of reliable hilarity when I used to vierw the poem, and it is still wonderfully eratic. For such a tragic and troubled literaryicon, it still brings me cheer.
What other poet could have written this poem, but this strange drunk with his awkward posture, straggly beard and eyes shrunken by prescrioption lenses, doing his best not to sound drunk and therefore looking and sounding absolutley shitfaced? His method of reciting to the camera after gleaning each line from the page for a moment not only keeps him from tripping over his own words, it also preserves the disjointed, short burst imagery of the poem. This reaches a peak that is both sinister and hilarious when he inserts an unsure "errr" while looking down to the page before restoring eye contact with the camera to delaim, "...hacks her body up".
Again, this is something I get from the poem and the sequence it is a part of. There is a darkness and a manic energy to the poems that at the same time doesn't want to be taken too seriously. Only a troubled but brilliant mind could come up with such a troubled but brilliant poem, and this mind becomes manifest in the performance of the poem.
Which brings us back to the climate of the literary and Spoken Word scenes. How many Berrymans are going unheard because they lack the straightness and sanity that we have come to expect from public speakers and writers? Would John Berryman, in today's climate, be thought of as too unprofessional? A liability? No different to a drunk in a public park? How long would such a celebrated academic last in today's academic climate.
This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.