Staging America, Staging the Self

Figurations of Loss in John Berryman's Dream Songs

by Anna Warso (Author)
©2021 Monographs 158 Pages
Series: Cultures in Translation, Volume 5


This study focuses on theatricality and melancholia in John Berryman's The Dream Songs, and proposes to view them as inherent in the American cultural experience. It discusses Berryman's work in the context of a larger debate on the significance of loss in the process of subject formation and its relation to language, with a commentary on the presences and absences found in the Polish translations of the poem. Revealing the mechanisms of staging the Self after loss, the Songs provide insight into the theatrical and dialogue-driven, context-dependent, intertextual and continuously rewritten character of the American subject.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • 1. Speaking through the Masks:: The Dream Songs and Blackface Minstrelsy
  • Early Responses and Struggles
  • Minstrel Genealogies
  • Another Method: Berryman’s Minstrelsy
  • Moving Abroad
  • 2. “—You is from hunger, Mr Bones”: Henry and the Stories of Loss
  • Constitutive Lack
  • Approaching Absence
  • Berryman’s Figurations of Loss
  • Refracting Grief
  • 3. The Personal, the Public, and the Theater of Confession
  • Parallel Lives: The Questions of Biography
  • “Do Negroes talk in ampersands?” The Authenticity of Henry’s Voice
  • The Dream Songs, Citationality and the Possibility of Camp Talk
  • Hear Him Ę: From Songs to Pięśni
  • Constructing the Truth
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Series Index

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The recent decade has witnessed what could be cautiously viewed as a reignited interest in John Berryman, “arguably the most irreverent and inventive – though not the most read today – of the confessional American poets that emerged in the late 1950s and early ‘60s”.1 The 2010 edition of Ezra Pound: New Selected Poems and Translations now includes his 1949 essay: commissioned by New Directions and rejected originally both by the publisher and by Pound himself, it is currently placed in the volume after T. S. Eliot’s 1928 classical introduction.2 In 2014, on the centennial of the poet’s birth, Farrar Straus and Giroux republished his Pulitzer winning 77 Dream Songs, the much less popular Berryman’s Sonnets, and the ←7 | 8→magnificent, complete The Dream Songs, each book with a new opening essay by respectively Henri Cole, April Bernard, and Michael Hoffman. These were accompanied by the 2014 reissue of Poets in Their Youth, Eileen Simpson’s 1982 memoir – an intimate portrayal of Berryman’s first marriage and his literary friendships, and The Heart Is Strange: New Selected Poems, edited and introduced by Daniel Swift. 2014 saw also the publication of Philip Coleman’s John Berryman’s Public Vision, an examination of the poet’s confessional status bringing to light his too often neglected, passionate engagement with the public sphere, followed by the 2017 John Berryman: Centenary Essays, edited by Coleman and Peter Campion. The Selected Letters of John Berryman, a capacious new selection of the poet’s correspondence was published in 2020 by Harvard UP, edited and introduced by tireless Coleman, complementing Kelly’s 1988 We Dream of Honour, a volume of Berryman’s letters to his mother, finally, Conversations with John Berryman, a collection of his major interviews given between 1939 and 1971 was published in April 2021 by the UP of Mississippi, curated by Eric Hoffman.

I was introduced to the Dream Songs as a student, two decades ago, by Andrzej Sosnowski, a poet, translator, and editor of Literatura na Świecie, a literary journal responsible, among others, for introducing Piotr Sommer’s great translations of Berryman’s work to the Polish readership. What struck me immediately as a uniquely American sound and character of the Songs was also what gave birth to my first attempts at translation criticism, positing awkwardly, but with a strong conviction, what I then saw as the untranslatable nature of Berryman’s poem.3 This strong belief in a specifically local character of the Songs led to a doctoral dissertation which has laid the foundations for the present book.

I have always seen it as a task imbued with a fair degree of irony, putting forth a study of a poet who referred to the academia alternatively as “the capital city for Dull” (Dream Song 35) or a “harmless industry” that “gets ←8 | 9→people degrees” (in the Stitt interview 28), gently mocking the attempts of assistant professors to become associate professors “by learning the name of Henry’s friend” (in Plotz 8). Still, parts of that dissertation appeared separately in print as chapters in four essay collections.4 They have now been updated, expanded, reworked, and reframed to offer a more integrated perspective which includes also the insights gained from the more recent Berryman scholarship, as well as his published correspondence, otherwise available through the Elmer L. Andersen Library in Minneapolis, where the poet taught at the University of Minnesota between 1955 and 1972. My work would not have been possible without a visit there, and without Kate Donahue’s generous permission to quote from the Berryman papers. The greatest hope I have for this book is that may be useful to the readers of Dream Songs.

Unless indicated otherwise, references to Berryman’s drafts, typescripts, unpublished versions of the Songs, letters, and private notes made in this book redirect to the materials hosted by John Berryman Papers (Mss 43), Literary Manuscripts Collection, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis. All quotations from the Songs referred to by number come from the Faber and Faber edition of The Dream Songs (London and Boston: 1990). The work itself is called “the poem,” following Berryman’s preference expressed in The Freedom of the Poet: “editors and critics for years have been characterizing them as poems, but I do not see them as that; I see them as parts, admittedly more independent than parts usually are” ←9 | 10→(330), and because there is indeed added value in looking at it as a whole, published in two parts, as 77 Dream Songs in 1964 and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest in 1968. While numerous Songs function perfectly as independent units, others benefit from being read in the context of the surrounding verse, their specific location in the volume, and their interconnections with other parts. I am focusing solely on The Dream Songs, with a few references to Berryman’s other books of poetry precisely because it is “not a collection of chance pieces loosely flung under one cover,” as Adrienne Rich has noted in her review (538) but a body of text aspiring, however self-deprecatingly this wish is expressed, to be the next American poem (Berryman in Stitt 29).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (February)
subject formation melancholia theatricality language and loss blackface minstrelsy John Berryman
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 158 pp.

Biographical notes

Anna Warso (Author)

Anna Warso is Assistant Professor at the Department of English, SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw, Poland. Her research interests concern 20th-century American poetry, literary correspondence, and translation.


Title: Staging America, Staging the Self