Dream Song 14
by John Berryman
Analysis: Form and Meter
Reading "Dream Song 14" for the first time, you might have had moments where you thought there was some kind of form or pattern at work—and then the feeling faded and you were left with an invisible dog. Well, in the words of the great Jedi master, "Trust your feelings."
The Long and Short of a Sestet
Berryman is certainly working with a form in this one, and it's the same form he uses for pretty much all of his "Dream Songs." But it isn't a traditional form that's easy to smack a label on. The first thing you'll notice is that the eighteen lines of the poem are broken into three, six-line stanzas, known as "sestets."
Now can you see a pattern in the line lengths within each stanza? The long lines and short lines alternate in a particular way: long, long, short, long, long, short. Way to trust your form-findin' instincts, poetry killah! But what effect does this alternation of long and short lines have on our experience of this piece?
Well, the contrast between the long and short lines seems to draw the reader's attention to important moments in the poem. The short lines stand out from the longer lines around them. And there's all that white space at the end of 'em to leave the reader alone with the words for a moment longer.
So, Berryman wanted to emphasize lines like, "we ourselves flash and yearn," and "Peoples bore me." These are, indeed, crucial moments for developing the poem's central themes; they relate the speaker's boredom with his (visually striking) environment to how tedious he finds people, including himself—'cause it's all the same when you're suffering from a serious case of ennui (if you're not familiar with this word, it's a lovely French-derived term for world-weariness).
Stressed Out and Bored
As in the other "Dream Songs," Berryman uses the following metrical pattern here: the long lines are in pentameter and the short lines are in trimeter. This means that the long lines have five stressed syllables, while the short lines have three stressed syllables. Stressed syllables are the foot-thwappin' soul of metrical feet —the DUM in your dadaDUM.
Keep in mind, though, that metrical "rules" are meant to be broken. While the first five lines of this poem stick to the pattern (five feet, five feet, three feet, five feet, five feet), line 6 has only two feet: "means you have no." So what's up with the missing foot?
We think the metrical irregularity here—and elsewhere in the poem (e.g., line 14)—heightens the reader's sense that things are kinda off, you know? Just a little not quite right, the way you often feel about your surroundings and what's happening to you in your dreams. (Like, one minute you're wearing a clown suit, the next minute you're in your birthday suit, and you're like, "Hey, wha happened?")
Now, on to the rhyme scheme. There are a few straight-up rhymes in the poem, such as "so"/"no" and "drag"/"wag." There are also some imperfect or slant rhymes, including "me"/"achilles." So, like Berryman's metrical play, his use of rhyme in this piece further contributes to the poem's dream-like shiftiness. Sometimes you find yourself expecting a rhyme, but you don't get one. Sometimes you find yourself expecting dogs not to just up and disappear into the sky or whatever, but then—BAM! This is Berryman's Dreamland, and he'll do what he wants.