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James Joyce
Katherine Ebury
“'SERVE, SERVE' IT SANG, AND IT SANG THAT ALL DAY:”
JAMES JOYCE AND JOHN BERRYMAN

Although John Berryman seems to have very deliberately selected W.B. Yeats as his poetic master, meeting Yeats in 1937 and discussing him frequently in his masterpiece The Dream Songs, in this article I intend to argue that Joyce’s prose had an equally powerful influence. Berryman rarely acknowledged a Joycean influence on his work; however, as I will show, Berryman’s disruptive rhythms and syntax are often far closer to Joyce’s aesthetic than to Yeats’s and there are many embedded echoes of Joyce in his work.

It is particularly appropriate to discuss this relationship in 2014, which is the centenary both of Dubliners and of Berryman’s birth. There is, of course, a danger in using comparisons with a major canonical figure like Joyce to rehabilitate or bolster the reputation of artists who may be slipping out of the canon. It is true that the reception of the middle generation of poets between high modernism and post-modernism, the group including Lowell, Berryman, Bishop and Plath, has undergone a shift. Where previously the work of Berryman and Lowell was the most highly prized of this generation, now it is Plath, and, especially, Bishop, who are most often taught, while Berryman is particularly in danger of becoming forgotten. However, there has been renewed interest in Berryman around his centenary year. He was recently featured on the BBC4 documentary Great Poets in Their Own Words; two centenary conferences are being held in Dublin and Minnesota; and Berryman’s Fate, a new poetry anthology by Arlen Press will feature poems responding Berryman’s life and legacy by poets including Paula Meehan, John Montague, Paul Muldoon, Leontia Flynn and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.(1) Still, it is not my intention to use Joyce’s reputation as part of this process of recuperating Berryman. Although a reading of Joyce’s influence on Berryman can offer a corrective to a critical vision of him as a tortured “confessional” poet and can draw out aspects of his poetry that are often ignored (in particular, its humour and its linguistic richness), the relationship between their work is more dynamic and interesting than this. Shared themes link their work, such as depictions of sin and the Fall, death and literary immortality and difficult relationships between the writer’s life and his work, the book and the body. In fact, Berryman was nothing if not an attentive reader of other artists” work, as his deft elegies for modernists like Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams show, and a study of Berryman’s use of Joyce could also reveal new perspectives on Joyce’s work as much as they throw new light on Berryman’s.

So far, Berryman criticism has explored his use of Yeats as a literary model.(2) For a poet writing after Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Yeats offers a reasonably effective shield from the doctrine of artistic impersonality. Despite Yeats’s sense that the poet is “never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast,”(3) a young poet, like Berryman when he chose Yeats as an exemplar, who was keen to use a more personal poetic utterance, could be reassured by the way in which Yeats’s embodied personal voice rarely leaves his poetry. Even with Yeats as exemplar, however, Berryman’s early poetry is stilted, overly formal and fairly derivative, far from the rebellious, pained and comic voice of The Dream Songs. Clearly Yeats’s influence was not quite enough for him. Much later, for Berryman, Joyce turns out to be an even more powerful shield from aesthetic impersonality, an artist whose polyvocal prose never ceases to engage with the life story and body of the writer. Joyce’s surrogate artists, Stephen Dedalus and Shem the Penman, arguably provide a model for the protagonist of The Dream Songs, Henry (whose name may even deliberately invoke Bloom’s pseudonym, Henry Flower), an artist who both is and is not Berryman himself. I would thus suggest that the example that enabled Berryman to finally reject Eliot’s too clear distinction between “the man who suffers and the mind which creates,”(4) was finally not Yeats but Joyce.

Ulysses and Berryman’s Irish Expedition

Berryman’s reading of Joyce is never mentioned by critics; however, he taught Ulysses to undergraduates at the University of Minnesota in the period before and during the composition of The Dream Songs. Much of the second part of this long poem was written in Dublin during his visit in 1966-1967, when he visited many Joycean sites, including the Martello tower at Sandycove. In fact, Vivian Igoe, who was present during Berryman’s visit, points out that the poet actually used the Tower as a venue for a photo-shoot, arriving with a photographer called Terence Spencer who took about “one hundred photographs” in the Tower.(5) So far, I’ve only found a few images out of that hundred: one of Berryman alone on the top of the Tower, one of him with a journalist and the other of Berryman alone inside it.

