Helen Vendler

Helen Vendler: On "Negro Minstrelsy" in The Dream Songs

The fiction of The Dream Songs .. is that its two protagonists are "end men" in an American minstrel show. This common form of vaudeville (still seen in my childhood) presented, while the curtain was lowered between vaudeville acts, banter between two "end men," one standing at stage left, one at stage right, in front of the closed curtain. The end men were white actors in exaggerated blackface, whol told jokes in an exaggerated Negro dialect, one acting the taciturn "straight man" to the buffoonery of the other. They addressed each other by nicknames such as "Tambo" or "Mr. Bones" (the latter a name referring to dice). The unnamed Friend in The Dream Songs, acting as straight man and speaking to Henry in Negro dialect, addresses Henry as "Mr. Bones" or variants thereof. Henry, the voluble, infantile, and plaintive chief speaker, is the lyric "I" of the songs: he never addresses his "straight man" by name. Henry’s own colloquial idiolect (sometimes represented in third-person free indirect discourse or second-person self-reproach) is not exclusively framed in any one dialect, but rather exhibits many dialectical influences, from slang to anarchism to baby-talk.

One can see that there is no integrated Ego in The Dream Songs: there is only Conscience at one end of the stage and the Id at the other, talking to each other across a Void, never able to find common ground. …

From Helen Vendler, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition (The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent), (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1995), 35-36.

Helen Vendler: On "Dream Song 384"

The aesthetic problem Berryman sets himself when he decides to write actions and discourse for his unmanageable Id has been solved here, as elsewhere, by relying on broad cartoon-like strokes. The Id is represented in several ways: by incoherence of affect ("O ho alas alas / When will indifference come"); by childish regression of action and words ("I’d like to scrabble till I got right down / away down")’ by interspersed melodramatic nonsense-syllables of revenge ("open ha to see," "grave clothes he & then"); and by a temporary abandon (between the sixteenth and seventeenth line) of end-punctuation of any sort. The final tableau – as Henry in self-pluralizing wish ("we") takes an ax to his father’s casket, rips the decayed wrappings of the corpse, and then drives the ax into his father’s body – resembles in its components an episode out of Poe, but it forgoes Poe’s ghastly ceremoniousness of action and diction: this is why the Dream Songs deserve the name of "cartoon." The reductiveness and garishness and violence we associate with cartoons – and do not normally associate with our "sensitive" therapeutically-presented selves – are Berryman’s startling comic means toward representation of his irrepressible Id. Cartoon-strokes enable him to render his life-donnée in literary terms, at the considerable cost of an occluded and alienated authorial self, concealed behind its puppets.

 
 

From Helen Vendler, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition (The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent), (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1995), 51-52.

Helen Vendler: On "Dream Song 45"

Dream Song #45 is a list-poem enumerating predicaments which at the time certainly seemed to be ruin (being discovered naked with one's girlfriend by her enraged father, for instance) but which proved, when real Ruin came, to be merely impostors. This Dream Song of Ruin preceded by its earlier impostors is verbally organized by two almost identical lines. In the first, we hear Henry's illiterate boozy remark about ruin, 'He thought they was old friends'; in the second, we perceive that Henry has been shocked into literacy by reality: 'But he noted now that: they were not old friends.' Between these two lines the cartoon-strip of successive pseudo-ruins unrolls. until it dissolves at the encounter with the real thing:

. . . it differs from its prose eqnivalent not only in its shapeliness (produced by grammatical and syntactic parallelism) but also by its reductiveness: Henry and ruin, old pals. cross paths (as if in the successive frames of a cartoon strip) round the world; then ruin, old friend, mysteriously vanishes and a horrible allegorical stranger, saying in effect' I RUIN AM,' fixes Henry with a toxic dissolution-beam, making Henry evanesce into nothingness before our very eyes.

from The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Helen Vendler

Helen Vendler: On "Dream Song 14"

. . . when the depressive side of bi-polar illness is ascendant in Berryman, Henry is represented as paralyzed by a pervasive apathy, an unwillingness to play even his own game. Here is the opening of Dream Song #14:

[lines 1-12]

