The poet and the rock band

John Berryman’s ghost makes cameo appearances on the Hold Steady’s new album.

by Brandon Stosuy
POETRY FOUNDATION SYNDICATE

      There was that night that we thought that John Berryman could fly.
      But he didn’t so he died.
      She said, “you’re pretty good with words but words won’t save your life”
      and they didn’t so he died.
                  –The Hold Steady, “Stuck between Stations”

On “Stuck between Stations,” the rousing opener on the Hold Steady’s new album Boys and Girls in America, singer and lyricist Craig Finn describes guys and gals “crushing one another with colossal expectations” while drinking too much. It’s standard rock-‘n’-roll hormones–kissing and dancing, blustery choruses, a Born to Run piano breakdown. Then it’s 1972, and Dream Songs poet John Berryman is plunging from Minneapolis’s Washington Avenue Bridge into the frozen Mississippi.

Berryman, who drank and desired too much throughout his life and then jumped from a double-decker bridge, provides Finn with an ideal character to place within his Midwest topography. “It’s a song about art’s relationship to depression,” he tells me. “I get the most material when I’m having highs and lows. I thought, God, if I’m going to be doing this forever, I gotta figure out a way not to get all my material from the worst times in life.”

Finn was drawn to the longtime University of Minnesota professor’s bouts with depression, his late-period semiconversion to Catholicism, and the fact that he died in Minneapolis. Berryman is finding a younger audience via the Hold Steady, and in that way, he’s been reborn–he’s making the scene.

Berryman published the Pulitzer Prize-winning 77 Dream Songs in 1964; another 308 songs in His Toy, His Dream, His Rest were combined with the original 77 in The Dream Songs in 1969. Accepting the National Book Award in 1969, he explained that he’d intended the Dream Songs to be “hostile to every visible tendency in both American and English poetry.”

Despite Berryman’s protests that the Dream Songs are “essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me)”, the perceptions of overlap persist: the lasciviousness (“All the girls, with their vivacious littles, / visited him in dream: he was interested in their tops & bottoms / & even in their middles” [“Dream Song 350”]), the drinking, the mourning of deceased friends. When Berryman was 12, his father killed himself: “I spit upon this dreadful banker’s grave / who shot his heart out in a Florida dawn” (“384”). Prior to his fatal 1972 leap, Berryman had attempted suicide once before, in 1931: “It all centered in the end on the suicide / in which I am an expert, deep & wide” (“186”).

I asked Finn about his debt to Berryman and about the various convergences showing up in his songs. “It wasn’t something I consciously did,” he laughs. “I think it’s probably a stretch.” Still, Berryman does work his way into Finn’s words, the concerns of the Dream Songs meshing with Finn’s obsessions. According to “Stuck between Stations,” “words won’t save your life,” but Berryman held a near-religious belief in their permanence: “Hunger was constitutional with him, / women, cigarettes, liquor, need need need / until he went to pieces. / The pieces sat up and wrote” (“311”). The poems make him whole.

In turn, Finn’s decision to highlight the poet’s biography over his verse offers an insight into the rocker’s aesthetic. As Berryman writes in this Dream Songs maxim: “The doomed young envy the old, the doomed old the dead young” (“190”). Finn’s far from doomed, but he does have a crush on artistic misery, as well as the romance of writerly creation: the Boys and Girls in America collection nabs its title from a line in Kerouac’s On the Road.

“I understand Minneapolis,” Finn says. “I know Minneapolis so well as a city, that if something’s going to happen, I can tell you what block it’s going to happen on.” Using that knowledge of place, Finn effectively imagines Berryman digging University of Minnesota sports teams, fearing cold winters, wandering those memorized streets, and diving out of this world. In this way he becomes the poet, even if only for the duration of a four-minute pop song.

Brandon Stosuy, a staff writer and columnist at Pitchfork and columnist at Stereogum, contributes art, book, and music criticism to various publications. Up Is Up, But So Is Down, his anthology of downtown New York literature, was a 2006 Village Voice Book of the Year.

© 2007 by Brandon Stosuy. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at http://www.poetryfoundation.org.

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~ by ericedits on January 17, 2008.

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