Poems from the academy

August 5, 2005

The Dream Songs, by John Berryman

About that "me". After a lecture once
came up a lady asking to see me. "Of course.
When would you like to?"
Well, now, she said. "Yes, but I have a lunch-
con- " Then I saw her and shifted with remorse
and said "Well; come on over."
So we crossed to my office together and I sat her down
and asked, as she sat silent, "What is it, miss?"
"Would you close the door?"
Now Henry was perplexed. We don't close doors
with students; it's just a principle. But this
lady looked beyond frown.
So I rose from the desk & closed it and turning back
found her in tears - apologising - "No,
go right ahead," I assur-ed her, "here's a handkerchief. Cry." She did, I
did. When she got
control, I said "What's the matter - if you want to talk?"
"Nothing. Nothing's the matter." So.
I am her.

University life, for John Berryman (1914-72), wasn't being a poet-in-residence, leave alone a poet in reticence. Matthew Arnold famously said of the poet Thomas Gray: "He never spoke out." Berryman, he ever spoke out.

His Dream Songs are ageless and yet of their age. For Berryman's was the lifetime that saw great changes in the pledges and plight of university teachers. First, the acknowledgement of sexual harassment. (Not the existence of the time-dishonoured practice, but the admission of it.)

We don't close doors/ with students; it's just a principle. Oh no it's not, it's a practice to discourage a particular malpractice.

Second, all the new perplexities that attend the old concept of in loco parentis . In an age when so many parents neglect such responsibilities? When students are of an age to be drafted (or executed, though not, in much of the US, to drink beer)?

This Dream Song captures the poignancy - the wish to help and the dangers of even trying - like nobody's business. The sprawling antepenultimate line about the handkerchief (beginning, of all things, with "ed her") dissolves the usual bonds. Yet control is there in the off-rhyme that has "talk" turn back to "turning back". "I am her". Not "I am she". Grammar had better take second place to generous common humanity. The teacher and the taught, the parent and the child, or the imaginative artist and those whom he or she imagines into life: "Madame Bovary, c'est moi ."

Christopher Ricks is professor of poetry at Oxford University, and professor of the humanities at Boston University, US.

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