This October marks John Berryman’s centenary, and to honor the hundredth anniversary of this inventive, transformative poet’s birth, we’re republishing a number of his works. In addition to The Heart is Strange, a new volume of selected poems edited by Daniel Swift, we’re also reissuing Berryman’s Sonnets, 77 Dream Songs, and the complete Dream Songs. Here, John Darnielle—Mountain Goats frontman, avowed Berryman fanatic, and author of the novel Wolf in White Van, also coming from FSG this fall—takes us beyond the Dream Songs and into the pleasures of “Tampa Stomp” (which is included in The Heart is Strange). – Editors
The first signs of the death of the boom came in the summer,
early, and everything went like snow in the sun.
Out of their office windows. There was miasma,
a weight beyond enduring, the city reeked of failure.
The eerie, faraway scream of a Florida panther,
gu-roomp of a bull-frog. One broker we knew
drunk-driving down from Tarpon Springs flew free
when it spiralled over & was dead without one mark on him.
The Lord fled that forlorn peninsula
of fine sunlight and millions of fishes & moccasins
& Spanish moss & the Cuban bit my father
bedded & would abandon Mother for.
Ah, an antiquity, a chatter of ghosts.
Half the fish now in half the time
since those blue days died. We’re running out
of time & fathers, sore, artless about it.
– “Tampa Stomp” (John Berryman, The Heart is Strange)
It’s middle Berryman that gets most of the attention, The Dream Songs being pretty plainly his overture to the historical record; the more exacting critics I’ve known will vouch for Mistress Bradstreet but little else, finding in Berryman’s quest for a poetic language wholly his own more obscurity than character.
Berryman’s one of my favorite poets, and part of how I learned to write was by studying his poems to the point of transcribing them into notebooks to see how it felt to write down lines like these. But my love of The Dream Songs has always been mitigated by two factors: an inability to really stomach the minstrelsy conceit, and frustration when the action within a poem gets too hard to parse. I don’t mind being adrift for a while, but I don’t read poetry strictly for the experience of becoming unmoored.
So I’ve always connected with Berryman’s later poems—the ones listing yearningly toward the confessional, that seem either resigned to, or perhaps thirsty for, some clarity—and to those of The Dream Songs where feeling erupts through the form, as in #384, in which Berryman imagines exhuming his father’s corpse with an axe, or #145, where, with unimaginable tenderness, he gives voice both to the profound abandonment felt by a child whose father has killed himself and to the father himself, too sick to envision the future he creates for his son with his final, irrevocable gesture:
I cannot read that wretched mind, so strong
& so undone. I’ve always tried. I—I’m
trying to forgive
whose frantic passage, when he could not live
an instant longer, in the summer dawn
left Henry to live on.
This tenderness, these depths; this empathy for a father who, early one morning, shot himself in the yard of his house right outside his 12-year-old son John’s window. Into some of his final poems, Berryman carries, under palpable strain, this complex mood that seems to come from the other side of a gulf few can cross.
In “Tampa Stomp,” his clarity is almost unbearably sharp. Putting aside the sprung-rhythm tricks that goad the reader into slowing down while reading The Dream Songs, Berryman seeds anapestic substitutions to pull the lines narcotically along (“The first signs of the death of the boom came in the summer”) through desperate death scenes imagined as liberation (“One broker we knew / drunk-driving down from Tarpon Springs flew free /when it spiralled over & was dead without one mark on him”).
The scene set—post-crash, early thirties, bankers in exile down south, their good years fading into memory while their children try to make sense of what’s happened —Berryman burrows suddenly inward in the third stanza’s final line. Having listed four general things God has left to fend for themselves in Florida—fish, snakes, sunlight, moss—he names the fifth: “the Cuban bit my Father / bedded and would abandon Mother for.”
The anger almost leaps from the page (“the Cuban bit”; “bedded”; “abandon”). But the poet has lived with it long enough now to know better than to let it hold him by the scruff of his neck. And so the closing stanza begins with a line whose resignation, whose need to reconcile righteous anger with mercy, is familiar to anyone who “has suffered an irreversible loss,” i.e., to all of us: “Ah, an antiquity, a chatter of ghosts.”
An antiquity, a chatter of ghosts: inescapable formative years. The things that made us who we are, as distant as ancient Rome and the people who lived there. “Tampa Stomp” returns then to its theme, nearer and broader vistas with little hope in them, but in this terrible, magnificent line suggests the one life-raft that might still have had some air in it. All this is past. It was all rather a long time ago, this ugly business. It can’t really hurt us any more, unless, of course, as it often turns out, it does.
John Berryman’s “Dream Song #279”
John Berryman recites “Life, Friends, is Boring”:
Announcing Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle:
John Darnielle is a writer, composer, guitarist, and vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats; he is widely considered one of the best lyricists of his generation. His novel, Wolf in White Van, will be published in the United States in September by FSG.
John Berryman (1914–1972) was an American poet and scholar. He won the Pulitzer Prize for 77 Dream Songs in 1965 and the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize for His Toy, His Dream, His Rest in 1969.
By Kang Ruo Xuan
My dream for Singapore is for all Singaporeans to treat others with respect and not treat anyone differently because they have a different skin colour from us.
Racism occurs everywhere, even in schools. An example of it would be a simple remark like “Hi brownie” which refers to the colour of others’ skin. Can you imagine how hurt the receiving party must feel? Even if they do not show how they feel on the outside, it has still hurt them, whether you meant it as a joke or mean comment. You will never know how much hurt they feel, the feeling of not being accepted or self-worthlessness.
All of us are born equal, the same, so what gives us the right to judge others, to criticise them, to look down on them? It is not their choice to be born how they are, is it? No one can choose what they want to be, their skin colour, or the way they look.
The first step for us to achieve this dream is to understand and identify the issue. We should think about why we are treating them this way. Why are we so mean to them? Is it just because of how different they look from us? Or something that goes way deeper than just how they look? Identifying the issue will help us to solve the problem.
The next step is to eradicate the issue. You can start by offering a kind word to them, such as “good job!”, instead of directing mean or hurtful racist remarks at them. If being nice to them is too hard for you, then you should at least start by keeping quiet and not give racist remarks. This helps you to realise that they are not at all different from us and they do not deserve us treating them badly.
If you have offended them, the subsequent step is to apologise. If you do not want to do it in front of everyone, you can always write a note to them and give it to them discreetly. This step is very important as it shows them that you are truly sorry about all the unpleasant things you have done to them and symbolises that we are one step closer to achieving this dream.
The final step is to take the initiative and be friends with them. You can start by sitting with them during your break time, especially if they are sitting alone. Strike up a conversation with them, you will never know that they might actually make great friends and be fun to hang out with.
These are four simple steps that every Singaporean should take to achieve this dream, for all Singaporeans to treat everyone around us with kindness and not make any racist comments, just because they have a different skin colour.
Imagine a Singapore where everyone of all races are mingling together, having fun, instead of ostracizing people who are different from them. This is the kind of Singapore that I wish to live in.
This essay was submitted for the "My Singapore, My Future" essay contest organised by The Opinion Collaborative Ltd, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s nationhood.
Comments from the judges -
"Really clear, simple, direct. No one else gave such a clear path forward."
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