John Allyn McAlpin Berryman was an American poet and scholar, born in McAlester, Oklahoma. He was a major figure in American poetry in the second half of the 20th century and is considered a key figure in the Confessional school of poetry. His best-known work is The Dream Songs.
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Famous John Berryman Poems
Sonnet 104 – A spot of poontang on a five-foot piece
A spot of poontang on a five-foot piece,
Diminutive, but room enough . . like clay
To finger eager on some torrid day . .
Who’d throw her black hair back, and hang, and tease.
Never, not once in all one’s horny lease
To’have had a demi-lay, a pretty, gay,
Snug, slim and supple-breasted girl for play . .
She bats her big, warm eyes, and slides like grease.
And cuff her silly-hot again, mouth hot
And wet her small round writhing—but this screams
Suddenly awake, unreal as alkahest,
My god, this isn’t what I want!—You tot
The harrow-days you hold me to, black dreams,
The dirty water to get off my chest.
The Ball Poem
What is the boy now, who has lost his ball,
What, what is he to do? I saw it go
Merrily bouncing, down the street, and then
Merrily over—there it is in the water!
No use to say ‘O there are other balls’:
An ultimate shaking grief fixes the boy
As he stands rigid, trembling, staring down
All his young days into the harbour where
His ball went. I would not intrude on him,
A dime, another ball, is worthless. Now
He senses first responsibility
In a world of possessions. People will take balls,
Balls will be lost always, little boy,
And no one buys a ball back. Money is external.
He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes,
The epistemology of loss, how to stand up
Knowing what every man must one day know
And most know many days, how to stand up
And gradually light returns to the street
A whistle blows, the ball is out of sight,
Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Floor of the harbour . . I am everywhere,
I suffer and move, my mind and my heart move
With all that move me, under the water
Or whistling, I am not a little boy.
The three men coming down the winter hill
In brown, with tall poles and a pack of hounds
At heel, through the arrangement of the trees,
Past the five figures at the burning straw,
Returning cold and silent to their town,
Returning to the drifted snow, the rink
Lively with children, to the older men,
The long companions they can never reach,
The blue light, men with ladders, by the church
The sledge and shadow in the twilit street,
Are not aware that in the sandy time
To come, the evil waste of history
Outstretched, they will be seen upon the brow
Of that same hill: when all their company
Will have been irrecoverably lost,
These men, this particular three in brown
Witnessed by birds will keep the scene and say
By their configuration with the trees,
The small bridge, the red houses and the fire,
What place, what time, what morning occasion
Sent them into the wood, a pack of hounds
At heel and the tall poles upon their shoulders,
Thence to return as now we see them and
Ankle-deep in snow down the winter hill
Descend, while three birds watch and the fourth flies.
Dream Song 46
I am, outside. Incredible panic rules.
People are blowing and beating each other without mercy.
Drinks are boiling. Iced
drinks are boiling. The worse anyone feels, the worse
treated he is. Fools elect fools.
A harmless man at an intersection said, under his breath, “Christ!”
That word, so spoken, affected the vision
of, when they trod to work next day, shopkeepers
who went and were fitted for glasses.
Enjoyed they then an appearance of love & law.
Millenia whift & waft one, one er, er. . .
Their glasses were taken from them, & they saw.
Man has undertaken the top job of all,
son fin. Good luck.
I myself walked at the funeral of tenderness.
Followed other deaths. Among the last,
like the memory of a lovely ****,
was: Do, ut des.
Sonnet 115 – All we were going strong last night this time
All we were going strong last night this time,
the mosts were flying & the frozen daiquiris
were downing, supine on the floor lay Lise
listening to Schubert grievous & sublime,
my head was frantic with a following rime:
it was a good evening, and evening to please,
I kissed her in the kitchen -ecstasies-
among so much good we tamped down the crime.
The weather’s changing. This morning was cold,
as I made for the grove, without expectation,
some hundred Sonnets in my pocket, old,
to read her if she came. Presently the sun
yellowed the pines & my lady came not
in blue jeans & a sweater. I sat down & wrote.
Dream Song 77: Seedy Henry rose up shy
Seedy Henry rose up shy in de world
& shaved & swung his barbells, duded Henry up
and p.a.’d poor thousands of persons on topics of grand
moment to Henry, ah to those less & none.
Wif a book of his in either hand
he is stript down to move on.
—Come away, Mr. Bones.
—Henry is tired of the winter,
& haircuts, & a squeamish comfy ruin-prone proud national
mind, & Spring (in the city so called).
Henry likes Fall.
Hé would be prepared to líve in a world of Fáll
for ever, impenitent Henry.
