Sunday, November 23, 2014

John Berryman at 100


John Berryman's centenary is just a few weeks behind us, and it has occasioned a renewal of interest in this troubled, troubling, and undeniably great American poet.  There's a new edition of his selected poems, his publisher has re-issued his best books, including The Dream Songs, and there's a new version of Poets in their Youth, a memoir by Berryman's first wife, Eileen Simpson.  The national and international press has taken notice—so it's no surprise that the poets have joined in and made their own contribution to the Berryman revival.

Philip Coleman's Berryman's Fate is a major document of the renewed interest in Berryman among poets.  It collects tributes to Berryman from a host of poets including Paul Muldoon, Timothy Donnelly, John Matthias, Isobel Dixon, Jane Robinson, George Szirtes, John Montague, and me, among many distinguished others.

My own contribution takes its title from a line in "Dream Song 14," but it's really a riff on Berryman's wonderful meditation on loss, "The Ball Poem."  It goes like this:


We Must Not Say So 

Sadness was he ever. Teacher, taught 
my teacher, taught me too (his being not 
in body but in book). “What is the boy now 
who has lost his ball?” he’d ask. The question’s flawed. 
“What, what” he’d ask “is he to do?” A haughty Henry’d 
huff his loss, a stone his daily broken bread. 
And yours and mine? Is what he wrought? 
Sadness we are ever, teacher taught. 

“No use,” he’s say, to say “O there 
are other balls,” the ball gone harbor-wise, 
and out, the tidal-tugging way. 
No use to whistle “I am not a little boy.” 
For him a hurting. Us, maybe a sigh. 
No laws against our Henry but “Beware.”

Berryman's Fate is available here.

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