‘Trapped in my rib-cage something throes and aches!’

A product for better or worse of Modernist thought, John Berryman exemplifies the adage that the pure products of America go crazy. A new selected poetry sharpens his achievement — limits it too. The beloved Dream Songs‘s mastery of rhythm and compression belie their inaccessibility; often they read like scraps written by a good poet who won’t explain private jokes. “The work of a young writer is sometimes a therapeutic act,” W.H. Auden wrote. “He finds himself obsessed with certain ways of feeling and thinking of which his instincts tell him he must be rid of before he can discover authentic interests and sympathies, and the only way by which he can be rid of them forever is by surrendering to them.” Well into middle age Berryman was surrendering to them.

Nevertheless, many of those Songs impress me. Sonnet #23 precedes them. Indebted to Gerard Manly Hopkins’ sprung rhythm, it has poise and grandeur. Happy October.

They may, because I would not cloy your ear—
If ever these songs by other ears are heard—
With ‘love’; suppose I loved you not, but blurred
Lust with strange images, warm, not quite sincere,
To switch a bedroom black. O mutineer
Wíth me against these empty captains! gird
Your scorn again above all at this word
Pompous and vague on the stump of his career.

Also I fox ‘heart’, striking a modern breast
Hollow as a drum, and ‘beauty’ I taboo;
I want a verse fresh as a bubble breaks,
As little false… Blood of my sweet unrest
Runs all the same—I am in love with you—
Trapped in my rib-cage something throes and aches!

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