But the snows and summers grieve & dream;
thése fierce & airy occupations, and love,
raved away so many of Henry’s years
it is a wonder that, with in each hand
one of his own mad books and all,
ancient fires for eyes, his head full
& his heart full, he’s making ready to move on.
Dream Song 10
There were strange gatherings. A vote would come
that would be no vote. There would come a rope.
Yes. There would come a rope.
Men have their hats down. “Dancing in the Dark”
will see him up, car-radio-wise. So many, some
won’t find a rut to park.
It is in the occasions, that—not the fathomless heart—
the thinky death consists;
his chest is pinched. The enemy are sick,
and so is us of. Often, to rising trysts,
like this one, drove he out
and gasps of love, after all, had got him ready.
However things hurt, men hurt worse. He’s stark
to be jerked onward?
Yes. In the headlights he got’ keep him steady,
leak not, look out over. This’ hard work,
boss, wait’ for The Word.
Dream Song 265: I don’t know one damned butterfly from another
I don’t know one damned butterfly from another
my ignorance of the stars is formidable,
also of dogs & ferns
except that around my house one destroys the other
When I reckon up my real ignorance, pal,
I mumble “many returns”—
next time it will be nature & Thoreau
this time is Baudelaire if one had the skill
and even those problems O
At the mysterious urging of the body or Poe
reeled I with chance, insubordinate & a killer
O formal & elaborate I choose you
but I love too the spare, the hit-or-miss,
the mad, I sometimes can’t always tell them apart
As we fall apart, will you let me hear?
That would be good, that would be halfway to bliss
You said will you answer back? I cross my heart
& hope to die but not this year.
Dream Song 14: Life, friends, is boring
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, and gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself and its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.
Dream Song 102: The sunburnt terraces which swans make home
The sunburnt terraces which swans make home
with water purling, Macchu Pichu died
like Delphi long ago—
a message to Justinian closing it out,
the thousand years’ authority, although
tho’ never found exactly wrong
political patterns did indeed emerge;
the Oracle was conservative, like Lippmann,
roared the winds on the height,
The Shining Ones behind the shrine, whose verge
saw the impious plunged, 6000 statures
above the Temple shone
plundered, centuries plundered, first the gold
then bronze & marble, then the plinths,
then the dead nerve—
root-canal-work, ugh. I—I still hold
for the saviour of teeth, & I embrace
only he threw me a vicious
Dream Song 116: Through the forest, followed, Henry made his silky way
Through the forest, followed, Henry made his silky way,
No chickadee was troubled, small moss smiled
on his swift passage.
But there were those ahead when at midday
they met in a clearing and lookt at each other awhile.
To kill was not the message.
He only could go with them—odds? 20 to one-and-a-half;
pointless. Besides, palaver with the High Chief
might advance THE CAUSE.
Undoubtedly down they sat and they did talk
and one did balk & stuck but one did stalk
a creation of new laws.
He smoked the pipe of peace—the sceen? tepees,
wigwams, papooses, buffalo hides, a high fire—
even that abnormally scrubbed & powerful one,
shivering with power, held together with wires,
his worst enemy.
Dream Song 106: 28 July
Calmly, while sat up friendlies & made noise
delight fuller than he can ready sing
or studiously say,
on hearing that the year had swung to pause
and culminated in an abundant thing,
came his Lady’s birthday.
Dogs fill daylight, doing each other ill:
my own in love was lugged so many blocks
we had to have a vet.
Comes unrepentant round the lustful mongrel
again today, glaring at her bandages & locks:
his bark has grit.
This screen-porch where my puppy suffers and
I swarm I hope with heartless love is now
towards the close of day
the scene of a vision of friendlies who withstand
animal nature so far as to allow
grace awhile to stay
Dream Song 103: I consider a song will be as humming-bird
I consider a song will be as humming-bird
swift, down-light, missile-metal-hard, & strange
as the world of anti-matter
where they are wondering: does time run backward—
which the poet thought was true; Scarlatti-supple;
but can Henry write it?
Wreckt, in deep danger, he shook once his head,
returning to meditation. And word had sped
all from the farthest West
that Henry was desired: can he get free
of the hanging menace, & this all, and go?
He doesn’t think so.
Therefore he shakes and he will sing no more,
much less a song as fast as said, as light,
so deep, so flexing. He broods.
He may, rehearsing, here of his bad year
at the very end, in squalor, ill, outside.
—Happy New Year, Mr Bones.
Dream Song 107: Three ‘coons come at his garbage. He be cross
Three ‘coons come at his garbage. He be cross,
I figuring porcupine & took Sir poker
unbarring Mr door,
& then screen door. Ah, but the little ‘coon,
hardly a foot (not counting tail) got in with
two more at the porch-edge
and they swirled, before some two swerve off
this side of crab tree, and my dear friend held
with the torch in his tiny eyes
two feet off, banded, but then he gave &
shot away too. They were all the same size,
maybe they were brothers,
it seems, and is, clear to me we are brothers.
