Study Guide

Dream Song 14 Introduction

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Dream Song 14 Introduction

Shall we play a game? No. Not that game. Try this: We'll provide you with a word and you say the first thing that pops into your head. Okay? Here we go. Poetry.

Shmoop bets you said "boring," or, perhaps, something profane. Now here's the silver lining. If you did say "boring," "yawn," or "that's a real snooze!" then you have something in common with the speaker of John Berryman's poem, "Dream Song 14." In this poem, the speaker catalogs everything that bores the socks off of him, from great literature to gin to… himself.

"Dream Song 14" is part of Berryman's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1964 book, 77 Dream Songs. But the Dream Songs didn't stop there. (Someone at one of Berryman's live readings must have been screaming, "Please don't stop the music!") Berryman continued writing "Dream Songs" until they numbered close to four hundred. That's a lot of songs. About dreams.

Now, the "Dream Songs" do function individually. Some were published on their own. But Berryman intended for them to be part of one long sequence. So, ultimately, they were all published together as The Dream Songs in 1969. (We recommend you sit down with a few gallons of coffee to get through this formidable tome.)

For the most part, the "Dream Songs" are told in the voice of Henry. Excitable, even deranged at times, Henry mirrors Berryman. But Berryman insisted the speaker was not actually himself, stating, "Henry does resemble me, and I resemble Henry; but on the other hand I am not Henry". The great thing about poetry is that there's a lot of room for plausible deniability. Like, "What do you mean that dude seems a lot like me? He's a character. In a poem."

Sadly, Berryman struggled throughout his life to cope with his father's suicide, which he witnessed as a boy. Like many great artists, he suffered from alcoholism and depression. In 1972, John Berryman stopped fighting the good fight and took his own life at the age of fifty-seven. We wish he'd stuck around to keep on dreamin' on, because his poems are some of the best of his generation.

What is Dream Song 14 About and Why Should I Care?

Because dreams.

We all have them. And we're not talking about those dreams where you win The Voice and move in next door to Justin Bieber. We're talking about the kind where you wake up in the morning with a few scraps of dialogue and images still floating around in your head that might be thrilling, confusing, or even disturbing. Have you ever tried to make sense of one of your dreams? It's kinda hard, isn't it? I suppose you could try raising Carl Jung from the dead or calling your handy dandy psychologist. Or, you could try telling a friend about the dream and asking for her interpration. But your retelling of your sleepytime escapades will probably go something like this:

Well, there was this—thing. It was a bird, I guess—at least in the dream I knew it was a bird but it looked like my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Green. Anyway, I went up to it but then it was gone and I was someplace else and all the stores were filled with water, or maybe it was snowing… I mean, I think that was the next part. So the… Hey, where are you going? Come back!

The point is this: dreams don't always make sense. At least not the kind of sense that our everyday lives do. They're fractured, non-linear, and they don't follow the rules of waking communication and visual representation. When we try to describe dreams using traditional descriptive terms, then, we can get a little mixed up.

Good thing there's a special system for recording dreams that makes them accessible (um, maybe) and interesting for other people! It is a system that, like dreams, doesn't follow all the rules of everyday talk or writing. The name for this system is… wait for itpoetry.

The all-over-the-placeness of Berryman's Dream Songs couldn't have been captured in straight-up prose. Poetry allowed him to express himself, piecemeal, line by (increasingly strange) line. Don't believe us that poetry is a great way to describe your dreams? You might try writing down a few lines the next time you wake up from a particularly vivid dream. Just record what you remember in a few sentences or even a simple list of words.

When you go back and look at what you wrote, you might be inspired to write a little more. This process could lead you to write a whole poem. Or maybe a whole book of poems. Heck, you could end up being a famous writer with a section devoted to your work right here at Shmoop. (C'mon, don't forget about us when you get all big and famous.)

Dream Song 14 Resources


A Bummer Bio
Berryman achieved some great successes as a poet and writer, but he also suffered some tragic failures and hardships in his personal life. Here's a good biography that chronicles the highs and the lows.

The World According to J.B.
Berryman was always good for a quote, but sometimes they seem more like riddles. See what you think.


"Dream Song 14" (take 1)
Here's a video of the man himself from 1967 reading #14.

Berryman Explains Henry (sort of)
Here's an excerpt from a 1967 interview with Berryman where he goes into some detail about how the character Henry functions in the Songs.

Berryman Uncut
What's that? You want even more Berryman interview footage? You asked for it. Here's a link to a full interview from 1970 (6 parts in all). Things really get underway at around the 3.15 mark. Feel free to skip ahead. Enjoy. (Warning: Things get progressively smokier and more slurred as the interview progresses.)


"Dream Song 14" (take 2)
Here's "Dream Song 14" read by Irish poet Paul Muldoon. Which do you prefer, Muldoon's reading or Berryman's (see take 1)? Why?


Berryman Near the End
Here's a picture of Berryman late in his life, and also a picture of his gravesite.

Berryman in his Element
Scroll down for a picture of Berryman holding court in a bar.

Articles and Interviews

The Paris Review Interview
Here's Berryman in a 1970 interview from The Paris Review. TPR is known for its insightful interviews with literary-types and this one by Peter Stitt doesn't disappoint.

More on #14
Here's an article (short and sweet) by Jana Prikryl from The Paris Review.


77 Dream Songs
This is the book that won Berryman his Pulitzer Prize (kind of like an Oscar or Grammy for literary types).

One Dream Song not enough? How about 385?
Click here to check out Berryman's collection of Dream Songs. Be sure to click the cover to browse through the book.

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