Jerry Williams
Murder or Suicide in the Father Poems of John Berryman's Dream Songs

        In 1947, when he was thirty-three years old, the poet John Berryman embarked upon a course of action that would literally transform his writing style: He attended intensive weekly therapy sessions with Dr. James Shea, a New York City Freudian psychiatrist. This significant and instructive relationship continued unabated for nearly seven years, tapering off when Berryman approached the age of forty and realized he was capable of a competent enough self-analysis (Mariani 198). The effect psychoanalysis had on his writing is undeniable. In his first three books—Poems (1942), The Dispossessed (1948), and Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1953)—he had emulated the detached, formal, and cerebral methodology of New Critical poet-professors such as John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. Subsequently, the therapy experience opened his eyes to the possibility of dream interpretation and, as a result, he filled notebook after notebook with unfettered explication of his own dreams—as well as his persistent nightmares (Mariani 249). By the late 1950s, John Berryman had jettisoned the tightly controlled, utterly metrical, symbolic lyricism of his earlier poetry and replaced it with the Dream Song: a free-flowing, loosely iambic, and occasionally rhymed über-poem consisting of three six-line stanzas with each line varying in the number of syllabic feet it contained (usually between three and five). Collected in two separate volumes—77 Dream Songs (1964) and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968)—the three-hundred and eighty-five total compositions represent not individual poems as such but sections of a long poem based on Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" ("Art" 191). Likewise, the work bears a strong resemblance to the most ambitious undertakings of high modernism: T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, William Carlos Williams' Paterson, Ezra Pound's Cantos, and Hart Crane's The Bridge.

        In the explicit words of critic Helen Vendler, the Dream Songs themselves are possessed of

                baby-talk, childish spite-talk, black talk, Indian talk, Scottish talk, lower-
                class talk, drunk-talk, archaism and anachronism, megalomaniacal self-
                aggrandizing images, hysteria and hallucination, spell-casting, 
                superstition, paranoid suspiciousness, slang, and primitive syntactic 
                structures of all sorts—sentence fragments, incorrect grammar, babble, 
                and so on. (41)

Clearly, Berryman is engaged in the admirable pursuit of melding high and low diction and thought, of combining rigid discipline with dangerous lust. Though the poems often elicit a righteous belly laugh, they remain steeped in melancholy and pain. Thus, Edward Mendelson contends, in his originative essay, "How to Read Berryman's Dream Songs," that what the author "wants from his readers is their critical approval despite their personal disapproval, their assent despite their awareness of what they are assenting to" (66). Additionally, a conspicuous foreword to the second volume, written by Berryman himself, answers many critics' and readers' nagging inquiries regarding the plot of the Dream Songs. He maintains that the poems are

                essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named 
                Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who 
                has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the 
                first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has 
                a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr. Bones and variants 
                thereof. (His Toy iv)

Aside from the professed though questionable distinction between the author of the poems and their incorrigible persona, the key concept in this passage is embodied in the phrase "irreversible loss." Several critics—among them Helen Vendler, Edward Mendelson, J. M. Linebarger, John Haffenden, and others—reason that the statement refers to the suicide of Berryman's and/or Henry's father. Abundant documentation exists to support this important conjecture, and it is an assumption most, if not all, readers make from the very beginning.

        Biographically speaking, John Allyn Smith, the poet's father, shot himself in the left chest on the morning of June 26th, 1926, the very day on which he was scheduled to finalize an unwanted divorce from his wife Martha. He died instantly. The Smith family—John, Martha, and their two children, John and Robert (ages twelve and six)—had recently relocated from Oklahoma to Florida. Times were difficult financially, and the pressure was mounting. On the night before his death, Smith argued violently with his wife and her new admirer, John Angus Berryman. Smith's own mistress, a Cuban woman, had absconded with whatever money she could extract from him and returned to her homeland. Crestfallen, he allegedly stood on the back porch of the family home and shot himself in the heart with a .32-caliber revolver. He was thirty-nine years old (Haffenden 28). In his discerning profile, Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman, Paul Mariani comes to the following conclusions: Due to a Depression-era land bust, suicide had become a common occurrence in the state of Florida, so the Tampa police decided not to pursue the potentiality of murder in the death of John Allyn Smith, even though the gun belonged to the deceased's wife; even though the note found on his dresser some time later suggested he was suffering from a bout of insomnia and merely needed to take a walk; and even though no powder burns appeared on his chest, a patently impossible result in the case of a self-inflicted gunshot wound (12). In any event, why would a suicide choose to shoot himself in the chest and not in the head or the mouth, especially when using a smaller caliber weapon such as a .32? Shortly after transporting the body of her husband back to Oklahoma for burial, Martha Smith married the much older John Angus Berryman and moved to New York with her two children, who promptly took the surname of their mysterious stepfather.

