Wednesday, February 10, 2010

...and what do we do with you, John Berryman?

John Berryman is said to be one of the fore-fathers of the confessional movement, and yet so many of his poems--like those of confessional poets in general--employ a persona and stray widely from strict autobiography.  The term "confessional" has always been a difficult one for me.  In the Catholic tradition, the confessional is a place for absolute honesty where one owns one's sins and repents, yet in most of their work, the confessional poets are neither honest nor humble nor do they seek forgiveness.  I'm glad they don't.  The brutality and hyperbole of these poems are one of their strengths.  They're not trying to tell us what actually happened; they're making us feel an emotion beyond those which reality contained.

Thus, the Dream Songs don't contain us to events.  They go beyond day-to-day, they invent.  Berryman gives us a dream that is uniquely ours as much as it is uniquely his.  "These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand," he writes in song #366 [not included in our text, unfortunately], "They are only meant to terrify & comfort."

And Henry?  Oh Henry.  The confessional only has room for one.  Henry gets collapsed into Mr. Bones and into Berryman himself, but is this fair?  Any more fair than the way the "confessional poet" is used as a mud in the sling we use to disparage the modern lyricist who, like Wordsworth and Whitman, see themselves as poetic subjects?

I tend to read the "confessionals" as a group of poets launching a critic of the traditional lyric speaker by calling attention to just how absurd it is to think the poet could ever put his self onto the page.

(I choose this picture in particular because I imagine him having a conversation with, say, Harold Bloom and really taking him to task.  I like to think of him cross-examining the critical body, saying something like, "have you read the work you're calling 'confessional' or have you looked up a definition for the word lately?")

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