Today’s Countdown poems have comprised a descent into the depths. From peevish loneliness in “Inniskeen Road” through existential isolation in “Desert Places” we arrive at “the epistemology of loss” in John Berryman’s “Ball Poem”.
Berryman is sometimes called a “confessional poet.” He was clinically depressed; his poems are about depression. He would commit suicide at the age of 57; many of his poems, like “The Ball Poem,” contemplate suicide. As with Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” it’s tempting to read the poet’s personal misery into the lavish images of loss in the poem. And to the extent that this helps us feel closer to the author, and to the extent that it’s probably what he wanted (to feel heard and known, especially after his death), there’s nothing wrong with reading such a poem as immediately about its writer.
But as I’ve noted in class, people write personally because others can relate to their experience. “The Ball Poem” is stripped of individual references. It has almost no specific setting. The situation is reduced to a boy, a ball (we don’t even know how bouncy or how big), a harbor (unusual setting for a ballgame, but generic all the same), a dime, a street, and a whistle. The poem is intensely bare; everything that would interfere with a direct look into the existential situation is stripped away.
Anguish over irretrievable loss can be close to sentimentality. A boy losing a ball is a childish moment. Since everyone has been through such a moment, the banality of the intitiation into adult life can be the source of black humor, callow teasing, indifference, or outright cruelty. The achievement of “The Ball Poem” is to keep fierce restraint on any possible sentimentality. From the loss of the ball to the loss of the speaker’s life comes to seem an inevitable association, not at all an overstatement. From “an ultimate shaking grief” to the concluding realization “I am not a little boy,” the poem’s control in the face of the abyss is beautifully rendered.