Berryman atop James Joyce’s Martello Tower

Berryman and the journalist Jane Howard at Sandycove

Berryman inside the Tower

The third image could be seen as a constructed but nonetheless poignant avowal of Joycean influence, as, in a room once occupied by Joyce, with his face turned from the camera, Berryman connects with the stone of the Tower, reaching upward towards the light. Significantly, there were no comparable pictures taken during visits to Yeatsian sights.

In a BBC interview with Al Alvarez from the same period as this photo-shoot, Berryman publicly acknowledged a Joycean influence for the first time, linking “Dream Song 55,” where Henry imagines a conversation with St. Peter at the gates of heaven, with Bloom’s meditations on mortality in the “Hades” episode of Ulysses. The final section of The Dream Songs was written during this period of residence in Ireland, as Berryman grapples with the Irish influence on his work. Even as he explains Henry’s journey in lines that stress Yeats’s influence, “After thirty Falls I rush back to the haunts of Yeats / & others,”(6) in that suggestive “others” is Joyce, while the theme of the Fall is itself one that he links with Joyce’s work. In fact, switches from Yeatsian to Joycean influence often occur abruptly between songs, so the lovely elegy for Yeats in “Dream Song 312” closes with the lines

Your high figures float
again across my mind and all your past
fills my walled garden with your honey breath
wherein I move, a mote.(7)

But “Dream Song 313” opens in a way that punctures this Yeatsian mood, reminding us of the way Joyce uses breaks between chapters to puncture Stephen’s epiphanies in Portrait: “The Irish sunshine is lovely but a Belfast man / last night made a pass at my wife.”(8) At times Berryman even directly repudiates Yeats: “Yeats knew nothing about life: it was all symbols & Wordsworthian egotism.”(9) He implicitly compares his own exile as an American in Ireland with Joyce’s life in Europe and treating Joyce as a poet, not as a fiction-writer, in a poem about dead Irish poets including him among Hopkins, Yeats and Swift.(10) The Dream Songs ends before Henry can leave Ireland, so he remains forever in Irish exile, confronting these influences.

It is illuminating to look at “Dream Song 288” in this context, in which Joyce’s influence (in particular, that of Ulysses) is strongly apparent, from which I took the title of this paper:

In neighbourhoods evil of noise, he deployed, Henry,
stance unheroic. Say yes without offending.
In our career here
good will we too with ill. Wrinkle a grin.
The place is not so bad, considering
the alternative with real fear.

Being dead, I mean. “Well it is a long rest”
to himself said Mr Bloom. But is it that now?
As one Hungarian
Jew to another, I have seen grins that test
our patience, pal. Things are getting out
of hand, gaffered another one.

Blundering, faltering, uphill all the way
& icy. O say yes without offending.
His heart, a mud-puddle, sang.
“Serve, Serve” it sang and it sang that all day.
New tasks will craze you in your happy ending.
Let go without a pang.(11)

In this poem, Berryman attempts to weigh in the balance Joyce’s darker and lighter narrative currents, including Bloom’s gloomy meditations in “Hades,” Molly’s affirmative “yes” as the “happy ending” of “Penelope” and Stephen’s constant conflict between song and ‘service’, his precarious non serviam. The Dublin setting of the poem, as well as Henry’s sudden identification with Bloom, whose unheroic stance Henry adopts, presenting them both as “Hungarian Jews,” suggest that Joyce is being appealed to as a precedent for artistic and personal survival in the face of suffering, oppression and the threat of death. In a recent study of Berryman’s teaching notes, Amanda Golden notes that in the Ulysses chapters he assigned, Berryman had his students encounter Leopold Bloom before Stephen Dedalus. He listed in his 1966 syllabus that students should read “Episodes 4-5, 1-2, and skim 3; 6, 9, 16, 18.” Rearranging the chapters emphasized the introduction of Joyce’s Jewish protagonist.(12)