I wish the rabbit & the ‘coons could be friends,
I’m sorry about the poker
but I’m too busy now for nipping or quills
I’ve given up literature & taken down pills,
and that rabbit doesn’t trust me
Dream Song 105: As a kid I believed in democracy: I
As a kid I believed in democracy: I
‘saw no alternative’—teaching at The Big Place I ah
put it in practice:
we’d time for one long novel: to a vote—
Gone with the Wind they voted: I crunched ‘No’
and we sat down with War & Peace.
As a man I believed in democracy (nobody
ever learns anything): only one lazy day
my assistant, called James Dow,
& I were chatting, in a failure of meeting of minds,
and I said curious ‘What are your real politics?’
‘Oh, I’m a monarchist.’
Finishing his dissertation, in Political Science.
I resign. The universal contempt for Mr Nixon,
whom never I liked but who
alert & gutsy served us years under a dope,
since dynasty K swarmed in. Let’s have a King
maybe, before a few mindless votes.
Dream Song 26: The glories of the world struck me
The glories of the world struck me, made me aria, once.
—What happen then, Mr Bones?
if be you cares to say.
—Henry. Henry became interested in women’s bodies,
his loins were & were the scene of stupendous achievement.
Stupor. Knees, dear. Pray.
All the knobs & softnesses of, my God,
the ducking & trouble it swarm on Henry,
at one time.
—What happen then, Mr Bones?
you seems excited-like.
—Fell Henry back into the original crime: art, rime
besides a sense of others, my God, my God,
and a jealousy for the honour (alive) of his country,
what can get more odd?
and discontent with the thriving gangs & pride.
—What happen then, Mr Bones?
—I had a most marvellous piece of luck. I died.
Dream Song 100: How this woman came by the courage
How this woman came by the courage, how she got
the courage, Henry bemused himself in a frantic hot
night of the eight of July,
where it came from, did once the Lord frown down
upon her ancient cradle thinking ‘This one
will do before she die
for two and seventy years of chipped indignities
at least,’ and with his thunder clapped a promise?
In that far away town
who looky upon my mother with shame & rage
that any should endure such pilgrimage,
growled Henry sweating, grown
but not grown used to the goodness of this woman
in her great strength, in her hope superhuman,
no, no, not used at all.
I declare a mystery, he mumbled to himself,
of love, and took the bourbon from the shelf
and drank her a tall one, tall.
Dream Song 101: A shallow lake, with many waterbirds
A shallow lake, with many waterbirds,
especially egrets: I was showing Mother around,
An extraordinary vivid dream
of Betty & Douglass, and Don—his mother’s estate
was on the grounds of a lunatic asylum.
He showed me around.
A policeman trundled a siren up the walk.
It was 6:05 p.m., Don was late home.
I askt if he ever saw
the inmates—’No, they never leave their cells.’
Betty was downstairs, Don called down ‘A drink’
I can’t go into the meaning of the dream
except to say a sense of total Loss
afflicted me therof:
an absolute disappearance of continuity & love
and children away at school, the weight of the cross,
and everything is what it seems.
Dream Song 114: Henry in trouble whirped out lonely whines
Henry in trouble whirped out lonely whines.
When ich when was ever not in trouble?
But did he whip out whines
afore? And when check in wif ales & lifelines
anyone earlier O?—Some, now, Mr Bones,
many.—I am fleeing double:
Mr Past being no friends of mine,
all them around: Sir Future Dubious,
calamitous & grand:
I can no foothold here; wherefore I pines
for Dr Present, who won’t thrive to us
hand over neither hand
from them blue depths nor choppering down skies
does Dr Present vault unto his task.
Henry is weft on his own.
Pluck Dr Present. Let his grievous wives
thrall lie to livey toads. May his chains bask.
lower him, Capt Owen, into the sun.
Dream Song 123: Daples my floor the eastern sun, my house faces north
Dapples my floor the eastern sun, my house faces north,
I have nothing to say except that it dapples my floor
and it would dapple me
if I lay on that floor, as-well-forthwith
I have done, trying well to mount a thought
in times forgotten, except by the New York Times
which can’t forget. There is always the morgue.
There are men in the morgue.
These men have access. Sleepless, in position,
they dream the past forever
Colossal in the dawn comes the second light
we do all die, in the floor, in the morgue
and we must die forever, c’est la mort
a heady brilliance
the ultimate gloire
post-mach, probably in underwear
as we met each other once.