John Berryman and “Meta-Kitsch” by Joe Milazzo

by on Oct.13, 2014

[Joe Milazzo wrote this post in response to my last post about kitsch.]
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Johannes’ recent post re: the New Criticism and its conflation of “period style” with kitsch could not help but make me think of John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Specifically, how Robert Pinsky hears these songs singing precisely at the intersection of Romantic / Victorian and Modern discourses. “For Berryman the use (however ironic) of the old poetic diction [Swinburnian] is not archaizing or momentary. He establishes the context for it and then makes it into a readily available poetic language whose aim is largeness of feeling: to make up in copiousness and range what it may lack in distinction of other kinds. His subjects—disillusion, remorse, yearning, a despairing irritation with boundaries— demanded the somewhat sloppy richness of [what Modernism had declared] the forbidden tongue.” In Berryman’s Understanding: Reflections on the Poetry of John Berryman, edited by Henry Thomas (Northeastern University Press, 1988), p. 188.

As convincing as Pinsky’s analysis is, it does, however, accord little attention to another historical discourse that plays a significant role in The Dream Songs. Berryman’s poems constitute an old-fashioned revue, one featuring actors, gags, melodrama and dance, and one explicitly based upon the minstrel show. (Not the later vaudeville-ification of that distinctly American art form. I mean the real thing, where even African-America performers donned blackface. The stuff of Greil Marcus’ old weird America and Nick Tosches’ investigations in the strange case of Emmett Miller. Worth recalling here that Berryman was born in Oklahoma and lived much of his childhood there and in Florida. Is it not beyond possibility that a young Berryman had poked his head inside this particular tent?)

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It would be intellectually dishonest to ignore the virulent stereotypes evoked by the presence of African-American dialect in The Dream Songs. But is a difficult subject indeed, and there remains some controversy as to whether the voice that speaks in dialect, not Mr. Bones himself but that persona who addresses Henry as Mr. Bones, is a presentation or a representation of racism. That is, is Berryman’s work necessarily expose racist tropes to public view, much in the manner of Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety,” or does it simply reproduce racism by carelessly importing some of it more kitschy aspects for the sake of “complicating” the conventional decorousness of lyric culture? Can a white person, a person of privilege, ever claim to be presenting rather than representing under such circumstances?

It seems to me that further questions rather than additional propositions are in order here. I do hope that the following catalog, troubled and occasionally contradictory as it is, might inspire additional dialogue re: kitsch, kitsch’s performative cousin camp, allusion (candidly representational) vs. appropriation (often hypothesizing itself as presentation), historical atrocity, and the authenticity of any demotic.

Accepting that minstrelsy as highly aestheticized yet morally repugnant impersonation, what if the voice that speaks to and of Henry as Mr. Bones is the authoritative or “original” if not genuine voice of The Dream Songs? What if, contrary to what we understand of minstrelsy, Henry is ventriloquized subject, the dead / insensate dummy sitting on the minstrel’s knee, and thus the more poetic and “sophisticated” voice in the poems is the more constructed, the more perverted, the more American in its denial of its origins?

To evoke the tradition of the minstrel show is to situate Henry’s suffering in the context of absurdity, is it not? Therefore, might Berryman’s minstrel show be more Punch and Judy than Amos and Andy. That is, in the tradition of a mass entertainment meant to outrage rather than charm, that is itself a satire of kitsch sentimentality (e.g., Al Jolson), revealing in its low comedic détournements the structural violence underlying every one of our most banal relations? Is Berryman so pre-kitsch he’s post-kitsch?

Extrapolating from Pinsky’s observations, and noting how American The Dream Songs are in their borrowings from 19th Century idioms, might they be considered an ironic riposte to the song most associated with “authentic” American verse, Whitman’s subsuming Song of Myself? Is it cynical to observe that, as much or even more than Whitman, minstrelsy is the root and spring of virtually all American popular song? What if The Dream Songs argue that Whitmanesque democracy, much like Jeffersonian agrarianism and Emersonian Transcendentalism, is kitsch par excellence? (That this argument emerges from a reliance upon a historical rather than a contemporary discourse appeals as critical.)

From Dream Song 22, “Of 1826”

It is the Fourth of July.
Collect: while the dying man,
forgone by you creator, who forgives,
is gasping “Thomas Jefferson still lives”
in vain, in vain, in vain.
I am Henry Pussy-cat! My whiskers fly.

What if, far from being Berryman’s attempt to code himself as an outsider (as argued by Katherine Davis, among others), as among the oppressed, to frame his poetic persona as a “universal negro” (à la Mailer’s “White Negro,” but not Beat), the minstrel voice is the kitsch element that causes the Songs polyvocality to self-destruct? I.e., that the enactment of this dialect—presupposed to be “authentic” when it is in fact already mediated, both a fiction and a transcription—and, further, execution of this dialect, this camping up of the “human American man” (Dream Song 13) in all his middle-aged existential woe, his imagining of himself “as bad off as the Negro,” is the poems’ own ultimate indictment of their lyrical impulse? The poems unmasking themselves, almost flaunting their self-interpellations?

