John Berryman's Dream Song
From John Berryman's "77 Dream Songs," #14:
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
(repeatedly) "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.
Although it often seems a shame to say anything at all about the imagery poem or a dream, sometimes it's helpful to try to make clear and explicit what we may be only implicitly aware of. Berryman is giving us a very vivid and funny picture of what it is to be "caught in a self-centered dream." When we find life "boring" or are concerned about our lack of "inner resources," we are struggling against some picture of how things are supposed to be going and how we ought to be able to respond to them. "Great Literature," "valiant art" - we know how we're supposed to respond, right? And Berryman is laughing at all that, at all our received ideas, saying, not me, I find it all boring. Even Henry (Berryman's alter ego in the poem) is boring to himself, tired of being preoccupied with his "plights & gripes." And when we've spent a long time carefully watching and labeling our "plights & gripes" they do get boring and we begin to wonder how we ever took all of it so seriously, what we could have imagined was at stake that we got so upset about.
Berryman imagines being able to walk away from it all, even walk away from the confines of his self, free and spontaneous as a dog, just: wag. The poem I think displays real insight, but unfortunately also reminds us of the difference between insight and practice. It one thing to have a moment's clarity about the emptiness of our self preoccupations, it can be a wonderful moment, and Berryman has fashioned a wonderful poem out of it. But it's something else to practice day in and day out with that insight, and especially with all our resistances to it, attending to all the ways we gradually start taking our "plights & gripes" seriously again, holding a little grudge, a little hurt, a little disappointment. All the things that inevitably reconstitute our particular self-centered dream. Berryman never found a way to practice with the insight that made this marvelous poem. Chronically depressed and alcoholic he killed himself at age 57 by jumping off a bridge.