        Until the end of her days, the poet's mother insisted, rather incredulously, that her husband's suicide was an accident, that she had removed—and disposed of—all but one of the bullets from her gun, and when Smith shot himself he had simply lost track of which chamber contained the single bullet and inadvertently fired the perfect kill-shot right through his own heart (We Dream 377). "Such a man," Martha Berryman wrote to her son on November 24th, 1970, "out of overweening self pride, if he were a leper, say, might set out to ruin the world, but not himself, never himself" (379). And this opprobrium after nearly fifty years had passed! In his guilt-ridden response, John Berryman let his mother off the hook once and for all, urging her to "please just forget it" (380). He wanted no part of any accusation that she was responsible for the death of his biological father, although his experience in psychoanalysis had led him to that very consideration (Mariani 298). While the evidence suggests that John Allyn Smith could well have been the victim of wrongdoing, Berryman never reaches this conclusion in his Dream Songs; his suspicion never surfaces, despite the poem's acknowledged goal of coming to terms with "irreversible loss." A closer reading of the father poems in 77 Dream Songs and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest—volumes that garnered Berryman the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award respectively—reveals a deflected but no less anguished emotional response to this tragedy.

        In Dream Song 42, the speaker, Henry, addresses his father's nomadic spirit directly: "O journeyer, deaf in the mould, insane / with violent travel & death: consider me / in my cast, your first son" (77 Dream 46). Look at what you have done to me, these distressed opening lines seem to be saying. As father and son, we have been fixed by a specific, inescapable fate. Simple consideration is all that Henry demands, for the offspring of the self-murderer will always believe himself abandoned and adrift. His psychic fate hardens into a physical "mould." If the parent is not present to cut the umbilical cord of memory with the knife of new experience, new association, then what survives is the frayed flesh of unknowing resentment. In the second stanza, Berryman fuses his own history with that of the speaker and reveals his true feelings: Forced to spend his whole life attempting to "remercy [the father] / for hurling [him] downtown," the son can now merely "get along" (46). Throughout the exhaustively researched and colorfully written biography The Life of John Berryman, John Haffenden attests to the fact that the poet claimed his father's suicide had permanently blocked his development, and it was concern over the possible side-effects that attracted him to psychotherapy in the first place (33). Ultimately, however, that dead body on the back porch must "flop, there, to his blind song / who picked up the tab" (77 Dream 46). Berryman wants the spirit of his father to know that the bill he left behind is being paid off, day by day, in a poet's affliction.

        Dream Song 143 recounts the tale of John Allyn Smith's suicide in fairly straightforward language. During the days leading up to his death, when he began toting the "pistol" around, his wife and children suffered "gross fears [. . .] along the beaches" of Florida (His Toy 70). As with any individual who exhibits suicidal tendencies, there always exists the possibility that he might take a few people with him on his journey to the other side. In this case, the speaker's "mother was scared almost to death" that her husband might drown the children "in the phosphorescent Gulf" of Mexico (70). It hardly matters whether Henry or Berryman, in the final stanza, proclaims that the drive back to Oklahoma to inter the father's body next to his brother Will "wiped out [his] childhood" (70). The emotional response to that ruination is crystalline: "I put him down / while all the same on forty years I love him [. . .] I repeat: I love him until I fall into a coma" (70). Gone is the subtle resentment of Dream Song 42; gone is the self-pity and despair. In this poem, the son walks confidently down the path to healing, forgiving his father as best he can. In neither of these two Dream Songs does John Berryman ever question the modus operandi of his father's death. Self-slaughter is definitely the interpretation of choice.

