Two mystery messages arrived in my university inbox today, passed on via two of my close friends studying languages at Clare. They read:
Dear friends, This is a collective, constructive, and hopefully uplifting exchange. It’s a one-time thing and we hope you will participate. We have picked those we think would be willing and make it fun. Please send a poem to the person whose name is in position 1 below (even if you don’t know them). It should be a favourite text/verse/meditation that has affected you in difficult times. Don’t agonize over it.
I thought of Dream Song 14 almost immediately. Well, after trying to remember the title for half an hour, and emailing my Dad with the subject line (‘Poem about boredom with a dog in it?!). After all, it was Prof JB (Dad) who had introduced me to the poem in the first place, in a conversation that went like this:
Me (Age, 14) : I’m BORED
My Dad (as wise as time itself) :
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
Me: (Unfazed by such dramatic and unsolicited literary interventions)
I went to look up the poem, by John Berryman, and read it several times.
I liked it a lot. Life is boring, a lot of the time, in spite of the passionate burnings of Great Literature and Valiant Art. A alien visitor from a far away planet would be forgiven for believing Earth to be a place of endless yearning, romance, and epiphany, based on a brief skirmish with our plays, books, artworks and desires; and in the intensity of one’s own moments of ardour, it’s hard to imagine that the heart and hormones will ever settle down again.
For a poet to remind us that life is boring is doubly sacrilegious. A poet is often presented as a super-human figure, whose work and self transcend the ordinary day-to-day to act as a medium for all human sensibilities and sufferings: think Ronsard positioning himself not just as a flawed, horny old man, but an eternal lover for the ages. ‘To be a poet is a condition, not a profession.’ wrote Robert Graves in Horizon magazine. And yet here is old John Berryman telling us that not only is life generally a bit dull, but that he – a poet no less – is ‘heavy bored’ too. Where’s the magic? Where’s the mystery? Like Toto in the Wizard of Oz, he’s pushed over the screen, and revealed the Wonderful Wizard to be nothing more than an ordinary man.
It’s not, however, an entirely pessimistic vision of the world, as the playful third stanza reveals: even though the ‘tranquil hills, & gin’, are ‘a drag’, the reader can enjoy the simple pleasure of the picture of a dog, who takes himself and his tail away. The broken syntax of the last lines ‘leaving / behind : me, wag’ has no clear meaning, but listening to Berryman read, it seems sounds almost like an encouragement – wag, run off. I picked this up because the verb form of ‘wag’ is otherwise not linked to a subject. Perhaps it’s deliberately ambiguous, to create an engagement between the reader and poem. In the previous stanzas, we have temporarily set aside the ‘plights and gripes’ that make up a good deal of literary work, and so perhaps we ought to set aside a conventional literary criticism here too.
By inviting the reader to see art and literature as dull, Berryman sets up a humorous moment of reflection. His poem, set down on paper and bound in a volume of poetry, would fall under the category of literature, which supposedly bores him. And the poem itself is likely the product of a momentary ‘flash and yearn’, a temporary inspiration that ‘we’ (Berryman included?) all experience from time to time, as well as being the export of the ‘inner resources’ he claims not to have. Even announcing his boredom forces the reader into engaging with the ‘plights of gripes’ that have been boring the poet.
The imagine of the dog comes into play here. Just as a dog chases his own tail, never quite reaching his own back-end, and goes off to cheerfully sniff other dogs’ bottoms, so Berryman shows himself running in circles: he yearns from time to time, but still finds himself frustrated by those cultural products of others’ yearning (books, art); and within the cycles of boredom and flashes, he writes poetry, which will go on to frustrate his yearning/ flashing readers. It’s not a surprise he describes himself as having no inner resources – it all sounds mentally taxing.
I won’t cement down heavy conclusions. The reason I chose this poem for the e-mail chain was because I took, and take, comfort in the ambivalence the poet expresses toward works of art, and towards his own inner life. In a world where advertisers and life coaches shove mindless positivity as the cure to all ills, it is more interesting to slip into this less resolute mind-swamp. And who doesn’t enjoy the wagging tail of a happy dog?
Note: Am thinking of writing about poetry on this blog, perhaps once a week, as an antidote to literary analysis as a part of my degree,and for fun: all suggestions welcome. It’s not Serious Criticism™, so I’m not going to go any deeper than ‘line’ and ‘stanza’.
Note 2: Also just found out that John Berryman spent two years at Clare College, Cambridge, where i’m studying – I probably shouldn’t use the words fate or destiny in relation to this blog post, but you can if you wish.