Dream Song? More Like Nightmare Song, Amirite?

By CL Bledsoe

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Dream Song 14
BY John Berryman

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 mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

***

One of the most memorable instances of animosity I’ve encountered from a student was toward John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14.” This was a community college class I taught a few months after my ex-wife and I divorced. I left my previous job teaching at a private high school — a boarding school where I’d lived with my family — and moved to northern Virginia, following my ex-wife, so that I could see my daughter regularly.

It was a difficult time for me. Though it was a near-total life commitment, at the boarding school I’d been part of a community. We lived in a dorm, ate meals with students, and had after hours clubs. One reason I left was because of this time commitment, but moving away was a culture shock. I didn’t know very many people in the area I’d moved to, and none of them well.

I also shifted from teaching mostly privileged teenagers whose parents paid more for one year’s tuition than I’d ever made in a year’s salary to students in a range of ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. This was by choice. My first teaching job had been at a community college, teaching nights and weekends while I worked full time elsewhere. Many of these students were actively trying to change their lives, and I wanted to help. So, I took the much, much lower paying job of adjunct teaching while working every freelance writing and editing gig I could find, tutoring, etc.

As an introduction to a poetry section, I’d made a packet of mostly contemporary poems and thrown in the Berryman and a couple recent but not strictly contemporary poets to give a variety. It was a poem that I identified with at the time. I’d struggled with depression all my life. When my daughter was born, I’d gone into therapy, gotten on various meds. I’d failed, divorced, and only saw my daughter half the time. I was struggling, and any magic that life had held seemed to be gone.

After some setup and discussion, I had students pair up to discuss poems and present them to the class. I’d been concerned about a Dean Young poem, but it went over fine. Same with Natasha Trethewey, Amy Lowell, Joy Harjo, Audre Lorde, etc. Until I got to Berryman.

I’d given Berryman to one of my top students in the class, Mike, and his partner. Mike was former military and worked at a mall bookstore (I’d encountered him on a playdate with a friend and our kids). Mike worked hard in class and had a good sense of humor. I won’t say I saw something of myself in him. We were probably about as different as we could be. I just liked his attitude and appreciated his work ethic.

When it was Mike’s group’s turn to present, he gave a perfunctory analysis of the poem, hitting on key terms, and that’s about it. I was surprised because I’d expected more. I pressed and was answered with increasingly flustered responses.

“What did you think of the poem?” I asked Mike.

His face reddened. “I hate it,” he said.

I laughed a little, caught off guard, and spoke carefully. “What do you hate about it?” I asked.

Mike struggled to explain, and what emerged was a critique of class issues in the poem. “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so,” the poem begins. Mike believed it was a luxury to be able to be bored. He explained that the narrator describes great, potentially cataclysmic natural events — “the sky flashes, the great sea yearns.” People die in some storms. Later, he describes “tranquil hills,” which, again, are a luxury to be able to see. The narrator is able to see art — he describes literature and “valiant art,” and he’s really looking at nature as art, which is part of his distance from its realities. Many people in the world don’t have time to appreciate great art; they’re too busy working to survive.

Mike explained that this guy is totally bored by life because he’s sheltered from its cruelties. He wished he had the luxury to be bored.

I’d explained the “Henry” character, who was the narrator in some of Berryman’s poems. But in this poem, Berryman says he’s bored of Henry and his appreciation of art. But Henry is his creation; that means Berryman is bored of his own poetry. And yet he thinks we should read it?

As Mike explained his position, he became increasingly agitated. Obviously, the poem had struck a chord. I wondered if there wasn’t some negative memory of difficult event in his personal life, which the poem had triggered. But by the end of it, Mike was pissed, some of the other students were concerned or enjoying the show, and I was delighted.

I gave a brief summary of what I thought the poem was about. Here was a person, middle class, probably, who found living to be tedious. To me, it speaks of clinical depression. Nothing feels good or grabs the interest. Even gin doesn’t help.

“What about the ending, though?” Mike asked. We read it over:

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag

and somehow a dog

has taken itself & its tail considerably away

into mountains or sea or sky, leaving

behind: me, wag.

“What is the deal with this dog?” I asked.

The consensus was that the dog represented joy or a sense of wonder with the world. And it’s gone. That ending, “leaving/behind: me, wag.” It shows that the author isn’t taking the lack of joy seriously. He calls himself a wag, making a joke out of it. It’s simply his way of living. He’s mostly made peace with it.

When class was over, I went over to Mike. He looked ashamed, probably sure I was about to chastise him. Instead, I thanked him for the lively discussion. He admitted that he saw my point, and I told him that his interpretation was great. He continued to be my strongest student in the class and continued to hate John Berryman. I consider this a win.

Stuff My Stupid Heart Likes by CL Bledsoe (co-author of https://medium.com/@howtoeven and The Wild Word: https://medium.com/search?q=not%20another%20tv%20dad)

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