Berryman's debt to the lyric tradition appears in Henry's appeal to Romantic gestures—'The sky flashes, the great sea yearns, / we ourselves flash and yearn.' On the other hand, in Henry's frame of mind the entire Western literary tradition, from Homer on, is of absolutely no use, and so itself becomes a lower-case cartoon in which Achilles' wrath is reduced to 'plights & gripes.' 'Literature bores me,' says Henry, seeing himself in his plights and gripes' as bad as [a lower-case] achilles.' The Dream Songs visibly adopt certain features of the long autobiographical poem as we find it in Don Juan, which originated, in our literature, the spectacle of an impulsive and greedy protagonist commented upon by a worldly authorial voice.

from The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Helen Vendler

Helen Vendler: On "Dream Song 29"

The comparable Dream Song #29 turns to Western art, as Henry recalls a Duccio or Simone Martini profile of the Virgin Mary or a saint. Like the Japanese stone garden, this medieval profile—an art-object combining spiritual stillness with aesthetic mastery—reproaches in the way the socialized Superego or even the Conscience cannot. Its reproach is silent, not oral; aesthetic, not ethical; spiritual, not social or legal. Berryman sets his Sienese icon against Henry's obsessive anxiety and sexual guilt, and reproduces in #29 the anguished and irrational thought-processes caused by Henry's conflict of values. The poem begins with the stifling and perpetual weight that torments Henry's guilty conscience, and ends with a baffled sense of its erroneousness: . . .

The cognitive dissonance between terrified conviction ('I have murdered a woman') and absurd enumerative ratiocination ('Nobody's missing') results in the obsessive and habitual, 'often' of the insomniac reckoning. Henry would be relieved if someone were missing; it would make his conviction of guilt rational, and he could reconnect his split pieces. But this solace is denied him.

Behind a lyric such as this there lie the religious lyrics of grief and guilt written by Herbert and Hopkins. But although Freudian poetry is sometimes called "confessional poetry," one can see in the instance of Dream Song #29 that it I often precisely not "confessional" poetry – there is, as the poem demonstrates, no sin to confess, and no way to make amends, no one by whom to be absolved. The therapeutic hour is concerned less with "confession" than with an analysis – carried out by various means – of what is wrongly "confessed." … In Freudian terms, Henry’s free-floating guilt would be seen as the sign of something repressed, not consciously available. The structure of the poem, which locates the "grave Sienese face" between the two stanzas of Henry’s guilt, suggests that what he has repressed is behavior consonant with that austere profile, the sort of behavior he still believes in, if in an unconscious way. The repression of chastity, the repression of asceticism, the repression of spiritual gravity, are odd things to mention in a Freudian context. But for Merryman, the adult repression of his youthful religious Superego is as great a cause of guilt as would be, in classic Freudian terms, the repression of libido.

 
 

 

From Helen Vendler, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition (The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent), (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1995), 49-50.

Helen Vendler: On "Dream Song 4"

Dream Song #4, a farcical sketch of Henry in a restaurant lusting after someone else's young wife: this is Berryman' s picture of the Id at work, checked in its lust by Conscience. It is a poem unthinkable in American poetry before the postwar Freudian era: . . .

It is Berryman's gaiety of writing, his joyous blasphemy of traditional love-poetry, that wins us in this Song. The parodic aspects are several: the planctus takes place in a restaurant; the lady is reduced to her body engaged in the inglorious act of eating; she is guarded not only by her husband but by a comic superfluity of 'four other people'; the Petrarchan lover's cry of adoration is debased to 'You are the hottest one . . . / Henry's dazed eyes /have enjoyed'; the lover continues to eat, and does not omit to notice that it is spumoni that he is, even if despairingly, eating; the lover's jealousy makes him cartoon the husband as 'The slob beside her'; the lover's admiration of the lady's beauty suddenly descends to a crude interest in her buttocks ('What wonders is / she sitting on, over there?'); and the conventional eloignement of the lady takes on tones of science fiction: 'She might as well be on Mars.' The lover's comment is of the fist-to-brow soap-opera kind—'Where did it all go wrong?'

