Dream Song 14
by John Berryman
When you read "Dream Song 14," you might think these lines sound more like a conversation with a friend who's griping about being bored than a poem. Like, it gets a little poem-y at the end with the vanishing dog, but most of the speaker's language is conversational. His vocabulary and the fact that he is acquainted with great literature and figures from mythology give us the impression that he's literate. Well-educated, even.
Boring Ol' Berryman?
But, overall, the speaker sounds like a regular Joe Shmoe. His mom hassles him about stuff. He's bored by literary classics. All in all, a pretty standard dude. But there's more to this speaker than his general dislike of art, culture, and his fellow human beings.
Remember, "Dream Song 14" is just one of the nearly four hundred "Dream Songs" Berryman wrote. These poems tell the story of a central character, Henry. And, in "Dream Song 14," he's also the first person narrator of the poem; Henry is the "I" we see in Berryman's lines.
Of course, it is always important not to confuse the speaker of the poem with the poet, and Berryman was particularly concerned with separating himself from Henry. He insisted over and over again that, despite similarities between himself and Henry, Henry was just an imaginary character.
That said, Berryman had a hard time convincing people that he was not Henry. He was quoted in interviews saying things like, "Henry is accused of being me and I am accused of being Henry and I deny it and nobody believes me." Still, there is always some of the artist in the art. So, Shmoop sides with D.H. Lawrence on this one: "Never trust the teller, trust the tale."
Who's Talking Now?
At this point, you might be thinking: Hey! What about that part where the speaker says, "Henry bores me?" The "I" in the poem can't be Henry. Right?
Good eye, Shmoopers. You picked up on an important detail. But here's the thing. If you read more of Berryman's "Dream Songs," you'll find that Henry has the annoying habit of talking about himself in the third person. Why? Well, Mr. Berryman breaks it down for ya in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 2nd Edition:
[The Dream Songs are] essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age […] who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second.
So, when Henry refers to himself in the third person, it's an important moment in the poem. If Henry is the speaker and he's saying, "Henry bores me," he's really emphasizing how bored he is with himself. By referring to himself with his first name, Henry makes himself seem just like any other thing, in a long list of things the speaker is bored with. And, since Berryman is the writer and Henry is his creation, we wonder if Berryman is saying here that even his own art—like, "Dream Song 14"—bores him. We're sorry to hear that, Mr. Berryman, because we think this poem is pretty spiffy.