Berryman’s identification with Jewish suffering, which occurs not just here but elsewhere in The Dream Songs, seems to be directly influenced by Bloom’s status in Ulysses, and we are reminded that Berryman’s early short story, “The Imaginary Jew,” depicts an anti-semitic confrontation reminiscent of “Cyclops,” as a nameless Irishman accuses the non-Jewish, politically unorthodox protagonist of being Jewish, creating a threatening situation that the protagonist has to flee from.(13) However, Henry’s sense that he, not Bloom, has seen “grins that test our patience” seems to allude to a radical break between Joyce’s and Berryman’s identification with Jewish experience, constituted in Berryman’s awareness of the holocaust. Nonetheless, Berryman’s identification with minority experience (at times Henry speaks in the voice of a black man) ultimately fits with the Joycean sense of the artist as unheroic, marginalised and victimised, a figure on an aesthetic journey that Berryman here depicts as “blundering, faltering, uphill all the way.”(14) In fact, our sense both in “Dream Song 288” and elsewhere that Henry is unheroic or even antiheroic place him far from the Yeatsian investment in heroism as embodied in poetic figures like Cuchulain. Instead Berryman’s sense of the creative value of the antiheroic, both in this Dream Song and elsewhere, leads naturally to a Joycean influence since characters like Bloom and HCE, do not conform to an ideal of the heroic. In The Dream Songs, Henry lives the alternately banal and fantastic life of a Joycean antihero as he lusts after women, wonders if he could become a serial killer,(15) talks to himself and finds his flies open unexpectedly.(16)

The Wakean Language of The Dream Songs

Influence rarely expresses itself as straightforward imitation; nonetheless if we are to believe that Yeats is really Berryman’s main poetic model we might ask ourselves why he never sounds like him by the time of The Dream Songs. It is true that Berryman’s poetic ear was partly shaped by reading Yeats; however, in his late phase, it is hard to hear real echoes of the Yeatsian voice in his poetry. In fact, if we go further and ask ourselves what the difficult, syntactically contorted and polyvocal Dream Songs often sound like, the answer would be Finnegans Wake. Here are three examples that demonstrate this similarity. The first one shows the shared denseness and disorientating power of both Berryman’s poetry and Joyce’s prose:

I poured myself out thro’ my tips. What’s left?
I slipt. I slipt. What’s right?
Whose centre’s where?
His son has set.(17)

When worst got things, how was you? Steady on?
Wheedling, or shockt her &
you have been bad to your friend,
whom not you writing too.(18)

What was thaas? Fog was whaas? Too mult sleepth. Let sleepth.
But really now whenabouts? (FW 555.01)

The second example shows both authors” use of black dialect:

Mr Bones, you strong on moral these days, hey?(19)

You is feeling like you was lost in the bush, boy? (FW 112.3)

The third example shows their interest in imagistic detail:

One gold line along the rubbingstrake
signalled a beauty.(20)

Clutches of chromes of the highly lucid spanishing gold. (FW 477.26)

This Joycean influence has seldom been noticed. However, in a 1964 review of The Dream Songs Louise Bogan compares Berryman’s language with the Wake; she writes that Berryman was pulling speech “toward some totally disjunct and invertebrate set of noises [with his] desperate artificiality,”(21) a description that recalls some hostile criticism of the Wake. She continues by saying that Berryman was “out to get language itself - to distort and maim it, not in the direction of wit, as in Carroll and Joyce, but in the direction of funny grammar and burnt-cork comedy.”(22) Although Joyce’s experiments with language in Finnegans Wake were far more radical than those of The Dream Songs and so a deprecation of Berryman on these grounds would make sense, it is hard to see what Bogan imagines as the difference between Berryman’s distortion of language and that of Joyce or Lewis Carroll, since the only distinction she draws is between Joyce’s “wit” and Berryman’s mere “comedy.” Perhaps it is the “desperateness” of Berryman’s artificiality that she is implicitly deprecating; the sense that Berryman, as a “confessional” poet, only distorted language in order to better convey his own pain and that thus his linguistic experiments have no literary value is, unfortunately, fairly widespread in criticism. This is perhaps why “influence” is not a word that Bogan uses: instead, she makes a comparison and draws a distinction but she does not suggest a literary debt.