The growling, resentful, truculent, unmanageable Henry is an enviable comic creation, and his repertoire of semiotic reference, old and new, is lovably various in both serious and parodic ways. We become marginally convinced, by such a poem, that the troubadours were Henrys too, and that Berryman is merely uncovering the unsalubrious, but oddly solacing, layer of psychic squalor beneath high artistic convention. And yet, at the same time, we see the negative of this truth: that even the lustful and coarse-minded Henry wants to call his 'feeding girl' by a name like 'Brilliance,' to see her eyes as 'jewelled' and her company as a 'feast.' These are all metaphors straight out of the love-tradition, and what is exhilarating in Berryman as a writer is the balance between the parodic and the ecstatic that he keeps alive, as he reveals both the body's abject yearning for idealization, and the mind's conspiratorial desire for buttocks.

 
 

from The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Helen Vendler

 
 

Helen Vendler on: "Malevolent Flippancy"

It was not the ethical parables of the Bible, or the fertile suggestiveness of Greek myth, but the grim tit-for-tat of fairy tales--where the unsuccessful suitors are murdered, or the witch is burned in her own oven, or the wicked wolf is himself sliced open--that appealed to Sexton's childlike and vengeful mind. The fairy tales and folktales put forth a child's black-and-white ethics, with none of the complexity of the Gospels, and none of the worldliness of the Greeks. It is characteristic of Sexton that she did use the myth of Prometheus--which reads like one of her folktales, with its rebel hero, its avenging father-god, and its grotesque evisceration by a vulture.

Sexton looked, usually in vain, for ways to stabilize her poems outside her increasingly precarious self. She based one sequence on horoscope readings, another on the remarks of her therapist "Doctor Y," another on the life of Jesus, another on the Psalms, another on beasts. The only group that succeeds more often than it falls is the group based on folktales, Transformations. The tales--Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, the Frog Prince, Briar Rose, Hansel and Gretel, and others--gave Sexton a structure of the sort she was usually unable to invent for herself, a beginning, a middle, and an end. Her poems tend, on the whole, to begin well, to repeat themselves, to sag in the middle, and to tail off. She had an instinct for reiteration; she wanted to say something five times instead of once. Her favorite figure of speech is anaphora, where many lines begin with the same phrase, a figure which causes, more often than not, diffuseness and spreading of effect rather than concentration of intensity:

... I will conquer myself. I will dig up the pride. I will take scissors

The tales, as I have said, matched her infantile fantasy; they gave her a clean trajectory; they turned her away from the morass of narcissism. But most of all, they enabled her as a satirist. . . . Sexton's aesthetically most realized tone is precisely a malevolently flippant one, however distasteful it might seem to others.

 
 

From "Malevolent Flippancy." The New Republic (1981)

Helen Vendler on: "Shooting Script"

Giving up the prism, the lens, the map, and pulling herself up by her own roots, Rich, as The Will to Change closes, eats the last meal in her own neighborhood and prepares, deprived of all instruments, to move on, guided only by the fortuitous cracks in the plaster, the innate lifeline, the traumatic rays of the bullet-hole. She could hardly have been more frank; from formalism to--not freedom, but, as always--a new version of truth. If this is a revolution, it is one bound like Ixion on the wheel of the past--environmental past in the plaster, genetic past in the lifeline, traumatic past in the bullet-hole. And if it is revolution, it is one which does not wish to deny the reality of past choices and past modes of life. Putting off in her boat, Rich watches "the lights on the shore I had left for a long time; each one, it seemed to me, was a light I might have lit, in the old days" ("Shooting Script," II, number 13). Houselights and hearthfires, abandoned, remembered, light the departure.

From Parnassus (1973).

Helen Vendler: On "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" (2)

At the heart of many of Stevens's poems are harsh and unpalatable experiences revealed only gradually through his intense stylization. The famous poem, "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," resisted explication for some decades, perhaps because no one took the trouble to deduce its implicit narrative from its stylized plot. (The Russian formalist distinction between "story" and "plot" is often useful for this and other Stevens poems.) The basic "story " of "The Emperor" is that of a person who goes to the house of a neighbor, a poor old woman, who has died; the person is to help "lay out" (arrange for decent viewing) the corpse in the bedroom, while other neighbors are sending over homegrown flowers, and yet others are preparing food, including ice cream, for the wake.

