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Intro

In A Nutshell

What makes you feel better when you're really down in the dumps? Ice cream? Sure, that always helps. But let's look beyond the dairy products for a second. How about finding someone that's even worse off than you are? Come on, admit it. We're not saying it makes you a good person; we're just saying it helps. In fact, that plus a scoop of Rocky Road and you just might find you're whistling a happy tune again.

If you happen to be feeling a little down right now, grab yourself a cone and pick up John Berryman's "Dream Song 29." Suddenly your problems won't seem so big. In just three short stanzas, Berryman describes the crushing sadness and guilt that plague Berryman's alter-ego, a character named Henry. After a couple licks and a stanza or two, you'll be smiling and saying to yourself, "Well, at least I'm not Henry!"

"Dream Song 29" is one of Berryman's most anthologized poems. It was part of his 1964 Pulitzer Prize winning book, 77 Dream Songs, and contains lots of the elements that the Songs are famous for: sadness, guilt, and a guy named Henry.

Even after the book was published, Berryman kept writing more songs and eventually ended up with close to 400. The songs function individually, and some were published on their own, but Berryman intended them to be part of one long sequence. Ultimately, they were all published together as The Dream Songs in 1969.

If you read a few of these dream songs, you can get an idea of why Berryman kept using the title over and over. Most of them leave you with that weird sense of floating somewhere between reality and the surreal world of imagination—like the way dreams feel.

The Dream Songs also follow a pretty strict structure, so certain patterns start to feel familiar, kind of like the way a song always returns to a chorus. Berryman relies on a regular structure and how words sound together to give the poems a song-y feel. But remember, they're dream songs. Don't expect them to sound like real songs. You certainly can't dance to them.

Berryman insisted the speaker of the songs was Henry and not himself stating, "Henry does resemble me, and I resemble Henry; but on the other hand I am not Henry." Whatever the case may be, there is no doubt Henry mirrors Berryman.

And that's not such a great thing for Berryman, biographically. He struggled throughout his life to cope with his father's suicide (which he witnessed as a boy) and suffered from alcoholism and depression. Henry seems to struggle with some of the same issues. John Berryman ended up taking his own life in 1972 at the age of 57. He is considered by many to be among the founding figures of confessional poetry.

 

Why Should I Care?

Love it or hate it, reality television is just about inescapable these days. And reality T.V. wouldn't be the same without the ubiquitous confessional. Whether it's Jersey Shore or Project Runway, there have to be those scenes of someone talking earnestly (or, perhaps, tearfully) into the camera, spilling it all for our guilty pleasure. Well, what would you say if Shmoop told you those juicy confessionals, and, maybe reality T.V. itself, may never have come into existence without poets like John Berryman and poems like "Dream Song 29"? You'd probably say Shmoop had spent too much time at the ice-cream bar and it's just the sugar talking. You're not wrong. But let us explain.

Berryman is part of a group known as the confessional poets. In the late 1950s and 1960s, poets like Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell started writing poetry that focused on very personal feelings and anxieties, often dealing with life and relationships. You're probably thinking, "Duh, Shmoop. That's basically the definition of poetry." Well, it might be now, but before these folks started doing it, it wasn't. Poetry often dealt with personal feelings in more universal and general ways, distancing the poet from the observations and the feelings. And until the Confessionals came along, subjects like depression and psychological anxieties were not often discussed directly in American poetry.

In a sense, the confessional poets turned their pens on themselves, making themselves and their psyches the subject of their art, thus allowing future generations to turn the cameras on themselves in tiny rooms to talk about how much they hate their roommates. Thanks?

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