Poor Yorick is launching a book review section called “Flashes of the Past” in an effort to find literature, art, and material culture lost to time. The inspiration for this came from Faulkner’s review of The Old Man and the Sea in the third issue of Shenandoah. Like many great works, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, published in 1952, has over the years slipped through the cracks as contemporary literature floods the masses. We want to find books of literary and cultural significance and bring them into the spotlight using the style Faulkner used in his review of The Old Man and the Sea.
We aim to encapsulate books in less than 350 words and deliver a book’s essence in a succinct piece that fits into the busy lives of our readers. We will review books more than 15 years old, books removed from mainstream readership, and books worthy of rediscovery.
Our editor, Melissa Gordon, will kick off Poor Yorick’s journey in the literary past with “Fragile Control of the Mind,” a review of 77 Dream Songs (1964) by John Berryman.
77 Dream Songs by John Berryman was published in 1964. The Dream Songs star a character named Henry, perceived by some to be Berryman’s alter ego, whose nature is revealed by the poems’ alternating levels of rational and associative language.
Collating bones: I would have liked to do.
Henry would have been hot at that.
I missed his profession.
As a little boy I always thought
‘I’m an archeologist’; who
could be more respected peaceful serious than that?
-John Berryman, from “#30”
When 77 Dream Songs was published, there had never been a book like it. Some of Berryman’s linguistic aerobics are prefigured by e.e. cummings and perhaps Gerard Manley Hopkins. But with the Dream Songs, the poetry audience was faced with still something new, a wild kind of exploration of the imagination and the inner world.
There the great flare & stench, O flying creatures,
surely will dim-dim? Bars will be closed.
No girl will again
conceive above your throes. A fine thunder peals
will with its friends and soon, from agony
put the fire out.
-John Berryman, from “#44”
77 Dream Songs is a gift from a man who ended his life after long plagues of alcoholism, depression, and psychosis.Within Berryman’s poems, the logical state of mind slips and regains control continuously, and the resulting poems were considered revolutionary against the backdrop of tamer contemporaries such as Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Richard Wilbur, while maintaining a more traditional relationship to form and tradition than more radical contemporaries like Ginsberg and Charles Olson.
Turning it over, considering, like a madman
Henry put forth a book.
No harm resulted from this.
Neither the menstruating stars (nor man) was moved
Bare dogs drew closer for a second look
-John Berryman, from “#75”
If you want a challenging read and a book that can help open your own lines of poetry read 77 Dream Songs and then wildly write with slippery fingertips while poetic rules rustle in panic.
Poor Yorick, Editor-In-Chief
*Images Courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives Department of the James G. Leyburn Library, Washington and Lee University