My first semester at USC I was extremely lonely, and to assuage that loneliness I read (and read, and read.) I read thousands of pages for my philosophy and literature classes, but there was still time without human company that needed to be filled, so I took to reading The Atlantic cover-to-cover. I chose that magazine in particular because of its holistic subject matter; I learned lots about lots, from foreign affairs, to science, to the evolution of the word “bitch.” One of the more impactful things I discovered from reading The Atlantic was John Berryman, whom Christopher Benfey examined in his March 2015 article “The Genius and Excess of John Berryman.”
I was instantly taken with Berryman just as much, if I’m being honest, for his tragic biography as for his poetry, and quickly bought 77 Dream Songs, Berryman’s most well-known collection. Dream Songs follows a man known synonymously as Henry and Mr. Bones, whose spooky-sad life mirrors Berryman’s. The poet disputed this, clarifying, “Henry both is and is not me, obviously. We touch at certain points. But I am an actual human being; he is nothing but a series of conceptions—my conceptions.” The relationship between Berryman and his character is especially strange in the context of Dream Song 74, which seems to foreshadow the poet’s own fate. In 1972 Berryman jumped off a bridge in Minneapolis after writing a note to his wife, apologizing for being “unemployable & a nuisance.” In the poem, “Feeling no pain,/Henry stabbed his arm and wrote a letter/explaining how bad it had been/in this world.”
Thus, the poem is illuminating about Berryman’s life and the “spry disappointments” that drove him to end it. But more than that, it captures something about suicide, enacted or just wished for, at large; by expressing his own pain through Henry, Berryman articulates a feeling that anyone who suffers from depression bad enough to have made him wish for death has experienced. He writes, “Kyoto, Toledo/Benares–the holy cities–/and Cambridge shimmering do not make up/for, well, the horror of unlove.” And that, “the horror of unlove,” is a beautiful name for an ugly thing: Depression. As Berryman knew too well and his character herein laments, in the face of this illness all the lovely things in the world, “the secret bits of life” are rendered meaningless. “Henry hates the world,” and so did Berryman, because its beauty is cut-off from him, leaving only pain–It is like the “people who leap from burning windows… It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames;” confronted with “the horror of unlove,” what is there to do but write a note and stab an arm or jump off a bridge?
(Berryman, John. “74.” 77 Dream Songs. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1964.; Berryman, John. “John Berryman, The Art of Poetry No. 16.” Interview by Peter A. Stitt. Paris Review Winter 1972; David Foster. Infinite Jest. Boston: Little, Brown, 1995; Image: Dzama, Marcel. Untitled. 2003. Tate Modern, London.)