All the girls said so

by August Kleinzahler

  • The Dream Songs by John Berryman
    Farrar, Straus, 427 pp, £11.99, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 374 53455 4
  • 77 Dream Songs by John Berryman
    Farrar, Straus, 84 pp, £10.00, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 374 53452 3
  • Berryman’s Sonnets by John Berryman
    Farrar, Straus, 127 pp, £10.00, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 374 53454 7
  • The Heart Is Strange by John Berryman
    Farrar, Straus, 179 pp, £17.50, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 374 22108 9
  • Poets in their Youth by Eileen Simpson
    Farrar, Straus, 274 pp, £11.50, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 374 23559 8

As John Berryman tells it, in a Paris Review interview conducted in 1970, he was walking to a bar in Minneapolis one evening in the mid-1950s with his second wife, Anne, the two of them joking back and forth, when Berryman volunteered that he ‘hated the name Mabel more than any other female name’. Anne decided Henry was the name she found ‘unbearable’. For a long time afterwards, ‘in the most cosy and affectionate lover kind of talk … she was Mabel and I was Henry.’ Not long after that Berryman began to write his Dream Songs with a song he later ‘killed’:

The jolly old man is a silly old dumb
with a mean face, humped, who kills dead.
There is a tall who loves only him.
She has sworn ‘Blue to you forever,
Gray to the little rat, go to bed.’
I fink it’s bads all over.

It ends:

Henry and Mabel ought to but can’t.
Childness let’s have us honey –

It set the prosodic pattern,’ Berryman told the interviewer, Peter Stitt, who had been a student of his a few years earlier. The interview was conducted in a ward in St Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis, where Berryman seemed to be comfortable. He spent quite a bit of time there during the last few years of his life. In January 1972 he jumped to his death from a nearby bridge.

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