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"Disrupted and Mended": Berryman’s Style & His New-Found Faith (Yet Still Doubt)

"I have a style now pared straight to the bone and can make the reader’s 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 can’t achieve it.
"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 feeling impossible?
"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 Year’s resolutions

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 styles—a 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 Berryman’s poetry is "disrupted and mended" for its art’s sake. As a result, Berryman’s poetry must be heard to be understood. It succeeds based on its oral performance.

Suggestions for Reading Berryman

    1. Read him with a sense of compression in mind: he is intending to say a lot in a few lines.
    2. Read him with an expectation that he will defy our expectations. Expect to see a continual reversal of voice.
    3. Understand that his verse prizes intensity, suffering, pain, and explosiveness. Emotional turmoil is at the heart of what he is doing.
    4. Understand the confessional nature of his poetry. Berryman the person is not too removed from the speaker in Berryman’s poetry. This is personal verse.
    5. 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 be—prayers. 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 appeal to?
  • 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:

  1. Is there a particular pattern in the Addresses? Consider the traditional rhetorical patterns: process, comparison and contrast, classification, narration.
  2. What is the relationship between faith and doubt in these poems?
  3. How does Berryman use persons and places in his Addresses? Consider the following:
    • 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 (Berryman’s daughter)
    • Azarias & Misael (Abednego and Mischack)
    • Gerard Manley Hopkins
    • Germanicus and Polycarp (early Christian martyrs—the first probably apocryphal)

Opus Dei

Opus Dei is as complex as, if not more complex than, Eleven Addresses. Like Auden’s 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 God’s mercy on the insane actions of humanity and the base evil of humanity. Berryman’s 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 God’s actions. They meet in Berryman’s acknowledgement of his need and God’s promise of mercy.

      Limitations Need/Mercy God’s Action
    Lauds Play with hats God’s smiling on our silliness God’s work in quasars
    Matins "blazing with my Self"

    "I was in private with the Devil"

    "I take that in. Yes. Just now. I read that." Judgment: "Behold, thou art taken in thy mischief"

    "the Sun whom He’ll embark soon mounting fluent day!"

    Prime "I’ve to poor minimum pared my commitments, still I’m sure to err. . ." "the least of us is back on contract" "You and I make a majority."
    Interstitial Office "I will not kneel just now." "Yes—yes—I kneel." "Where slept then your lightning?"
    Terce "You expect too much"

     

    "I almost at a loss now genuflect and pray"

    "Forgive my insolence."

    (see quote on right)

    "Gethsemane & Calvary & the Emmaus road hardly propose [. . .] most of us are lost"
    Sext "the subtler menace of decline."

    "a nightmare of the dark one"

    "that a bare one in 100 is benevolent."

    "Meantime: Okay."

    "rare Heart, repair my fracturing Heart."

    "I wish You would clear this up."
    Nones "I cannot come among your saints"

    "Hearing Mark viii, though, I’m sure to be ashamed of by."

    "Riotous doubt assailed me on the stair."

    "I am your person."

    "of Thine own to Thee I have given."

    "for the work is not for man, but the Lord God."

    "Your figure, adamantly frontal."

    Vespers "Vanity, hog-vanity, ape lust"

     

    "I have not done well."

    "You brood across forgiveness and the house fills with a cloud." "You’re unjust. Suppose not. See Jewish history."
    Compline "I am the king’s son who squat down in rags declared unfit "

    "Sinners, sin on. We’ll 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."

Questions
  1. What can we conclude about Berryman's use of confession as it relates to God?
  2. How does Berryman conceive of God in Opus Dei?  How does he conceive of himself?
  3. What seem to be the central problems for Berryman in these poems?
  4. What are his central conclusions concerning God and himself?
  5. What value do these poems have as poetry? as theology?  as confessions?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding