Berryman's Henry: Living at the Intersection of Need and Art

By Samuel Fisher Dodson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
HENRY’S UNEASY REST

In his 1969 acceptance speech for the National Book Award for Poetry, Berryman explained the aim of The Dream Songs as “the reproduction or invention of the motions of a human personality, free and determined….”394 The contradiction of “free” and “determined” is the unstable reconciliation of the modern desire to believe human thought is original and autonomous and the fear that determining forces (religion, id/ego/superego, DNA, environment) shape that thought and one’s subsequent destiny. This reconciliation is often hostile and plastic. Berryman noted in 1970, “Henry to some extent was in the situation that we are all in in actual life—namely, he didn’t know and I don’t know what the bloody fucking hell was going to happen next.”395 Over the length of the poem, Henry has become as complex, realistic, inconsistent, and vulnerable as any person one meets on the street. This fusion of Berryman’s will and Henry’s personality with the chaos of life’s chance direction creates a persona who is deeply missed when his song is over. Similar to the reader’s reaction to leaving the main character in a psychological novel, Henry’s Songs have created so striking a character that he assumes a reality beyond the page. Henry has provided the reader with excitement, clever word play, honest wrestling with mortality, and ultimately, guidance in this tricky modern world.

As a literary character, Henry has earned his place in the American poetic consciousness. Malachy Walsh writes,

It is a mistake to identify personality with character. Character is an
attribute of human essence: it is permanent, underlies the substance
of action; and it is both intense and definitive. A man has character
but he puts on a personality. Where character is the structure of the
self, personality is the ability to reveal the self in all its many facets.

394 John Berryman, National Book Award Acceptance Speech, National Book Foundation, 1969.

395Paris Review, 191.

-145-

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