From Dream Song 50

—Mr Bones, your troubles give me vertigo,
& backache. Somehow, when I make your scene,
I cave to feel as if

de roses of dawns & pearls of dusks, made up
by some ol’ writer-man, got right forgot
& the greennesses of ours.
Springwater grow so thick it gonna clot
and the pleasing ladies cease. I figure, yup,
you is bad powers.

As aesthetics, kitsch and camp inevitably raise issues of appropriation, power and their relationship to taste: what is tasteful, what is tasteless, how each can be mapped onto axes of high and low culture, and who defines the standards operative in each case. But taste never really debates essences, only visibility. Taste begrudges the existence of certain “atrocities,” just so long as it does not have to be exposed to them. Undoubtedly, for Berryman to discuss his father’s suicide in a very public (if aestheticized) way in The Dream Songs is one of the ways in which the poems push at the boundaries of taste. To have survived his father’s suicide… I sometimes I want to believe that he-who-speaks-of-Mr. Bones—Henry’s friend and interlocutor, as Berryman describes that figure—is his dead father. In any event, the non-dialect language of The Dream Songs does labor at exposing the powerlessness exercised by certain traumatic experiences. Because there is no language for them, only a free-floating desire for form / shape, such experience becomes incredibly opportunistic. It latches on to whatever vocabulary and syntax is plentiful and convenient for its expression. Berryman’s Dream Songs are so multitudinous in their desperation both to offend our sensibilities and to win our sympathies. Simultaneously, even, so that the two become confused. But is this leveling of repugnance and “delight” a productive confusion?

There’s no question of whether, whatever they are doing with the legacy of minstrelsy, The Dream Songs somehow redeem the racism of American culture. The poems do not and cannot, and to claim as much is to promulgate the worst kind of kitsch, i.e., unselfconscious kitsch. Isn’t that racism, that historical violence so often denied via the sentimental pastoralism of the minstrel show, isn’t that a substance so toxic that it can never be handled or instrumentalized in any way? (A professor I once had summarized the totality of American history like so: “Everything slavery touched it turned to shit.”) If racist representations must thus be quarantined, however, how are we ever to confront them?

From Dream Song 199

I dangle on the rungs, an open target.
The world grows more disgusting dawn by dawn.
There is a ‘white backlash.’
When everything else fails on the auto, park it
& move away slowly. Obsolescent, on
the rungs, out of the car, ‘ashes’.

Wait. Benjamin tells us that the kitsch object is defined in part by its utility. If Berryman sacrifices poetry as it was acceptably defined at the time of The Dream Songs’ first publication, has he, even unintentionally, transformed this racism into meta-kitsch? Returned that racism to the realm of the non-gratifying, the worthy-of-intellectualization, yet without decontaminating it or disguising how grotesque and “ornery” (Dream Song 13, again) it is. I hesitate to say yes, but I hesitate to say absolutely not, either. What are we to do with the representational potential of The Dream Songs, untouchable as it often seems? And what are we to make of the fact that Berryman spends much of his time in the later, “mature”* and arguably less arresting Songs muting their American accents?

* Berryman could flirt with camp in his live performances [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBbUjDoV16o] but he’s most often playing “the drunk,” it seems, and in an attempt to disarm his audience. This joke hasn’t a punchline so much as it does a tendency (i.e., a tendentiousness), one I’ll paraphrase in the words of Dream Song 76, ‘Henry’s Confession,’ “life is a handkerchief sandwich.”

– Joe Milazzo

Joe Milazzo is the author of Crepuscule W/ Nellie (Jaded Ibis Productions) and The Habiliments (Apostrophe Books). He co-edits the online interdisciplinary arts journal [out of nothing] [http://www.outofnothing.org/], is a Contributing Editor at Entropy [http://entropymag.org/], and is also the proprietor of Imipolex Press. Joe lives and works in Dallas, TX, and his virtual location is http://www.slowstudies.net/jmilazzo/.

2 comments for this entry:
  1. Daniel

    It’s worth recalling Berryman’s 1952 preface to a popular edition of Matthew Lewis’s 18th c. Gothic novel, *The Monk* (the most sensationalistic of them all), which Berryman describes as “impassioned realism”! It will be interesting to see what becomes of this new wave of attention to Berryman’s “realism” (and its “dark necessity”) in the Dream Songs.

  2. Joe Milazzo

    Daniel — that would be the Grove Press edition of THE MONK, correct?