        In the terrifying Dream Song 235, Henry equates the violent suicide of Ernest Hemingway with his own father's suicide, utilizing the crafty distancing device of referring to himself in the third person to avoid at least a fraction of the pain:

                Tears Henry shed for poor old Hemingway
                Hemingway in despair, Hemingway at the end,
                the end of Hemingway,
                tears in a diningroom in Indiana
                and that was years ago, before his marriage say,
                God to him no worse luck send. (His Toy 164)

The repetitious and tortured syntax discloses not only Henry's empathetic reaction to the great man's demise but also a grave concern for his own mortality. "Save us from shotguns & fathers' suicides," he goes on to say (164). According to J. M. Linebarger, Hemingway's father had also killed himself, and the writer's mother, "strangely and horribly," mailed the Nobel Prize-winning author the suicide gun with which he would later take his own life (116). In contrast, Berryman's mother ended up with the .32-caliber revolver her husband had used to kill himself, and for years Berryman pleaded with her to send him the gun, but she refused (Linebarger 116). Was she protecting him from making the same sort of symbolic gesture that Ernest Hemingway had made, that all sons are predisposed to make in the presence of their fathers (living or dead)? Perhaps the poet accepted the mortal necessity of his mother's guardianship and returned to the safety of his earlier resentment toward his father, the absent parent. The last lines of Dream Song 235—"Mercy! my father; do not pull the trigger / or all my life I'll suffer from your anger / killing what you began"—remind us of his previous misconceptions (His Toy 164). Frequently, the path to healing becomes impassable for good reason. Which calamity would be easier to cope with: that one's father committed suicide or that one's mother had murdered her own husband?

        In the penultimate Dream Song, 384, Berryman finalizes Henry's bitter attitude concerning his father's death. Rising above the neglected tombstone, longing to annul his grief and anger with indifference, Henry tries spitting on the grave, to no avail. Having made no progress in dealing with the misfortune, he insults his father for not visiting him and for "[shooting] his heart out in a Florida dawn" (His Toy 316). At poem's end, the speaker verges on a gleeful, murderous madness:

                I'd like to scrabble till I got right down
                away down under the grass
                and ax the casket open ha to see
                just how he's taking it, which he sought so hard
                we'll tear apart
                the mouldering grave clothes ha & then Henry
                will heft the ax once more, his final card,
                and fell it on the start. (316)

Some might argue that Henry's objective here is to exhume his father's corpse in order to kill him a second time, to kill the pain. Others might suggest that Henry's concluding physical deed successfully purges him of a preoccupation with his father's suicide. Or perhaps a riskier proposition exists: Berryman has confessed to his fear of facing the truth about possible criminal activity that took place on that warm June morning in 1926. In the final moment of exposure and enlightenment, the hefting of the figurative ax, the poet suddenly switches to the third person, and Henry, the narrator's "beard," does the hacking. As long as Henry walks point on this tragedy, Berryman never has to confront his mother about her involvement—or his stepfather's involvement—in the death of John Allyn Smith.

        Despite the noble efforts of biographers, we will probably never know for certain how John Berryman's father died. But one thing we do know: Any doubt the poet harbored about it being suicide never made its way into the Dream Songs. Aesthetically, this is a blessing. A verdict of murder offers closure, finality, and unclouded blame; suicide remains open-ended, enigmatic, unnerving, and romantic—the exact characteristics a poet requires. Closure is an overrated illusion. Furthermore, if Berryman had solved the mystery (at least in his own mind), if his psychotherapy sessions with Dr. Shea had proved more beneficial (in a curative sense), Berryman might have lost his appetite for poetry altogether. He might have decided to practice law or sell shoes or keep bees. In a 1972 Paris Review interview, he uttered these unforgettable words: "The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. I hope to be nearly crucified" ("Art" 207). Not knowing whether his father committed suicide or died at the hands of his mother or step-father was Berryman's ordeal—one of them anyway.

Works Cited

Berryman, John. "The Art of Poetry: Interview with John Berryman." Paris Review 53

(Winter 1972): 177-207.

———. His Toy, His Dream, His Rest. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968.

———. 77 Dream Songs. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1964.

———. We Dream of Honour: John Berryman's Letters to His Mother. Ed. Richard J.


New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1988.

Haffenden, John. The Life of John Berryman. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.

Linebarger, J. M. John Berryman. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1974.

Mariani, Paul. Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman. New York: William Morrow

and Company, Inc., 1990.

Mendelson, Edward. "How to Read Berryman's Dream Songs." John Berryman. Ed.

Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.

Vendler, Helen. The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge,

Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995.