John Berryman's "Dream Song 14"
This poem, friends, is boring. The entire work seeks to illustrate the idea that "life, friends, is boring." It does so by being itself tremendously boring. Though the author occasionally uses exciting or interesting words and phrases, such as "flash and yearn," he does so only in the pursuit of higher boredom by showing that even these words can be sucked into a context which ultimately yields a wish for death. There is nothing but boredom. In the poem, the narrator subsumes the conventions of interesting poetry and puts on, as it were, the form of a half-decent modern poem. However, he purposefully avoids allowing any of the sublime to slip into his work, thus leaving this form of high poetry dead and boring. By structuring his poem in a modern conventional fashion, maintaining a detached and uninterested tone throughout, and by setting the work within a thoroughly decrepit and stale upper-class European environment, John Berryman invites us to explore the hideous depths of a truly boring life and boring poem.
As far as the structure of this "Dream Song 14" goes, the crafting is both straightforward and uninvolved. The poem is comprised of three stanzas of six lines each. These stanzas vary in length and complexity, generally following a tri-line pattern in which each stanza is broken into two mini-stanzas, each beginning with two longer lines followed by a shorter third line. The seeming irregularity of the stanzas, alternating long and short phrases within the stanza and frequently practicing enjambment, are designed to give the illusion of a jagged, edgy, and exciting poem. However, the way in which this irregularity is actually formulaic and regular belies its claim to excitement, and in so doing underscores the narrator's point that life, like this poem, is indeed boring. The rhythm too seems to mimic better works, yet fails to have any greatness of its own. For a moment it seems to be defying convention with a sort of arhythmic, jazzy feel. However, an astute reader will quickly notice that rather than establish either a defiant non-rhythm or a quirky original sort of offbeat counterpoint style, the poem flirts around the edges of pentameter without ever either committing to or truly rebelling against it. All in all this poem seems to be trying to assume a sophisticated sort of ennui, as if it were written by a jaded Dorian Gray who at once mimicked and mocked what the world considered to be true art. This sense of ennui is carried through in the affectation of a sort of faux avant-garde style. Berryman uses improper capitalization, frequent ampersands, and unusual punctuation in an attempt to portray this style, though unfortunately he leaves the work seeming more as if it has been written by a talented 5th grader student who had recently read e.e. cummings or, more likely, Shel Silverstein. Examples of this pseudo-experimental writing include his miscapitalization of "achilles," ampersand-based phrases such as "itself & its tail" and punctuation such as "behind: me, wag."
Like most poems, this poem is in motion -- or rather, it seems to feel as if it really should be in motion if it could just find the impetus to get off its rump and get moving. The narrative begins by saying that life is boring, and continues that theme with ever less coherent reasoning until it concludes that life is so uninvolving because the hills are vaguely reminiscent of dogs, and the author (it appears) misses his own absent canine. At the very end, as the narrator puzzles over the significance of hills like dogs taking themselves away, he seems to come to the slow realization that --like a dog-- he himself is only wagging his tongue on about nothing, and shouldn't even bother to speak as he is as boring as everything himself. This revelation is very useful, for it shows that the author finally grasps what the reader had figured out long ago -- that he has nothing much original to say, and that all his "wag" wit is nothing more...
This realization is developed slowly. At the beginning the narrator seems to be arguing against his thesis that life is boring, as he points out that "After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns, / we ourselves flash and yearn ... " Yet it seems some inner voice is arguing against this theory, for he promptly has to buttress it with an appeal not to nature but to authority, as he claims: "moreover my mother told me as a boy / (repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored / means you have no / / Inner Resources.' " Yet one's mother's fine statements cannot prevent boredom, they can only make one feel guilty about it. He is probably very right that he has no inner resources, for no better reason than that his mother apparently never taught him how to overcome boredom, merely how to avoid confessing it. With this, the argument is over, and the narrator promptly moves into listing the generally exciting subjects which now bore him. People bore him, as does great literature, and this fellow named Henry (who one assumes is either old or merely melodramatic). He even seems to imply that being interested in the world may be a form of weakness, as he speaks of Henry being in as much trouble as Achilles (whose name he fails to capitalize) because of his love for people and art. He also appears to be bored by the "tranquil hills, & gin," which look like a drag and a dog. This long list of boring things clearly indicates both that he has not very deeply explored any of the things that bore him -- after all, had he done so he would have learned there was more to Henry than grips, more to art than the ancient classics, and more to the wild hills than tranquility -- and also that he has no real interest in doing so. All this talk of boredom is just jabber, and the reader soon learns where the narrator's ability to experience and the excite has gone, for it "has taken itself & its tail considerably away into mountains or sea or sky," which is to say that the natural world itself feels excitement without him. In the end, it seems that the dog -- which may represent his ability to find inner resources, or perhaps it is just symbolic of the self which could associate freely with the natural world and find meaning in that life -- has left him with nothing to do but wag on, tailless and dogless. Of course, this entire progression is not particularly original or interesting -- one sees this sort of thing every day from spoiled, burnt out artists who can neither find meaning in life nor in death -- and this lack of originality is precisely what proves his central point. That central point, of course, is that life is boring and this poem is a perfect example of why.
Though Berryman himself is American, the poem has a particularly European feel to it. There is a certain culture sense to the work that recalls to mind the post-decadent, post-world war despair and overarching apathy that worked on many of the youth of Europe. There are certain slang words such as wag (and the implied use of "heel" regarding Achilles being annoying) which are particularly European . The "tranquil hills, & gin" quotes seems like an offhanded literary reference to "Hills Like White Elephants," which is particularly European oriented (though not taking place in Europe). Though at a stretch one could consider it as an American piece, seeing as it is by…
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