‘The Care & Feeding of Long Poems’

  • John Haffenden


Early in his work on The Dream Songs, Berryman wondered whether to provide them with an ‘argument’ in the classical sense, or else to borrow the attitude of Juan Maria Cecchi (1518–89), ‘who in La Dote refused to tell the Argument “since men today are so intelligent that they understand without having so many arguments beforehand” ’.1 If Berryman had employed Cecchi’s policy, it would have been in a spirit of self-defensive irony combined with sarcasm. Problems of form and structure in The Dream Songs have vexed all Berryman’s critics, not least because of his self-declarations in a number of interviews, such as: ‘I was aware that I was embarked on an epic.’ 2 No extended study of Berryman’s work has been able to avoid the question, mainly because of the poet’s insistence that The Dream Songs must be taken as one poem, not as an accumulation of lyrics with certain features of diction or theme in common. The fact that Berryman has taken pains to divide the Songs into seven books of unequal length, in the midst of which—the fourth book—the hero of the work is dead, arouses expectations of clearly discernible narrative or, at least, that each book might be, as Berryman put it provocatively, ‘rather well unified, as a matter of fact’.3 In the same place, he declared:


Moral Responsibility Critical Commentary Narrative Structure Black Book Divine Comedy 
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© John Haffenden 1980

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  • John Haffenden

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