Although the potential influence of Joycean linguistic experiments on The Dream Songs is rarely suggested, as with Ulysses, Berryman both read and taught Finnegans Wake. Although we unfortunately have no record of what he taught his students about the Wake, I think it likely that given Berryman’s own work on dreams and dreaming, which is obvious in the use of the word “dream” in the title of his book, he would have emphasised interpretations, which are now less common, of Joyce’s last book as being the dream of one character. (Joyce and Berryman were equally sceptical about Freudian dream-interpretation, but both were deeply interested in dreams themselves). Golden also notes another example of Joycean play: “Berryman included footnotes in Dream Song 245, “A Wake-Song,” adapting Joyce’s form (which includes marginalia, marginal glosses, and footnotes) in the “Night Lessons” chapter (Book II, chapter ii) of Finnegans Wake.”(23) Further, many of the sections written in Ireland display a knowledge of the themes of and sources for Finnegans Wake, such as “Dream Song 338,” which is sourced in the Annals of the Four Masters, while the Book of Kells appears in “Dream Song 119.” We could also draw parallels between Berryman’s Henry and Joyce’s HCE. Henry’s repeated falls and preoccupation with original sin reminds us of HCE’s experiences with falls of all kinds, as in the famous close of the poem, which invokes various ideas of fall: “Fall is grievy, brisk. Tears behind the eyes / almost fall. Fall comes to us as a prize / to rouse us toward our fate.”(24) The poem also has a whole section where Henry dies and is revived and where he is “extremely dead / but talkative,”(25) recalling HCE’s dead-and-alive status throughout the Wake.

Wakean Bodies and The Dream Songs

Although I do not believe that Henry is to be completely identified with Berryman as poet, the flawed and antiheroic Henry is presented as an artist in his own right, with a book of poems of his own; thus, Henry as poet is “the man who sits down to breakfast”(26) and far more, as Berryman refuses the heroic aspect of Yeats and even the heroic impersonality of Eliot in favour of Joycean anti-heroism and vulnerability. Henry as poet also refuses to keep his body and past out of his poems, while his presence in the poetry also seems to be sourced in Joyce. However, this time it is not Bloom, but Shem and his version of art in Finnegans Wake that provides a model; the portrait of Shem as writer is, of course, also a version of Joyce himself, much as Henry is a version of Berryman. Shem’s writing on his body and with his body, with his blood, excrement and urine, which is depicted in I.7, provides a model for Henry’s physical exposure. In I.7 we see Shem writing “over every square inch of the only foolscap available, his own body” (FW 185.35-6) using his own excrement, while at other moments we see him writing with his penis (as in II.1, where he writes with his “quillbone” [FW 229.30]); this physical exhibitionism is, we are told by the hostile Shaun, a natural continuation of Shem’s refusal of aesthetic impersonality, as he, like Henry, is always writing “inartistic portraits of himself” (182.19).

This combination of extreme physicality and the idea of a problematic relationship between the artistic self and the art work is mirrored in many Dream Songs as ink and blood also become identified, the equivalent of a personal bodily signature, as in “Dream Song 175” “Here’s all my blood in pawn”(27) and “Dream Song 221,” “I poured myself out thro’ my tips … Crimson is succeeded by black; it is a fact.”(28) This connection between writing and blood is further reflected in “Dream Song 74” in which “Henry stabbed his arm and wrote a letter | explaining how bad it had been in this world.”(29) Here the connective “and” makes stabbing and writing consecutive actions, suggesting that Henry may be writing in his own blood. In “Dream Song 221,” where Henry identifies with Renoir’s claim that he paints with his penis (as Shem does), the analogy between blood and ink becomes a movingly direct appeal to the reader and a self-reflexive apology for his aesthetic:

