John Berryman envisioned his Dream Songs poems to wed “gravity of matter” and “gaiety of manner.” It’s apparently in his notebooks, but I only came across it when I read David Wojahn’s essay on Berryman. I originally just wanted to quote the passage, but this has become a surprising bit of self-examination of my own poetic project at this point in time.
Anyway, Wojahn didn’t write it though, as he quotes from Paul Mariani’s Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman. Mariani, of course, quotes from Berryman himself, and to further the cycle here I am quoting the entire passage Wojahn quoted from Mariani who quoted Berryman himself:
In a note written late in  he considered the form of the new poems. Like his earlier Nervous Songs, the Dream Songs would use the three 6-line rhyming stanzas, though he wanted them to be “much ‘rougher’ and more ‘brilliant’” than anything he’d yet done; he wanted a coarse demotic language to fit into the music of the poem without calling too much attention to itself. And he wanted the poem to deal with the human condition, but channeled through the life of one man. Each poem would have at least “one stroke of some damned serious humor.” He wanted a “gravity of matter,” but he wanted it wedded to a “gaiety of manner.” He would avoid sentimentality at all costs, letting the poems arise naturally out of the situations in the poems themselves . . . He would also mean to get all the sexual longing and lust into his poems he could. . . . He would begin the sequence with memories of his childhood and end with a poem about his daughter, when that event should finally happen. He would use the old iambic norm, but jazz it up and make it freer, mixing it with “rocking meter, anapests, spondees, iambs, trochees, dactyls” until he drove the prosodists “right out of their heads” with his weird riffs and sweet new music. He would rely on Christian symbols to gird the sequence, though he meant Henry to be closer to the picaresque hero in Apuleius’ Golden Ass than to Christ. He would leave the door ajar on the off-chance that some change of heart might yet someday visit Henry.”
Confusingly, I did a Google search to read more of this from Berryman’s own words, but I turned up a possible reference Berryman drew from: a piece of criticism from 1917 about a Spanish nationalist writer named Juan Valera. It’s available online and begins with the following assertion:
In this work of Juan Valera we find that complete synthesis of gravity of matter and gaiety of manner which is the glittering crown of art, and which out of Spanish literature is to be found only in Shakespeare, and even in him in a far less obvious degree.
It’s a provocative statement, interesting for its championing of a less canonical author as well as how it develops its argument based on the link between religion as passion and the artistic temperament. It’s no surprise that the second sentence champions Dante before going back to Valera.
The link to Berryman has to do with that poet’s views on religion. I’ve always gotten the impression, given the almost trashy sexuality on display in The Dream Songs, that Berryman wasn’t religious at all. Turns out I was completely wrong, given his rather complicated response to the question of religion’s rôle in his poetry in this interview. He claims to “have been interested not only in religion but in theology all [his] life” and ends with the following description of his religious beliefs, equal parts provocative and devout:
I am deeply interested in Christ, but I never pray to him. I don’t know whether he was in any special sense the son of God, and I think it is quite impossible to know. He certainly was the most remarkable man who ever lived. But I don’t consider myself a Christian. I do consider myself a Catholic, but I’d just as soon go to an Episcopalian church as a Catholic church. I do go to Mass every Sunday.
There are so many parallels going on here with my own work. Not only is religion a site of agon in my life and my work, I’m also very interested in the kind of aesthetic Berryman aims for when he takes that “gravity of matter” and “gaiety of manner” and works toward their union. I’m trying to do the same thing, which is why I’ve been so drawn to Berryman lately.
And speaking of influence, here’s a great blog entry that discusses poetic influence in Gerald Manley Hopkins, John Berryman, and Kevin Young (who has edited a collection of Berryman for the Library of America). I’m already trying to get under the skin of the poems of Hopkins and Berryman, and I think I should check out Kevin Young, too.