Stevens "plots" this story into two equal stanzas: one for the kitchen where the ice cream is being made, one for the bedroom where the corpse awaits decent covering. He "plots" it further by structuring the poem as a series of commands from an unknown master of ceremonies, directing--in a diction of extreme oddness--the neighbors in their funeral duties: "Call the roller of big cigars, / The muscular one, and bid him whip / In kitchen cups concupiscent curds. /. . . / / Take from the dresser ... / ... that sheet /... / And spread it so as to cover her face." Both the symbolic kitchen stanza (life as concupiscence) and the symbolic bedroom stanza (death as final) end with the same third-order refrain echoed by the title: "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." Faced with life (however slovenly and appetitive) in the kitchen and death (with its protruding horny feet) on the bed, one must, however unwillingly, acquiesce in the reign of life.

We cannot know what personal events prompted this 1922 poem, apparently set in Key West (so the poet Elizabeth Bishop conjectured, who knew Key West, where Cubans worked at the machines in cigar factories, where blacks always had ice cream at funerals), but it derives resonance from Stevens's mother's death ten years earlier. What is certain is that it represents symbolically, with the Procrustean bed of its two rooms, the bitter moment of choosing life over death, at a time when life seems particularly lonely, self-serving, lustful, and sordid. Art is exposed as too scanty in its powers to cover up death; the embroidered sheet (a figure for the embellished page), if it is pulled up to cover the dead woman's face, reveals her "horny feet," which show "how cold she is, and dumb." In choosing to "let the lamp affix its beam," as in a morgue, and in acquiescing to the command, "Let be be finale of seem," Stevens makes his momentous choice for reality over appearance.

From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini and Brett C. Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press.

Helen Vendler: On "The Emperor of Ice-Cream"

"For purposes of experiment, I have put the details the poem gives us into the form of a first-person narrative; I see the poem as a rewritten form of this ur-narrative, in which the narrative has been changed into an impersonal form, and the linear temporal structure of narrative form has been replaced by a strict geometric spatial construction – two rooms juxtaposed. Here (with apologies) is my conjectural narrative ur-form of the poem, constructed purely as an explanatory device:

I went, as a neighbor, to a house to help lay out the corpse of an old woman who had died alone; I was helping to prepare for the home wake. I entered, familiarly, not by the front door but by the kitchen door. I was shocked and repelled as I went into the kitchen by the disorderly festival going on inside: a big muscular neighbor who worked at the cigar-factory had been called in to crank the ice-cream machine, various neighbors had sent over their scullery-girls to help out and their yard-boys bearing newspaper-wrapped flowers from their yards to decorate the house and the bier: the scullery-girls were taking advantage of the occasion to dawdle around the kitchen and flirt with the yard-boys, and they were all waiting around to have a taste of the ice cream when it was finished. It all seemed to me crude and boisterous and squalid and unfeeling in the house of the dead – all that appetite, all that concupiscence.

Then I left the sexuality and gluttony of the kitchen, and went in to the death in the bedroom. The corpse of the old woman was lying exposed on the bed. My first impulse was to find a sheet to cover the corpse; I went to the cheap old pine dresser, but it was hard to get the sheet out of it because each of the three drawers was lacking a drawer-pull; she must have been too infirm to get to the store to get new glass knobs. But I got a sheet out, noticing that she had hand-embroidered a fantail border on it; she wanted to make it beautiful, even though she was so poor that she made her own sheets, and cut them as minimally as she could so as to get as many as possible out of a length of cloth. She cut them so short, in fact, that when I pulled the sheet up far enough to cover her face, it was too short to cover her feet. It was almost worse to have to look at her old calloused feet than to look at her face; somehow her feet were more dead, more mute, than her face had been

She is dead, and the fact cannot be hidden by any sheet. What remains after death, in the cold light of reality, is life – all of that life, with its coarse muscularity and crude hunger and greedy concupiscence, that is going on in the kitchen. The only god of this world is the cold god of persistent life and appetite; and I must look steadily at this repellent but true tableau – the animal life in the kitchen, the corpse in the back bedroom. Life offers no other tableaus of reality, once we pierce beneath appearances.

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