If the blood banged, as it must do, faint
with necessity, forgive it, please.(30)

These lines link the poem’s very rhythms, its stressed and unstressed syllables, with the human heartbeat, the poet’s suffering embodiment. A further connection between skin and paper is reflected in the allusion to the anguished words of the German poet Gottfried Benn in “Dream Song 53,” “We are using our own skins for wallpaper and we cannot win.”(31) This connection between skin and paper, as well as suggesting violence, emphasises the sensuous aspect of this painful aesthetic as the reader is metaphorically in touch with the writer’s body, for which the book forms a substitute, in a moment that is the antithesis of Eliotic impersonality. In “Dream Song 166,” physical strain and creativity are emphatically linked, as writing strains and destroys the body:

He strained his eyes, his brain, his nervous system,
for a beginning; cracked an ankle & arm;
it cannot well be denied
that nearly all the rest of him came to harm
too… only his ears sat with his theme
in the splices of his pride.(32)

However, the corollary of this overextension and destruction of the body is creativity.

In these moments poetry is figured as a physical exposure, in a radical refusal of Eliotic impersonality; however, critics of Berryman generally call such moments “confessional,” which is not a word we often use of the Shem-the-Penman chapter of Finnegans Wake. Not that I’m suggesting that we should start doing so; instead I feel that Berryman criticism could borrow some subtlety from Joyce criticism, just as Berryman borrowed some of his own subtler blurrings of art and life from the influence of his masters, Yeats and Joyce.

1 Philip Coleman (ed.), Berryman’s Fate: A Centenary Celebration in Verse (Dublin: Arlen House, 2014).
2 See, for example, Charles Thornbury, “John Berryman and the ‘Majestic Shade’ of W. B. Yeats,” in Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies 3 (1985), 121-172, and Philip Coleman, “‘The Politics of Praise’: John Berryman’s Engagement with W. B. Yeats,” in Etudes Irlandaises 28.2 (2003), 11-27.
3 W.B. Yeats, “A General Introduction for My Work,” in Essays and Introductions (London and New York: Macmillan, 1961), 509.
4 T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in The Sacred Wood (London: Methuen, 1920), 48.
5 Vivien Igoe, “Early Joyceans in Dublin,” in Joyce Studies Annual 12 (2001), 81-99.
6 John Berryman, “Dream Song 281 (The Following Gulls),” in The Dream Songs (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 303.
7 “Dream Song 312,” in ibid., 334.
8 “Dream Song 313,” in ibid., 335.
9 “Dream Song 334,” in ibid., 356.
10 “Dream Song 290,” in ibid., 312, and “Dream Song 377,” in ibid., 399.
11 “Dream Song 288,” in ibid. 310.
12 Amanda Golden, “John Berryman at Midcentury: Annotating Ezra Pound and Teaching Modernism,” in Modernism/modernity 21.2 (2014), 519.
13 John Berryman, “The Imaginary Jew,” Horizon (October 1947), 124-131.
14 “Dream Song 288,” in Berryman 2007, 310.
15 “Dream Song 29,” in ibid., 33.
16 “Dream Song 299,” in ibid., 321.
17 “Dream Song 221,” in ibid., 240.
18 “Dream Song 20,” in ibid., 22.
19 “Dream Song 142,” in ibid., 159.
20 “Dream Song 339,” in ibid., 361.
21 Louise Bogan, “77 Dream Songs by John Berryman,” in The New Yorker (November 7, 1964), 242.
22 Ibid.
23 Golden 522.
24 “Dream Song 385,” in Berryman 2007, 407.
25 “Dream Song 295,” in ibid., 317.
26 Yeats 1961, 509.
27 Berryman 2007, 194.
28 Berryman 2007, 240.
29 Berryman 2007, 81.
30 Berryman 2007, 240.
31 Berryman 2007, 60.
32 Berryman 2007, 185.