"I have a
style now pared straight to the bone and can make the readers nerve jump by moving
my little finger"
--Letter to mother, 25 April 1959
"The two great things are to be clear and short; but
rhythms matter too, and unexpectedness. You lead the reader briskly in one direction, then
you spin him round, or you sing him a lullaby and then hit him on the head."
--Letter to mother
"To keep my temper, and to preserve an ever manner; to feign
self-possession if I cant achieve it.
John Berryman perfected a style of poetry that
stressed the discontinuous, the sudden change, the fluidity of various voices. Indeed, his
poetic voice is one that prizes a quick move through various rhetorical stylesa
high, florid language for a line or two, only to be offset by a plain, even an uncouth
tone in the following lines. Robert Lowell wrote that Berrymans poetry is
"disrupted and mended" for its arts sake. As a result, Berrymans
poetry must be heard to be understood. It succeeds based on its oral performance.
"Not to exaggerate unless my irony is perfectly clear. To keep my opinions to myself.
"To try to bring my humility and my arrogance together. Is a more regular current of
"To be a better husband altogether.
"And a better friend: to allow, to have faith, to answer letters, to be kind.
"To keep the Journal and make it continually more useful to me.
"To learn to know Christ."
--New Years resolutions
Suggestions for Reading Berryman
- Read him with a sense of compression in mind: he is intending to say a lot in a few
- Read him with an expectation that he will defy our expectations. Expect to see a
continual reversal of voice.
- Understand that his verse prizes intensity, suffering, pain, and explosiveness.
Emotional turmoil is at the heart of what he is doing.
- Understand the confessional nature of his poetry. Berryman the person is not too removed
from the speaker in Berrymans poetry. This is personal verse.
- Listen for the oral voice in the lines. Read difficult passages (or all of it) aloud.
Read slowly, feeling for stress in each phrase.
Eleven Addresses to the Lord
These poems are what they appear to beprayers. As you read them, try tracing the
following three interrelated themes:
- Who is God in each address? What attributes of God does Berryman choose to focus on or
- Who is Berryman in each address? What does the speaker reveal about his needs,
limitations, doubts, etc.?
- What is each prayer for? What is Berryman requesting that God do?
Additional questions to consider:
- Is there a particular pattern in the Addresses? Consider the traditional
rhetorical patterns: process, comparison and contrast, classification, narration.
- What is the relationship between faith and doubt in these poems?
- How does Berryman use persons and places in his Addresses? Consider the
- The Resurrection appearances
- Belsen (a concentration camp) and Omaha Beach (WWII Battle)
- Isaiah and Pascal
- Angkor Wat (the Cambodian temple) and Fifth & Hennepin (conrner in Minneapolis)
- Father Boniface (childhood priest for Berryman)
- Justin Martyr (early Christian thinker) and Sherry (Berrymans daughter)
- Azarias & Misael (Abednego and Mischack)
- Gerard Manley Hopkins
- Germanicus and Polycarp (early Christian martyrsthe first probably apocryphal)
Opus Dei is as complex as, if not more complex than, Eleven
Addresses. Like Audens Good Friday poems, Opus Dei is based around the
canonical hours and makes subtle references to the time of day. Berryman chooses two
scriptural references to introduce the major themes of the poems: a plea for Gods
mercy on the insane actions of humanity and the base evil of humanity. Berrymans
headnote also suggests that these themes are not confined to certain canonical offices but
represent the world in all its drama.
Within Opus Dei, Berryman fluctuates back and forth between his own limitations
(including his evil) and Gods actions. They meet in Berrymans acknowledgement
of his need and Gods promise of mercy.
||Play with hats
||Gods smiling on our silliness
||Gods work in quasars
||"blazing with my Self"
was in private with the Devil"
|"I take that in. Yes. Just now. I
||Judgment: "Behold, thou art taken in
"the Sun whom Hell embark soon mounting fluent day!"
||"Ive to poor minimum pared my
commitments, still Im sure to err. . ."
||"the least of us is back on
||"You and I make a majority."
||"I will not kneel just now."
||"Where slept then your
||"You expect too much"
||"I almost at a loss now genuflect and
"Forgive my insolence."
(see quote on right)
|"Gethsemane & Calvary & the
Emmaus road hardly propose [. . .] most of us are lost"
||"the subtler menace of decline."
nightmare of the dark one"
"that a bare one in 100 is benevolent."
Heart, repair my fracturing Heart."
|"I wish You would clear this
||"I cannot come among your
"Hearing Mark viii, though, Im sure to be ashamed of by."
"Riotous doubt assailed me on the stair."
|"I am your person."
Thine own to Thee I have given."
|"for the work is not for man, but the
"Your figure, adamantly frontal."
||"Vanity, hog-vanity, ape lust"
"I have not done well."
|"You brood across forgiveness and the
house fills with a cloud."
||"Youre unjust. Suppose not. See
||"I am the kings son who squat
down in rags declared unfit "
"Sinners, sin on. Well suffer now and
later but not forever."
|"I would at this late hour as little
as may be [. . .] plead"
"If He for me as I feel for my daughter, being his
Son [. . .] I have got it made."
"This fireless house lies down at Your disposal"
|"the Kingdom here here now in the
heart of a child."
"The winter will end."