This Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Oberon, author Jim Vrabel will perform a staged reading of his one-man one-act play, “Homage to Henry: A Dramatization of John Berryman’s ‘The Dream Songs.’ ” Berryman’s sprawling, challenging, 387-poem masterpiece follows an imaginary character named Henry (whom Berryman was given to clarifying was “not the poet, not me”) through multiple stages of his life and through many lenses of identity. The reading will be followed by an open mike hosted by Harris Gardner of Tapestry of Voices; all proceeds will go to benefit Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square. Tickets are $15. Information is at 617-547-4648 and www.cluboberon.com.
Q. As legendary as they are considered in poetry circles, many people have never heard of “The Dream Songs.” What was your first encounter with them?
A. I first read them when I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa in the winter of 1971-1972. I was in the midst of reading them when Berryman committed suicide in Minnesota. From the first reading I thought they were terrific, and that they lent themselves to being a play — the poems themselves, and the character of Henry should be a play. I thought someone would do it, and after about 30 years of waiting for it to happen, I thought I should do it myself.
Q. What was it about the poems that compelled you to make them into a play?
A. I think Henry is one of the great characters of American literature, and the lyrics themselves are great lyrics, and they’re all about him and his life. What seemed to me to be the thing to do would be to rearrange them, and turn it into a dramatic narrative, from his childhood to his encounters in academia, wine, women, faculty meetings, to becoming famous. And then to his trying to find God, meaning in life; the madness and booze parts of his life. It just seemed to me to work. I’m a big fan of one-person shows; I’ll go to see a one-person play about anyone. And I like one-person plays about poets, but what I’ve found is that playwrights feel compelled to write their own prose to set up the poems. You have poems breaking out like songs in a musical. But what I found with “The Dream Songs” is that you didn’t need to set anything up with prose; you could just use the poems themselves.
Q. Berryman’s language is singular, very identifiable. And you could argue what gets taken for its difficulty is also part of its appeal. What did it mean to make them more “accessible”?
A. What I did was take the most accessible and the most autobiographical of the poems and pulled them out. I used about 80 of them in full or in part. As you know, some of the “Songs” are really indecipherable. The Academy of American Poets talks about their “wrenched syntax, scrambled diction, and extraordinary leaps of language and tone.” Some of them are impenetrable, but some of them aren’t. I inserted a word here or a phrase there to make connections, but otherwise I got out of the way. Adrienne Rich once wrote that the two greatest practitioners of English in America in the 1960s were John Berryman and Bob Dylan. And I agree.
Q. Is there anything particularly pertinent about Henry right now? Is he at home in the present day? Maybe that’s the wrong way to put it . . .
A. Well, he didn’t seem at home in the ’50s and ’60s. [Laughs] I think he’s a timeless character. Berryman’s language is often Shakespearean, and Henry is, as a character, right up there with Lear and Prospero. He’s a classically trained scholar and thinker; he ponders on the meaning of life and love and poetry. He’s almost too serious for the present day.
Q. Given how dense and vast the work is, could you at all single out a favorite line or two?
A. That’s a tough one, but those last two lines of the first song: “Hard on the land wears the strong sea/ and empty grows every bed.” It’s great, great language throughout. I think most people like and are impressed by Berryman, but he confounds them so much that they can’t go back to the “Dream Songs” as much as they like to. This is my attempt to make it easier for people to see the brilliance and accessibility of them.
Interview has been condensed and edited. Michael Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe
.com. Follow him on Twitter @mbrodeur.