Niall O'Sullivan

high brow, low brow, none of that stuff in the middle

John Berryman: Dream Song 29

Posted on | February 10, 2017 | 1 Comment

This performance of Dream Song 29 by John Berryman defies many of the metrics I have claimed make 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 video, I used it as an example of just that: how not to perform a poem.

But then something changed with my tastes and the mood of the poetry world. As Spoken Word became more winsome and rehearsed, with mentors and producers ironing out all the intensity and awkwardness from a perfomance — or ignoring intense and awkward performers altogether — I began to find something of great value in Berryman’s reading.

Similarly, at the literary end of things, poets became mannered and taciturn, shrunk behind their lecterns, buckled under the weight of poetry’s importance, funnelling their carefully wrought lines through the reedy frequency of “poetry voice” .

In the midst of this, Berryman’s drunken recital of Dream Song 29 became a token of a vanishing quantity in the literary and Spoken Word spheres: humanity and 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 a very good poem. Not only that, the poem, like many of the Dream Songs, is fragmented, staccato, resistant to any common sense reading yet utterly compelling.

And then there’s the loud, exclamation of “But!” as Berryman jabs his finger towards the viewer, then sags downwards before his head winds back round in an anticlockwise 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 for me and it is still wonderfully eratic. For such a tragic and troubled literary icon, he still brings me cheer.

What other poet could have written this poem but this drunk with his awkward posture, straggly beard and eyes shrunk by prescription lenses — doing his best not to sound tipsy and therefore looking and sounding completely ratarsed? He is as far as one can get from “a grave Sienese face a thousand years/would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of.”

Berryman recites to the camera after gleaning each line from the page for a moment. This keeps him from tripping over his own words and preserves the jarring, short burst images 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 declaim, “…hacks her body up”.

There is a darkness and a manic energy to the Dream Songs that 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.

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?

Therein lies the paradox in Spoken Word today. Performers are encouraged to express their emotions and humanity but in a very ordered and directed fashion. For all of the slurring and finger jabbing, Berryman is all too human. There is indeed something, sat heavy on his heart.


This is the first in an ongoing series of posts in which I will 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 and maybe even wrestling promos. Who am I kidding? I will definitely be looking at wrestling promos. All the posts will appear under the “Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click on it to see if any new posts have been added and if there are any old ones that you may have missed.


One Response to “John Berryman: Dream Song 29”

  1. Derek Walcott – UCSD Convocation : Niall O'Sullivan
    February 15th, 2017 @ 7:37 pm

    […] John Berryman: Dream Song 29 […]

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