#43 “The Ball Poem” (John Berryman)

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.

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20 responses to “#43 “The Ball Poem” (John Berryman)

  1. This poem is another one of my favorites on the countdown so far. It’s simplicity is very delightful. It is easy to understand and very easy to relate to. However, as much as we can relate to this poem we all have a different story. The ball in the poem represents so many different things to different people. To everyone, though, it is something that has been lost. It could be something abstract or something concrete that was lost. It could be a feeling that you have gone astray or the death of a loved one. My favorite line from the poem is the fifth, “No use to say, “Oh there are other balls.” I remember the first time my heart was broken. My mom used the phrase I’m sure many other mothers have used to console their mournful daughters: “There are plenty fish in the sea. “ To a teenage girl who had just experienced love for the first time, these words mean nothing! We don’t care about the other “fish in the sea”, we just want “our fish” back. When people say things like, “Oh there are other balls/boys/universities/jobs etc…” it hurts the grieving more. When people say such things to me to try and comfort me it feels like they are just brushing the situation off as nothing and not taking my pain seriously. They aren’t really sympathizing with me. Whoa! Ok, that’s enough… I’m sounding a bit like Mr. Berryman here. I am neither depressed nor suicidal. But that’s the whole point here, I think; even though we aren’t just like the speaker in the poem we have felt similar feelings at some point and time in our lives.

  2. I wish I was in class to hear the discussion of this poem and the background of the author, but from what I have gathered, Berryman was depressed. This is a sad poem and I can’t help but feel sorry for the boy. It seems like his whole world has come crashing down and there is nothing he can do about it. Clearly his ball brought him much joy and without it there is not much left for him. The phrase “All his young days into the harbour where his ball went,” makes it seem like his whole life just went down the drain. I like that the speaker says the boy must now learn what all men should know, how to stand up. I feel like this is describing being able to move on, standing up after you have fallen or been knocked down. Something else I couldn’t help but wonder was if it was the boy’s fault that he lost his ball, the part that says, “He sense first responsibility in a world of possessions,” comes across as if the boy didn’t realize the responsibility that comes behind playing with a ball. This symbolizes many things we are in possession of and maybe don’t realize how responsible we need to be. As deemuniz said, the ball can be a job, university, or a boy, really anything. With that idea in mind, anything we have in our possession we need to be responsible for, and appreciate. The boy in the poem could only watch his ball from afar and no longer had it in his possession. I’m sure if he were given another chance he would have taken more care of it, but just like in real life, we usually don’t get second chances, we just have to learn from our past and move on, make the best of things, and hope the next ball is as good as the first.

  3. This poem by Berryman has a sad and depressed tyoone about it and it definitely foreshadows the fate of the author or how depressed he was. In the sentence of the poem where he says “soon part of me will explore the deep and dark…”, it gives the readers an inkling to the kind of mood and emotion the autho was in. To me, I think that the “ball” in this poem represents anything of value that cannot be bought. For example the ball could be happiness, a loved one, and so on. Things like that aren’t material and can’t be bought. To summarize the poem in my own words, I would say that the poem is about a person loosing something valuable that cannot be bought, and trying to look for it–trying to find something that could replace it even though they know that nothing can replace it–but then after the realization that it can’t be replaced and nothing can bring it back, they try to move on or cope with the loss. So the part of the poem that says “a dime, another ball is worthless” is saying that your “ball”–whatever it may be is irreplacable. Also when the speaker says “People will take balls, balls will be lost always…and no one buys a ball back. Money is external”, I feel like he’s saying that money cannot buy whatever you lost–and truly money cannot buy love, happiness, or a loved one who’s gone. Finally, the speaker says that the boy is getting to “know what every man must know one day…how to stand up”. That to me is the whole idea of the poem; how to move on after a drastic loss. Unfortunately, it seems like Berryman didn’t know how to move on and decided to end his life.

  4. This poem is sad and depressing. I loved the poem because I think everyone can relate to it. Everybody has or will experience a time in their life when they lose something important to them or a loved one. This poem reminds me of when we lose a close loved one or friend. We yearn for that person to come back to us or we try to replace that person. But whether we want to believe it or not that person or special thing is gone forever. When my grandfather passed, my family felt this way. They did not want to believe that he was gone forever. Sometimes it feels like he is still here with us today. In the poem when the ball was lost, the little boy felt as if he lost a part of him. That is how we feel in life when we lose something close to us. I also believe he is saying that one day he too will be like that ball. One day he too will be gone and someone will miss him. I like this poem because it explains what we go through in life when we lose someone or something special. This poem has a special meaning to it and is different from all of the other poems we have read.

  5. The Ball Poem is a dark and sad poem. It makes your mind wonder about the thoughts, emotions and mental state of Mr. Berryman. Was his childhood taken away from him or was it sad and depressing. How did this poem develop from a ball? So many questions asked and very few answers, once again what happened to him. What put him in this life of lose and disappointment. I was able to see so many things happening in this poem such as life changing for him but not in a good way. As I examine the poem my first that is when he was a young boy he had a ball and it was taken away or lost. From that point on he never received another ball. As he became a man and began to gain responsibility and life was not working for him he related it to the ball he once had as a child. We have all experienced sadness, depression, had negative childhood memories, and rode the roller coaster of life. For some people things affect them more than others and never got over it, and then problem after problem happens. Mr. Berryman had his share of problems it is sad to read and actually feel the pain and see the depression.

  6. During this countdown many of the poems we have read have had real subject matter such as racism, love, and loneliness especially, this one is no different, and I’ve encountered each of the subjects before, and I’m sure many others in class have too. For some reason though, the subject of loss that Berryman writes about just seems so universal. We’ve all experienced it before and our bound by the fragile nature of our lives to experience it again. Yet still it never really does get easier with some things, especially with loved ones. I like nkbabe1’s idea about what the ball represents, something that is irreplaceable, can never be gotten back after it is lost. I see what Berryman writes and wonder if there wasn’t some loss in his life that might have added to his depression and eventually drove him to suicide, saying that part of him will “explore the deep and dark Floor of the harbour”, maybe believing that in the afterlife he might find what he had lost. The phrase that struck me though was “The epistemology of loss”. I looked up what epistemology meant and basically it’s the study of knowledge and justified belief. So not only does Berryman write about loss but as the boy represents as he loses his ball, the knowledge of loss. It’s a very powerful thing knowing that someone is gone, I remember one person in class talking about explaining to her children after the death of their father. I could never really imagine trying to explain that to a child, burdening them with that knowledge that is necessary yet at the same time harsh. Like I said, this subject is a very powerful one, and Berryman’s poem is an excellent one to make a person think about it.

  7. In John Berryman’s poem, “The Ball Poem,” it seems the speaker’s life was abruptly changed in a split second. Life was happy and innocent until he witnessed the loss of his ball which sent him into a paralyzing identity crisis. He couldn’t go back because life as he knew it had changed forever, and he couldn’t go forward because he couldn’t accept the loss. Because the speaker refers to the loss as a ball, I am thinking that maybe the loss occurred during his childhood. When he said, “No use to say “Oh there are other balls”: An ultimate shaking grief fixes the boy as he stands rigid, trembling, staring down all his young days into the harbor where his ball went,” seems to imply that the experience was so traumatic that his life stood still for perhaps many years. His grief could not be comforted by others nor could his ball be replaced as he stood alone at the entrance of a deep, dark tunnel that he did not want to go through because he was afraid of life without his ball. When the speaker said, “He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes, the epistemology of loss, how to stand up,” I sense his mind was finally beginning to process what really happened to his ball. He was accepting the loss and realized that loss was something he would experience many times in many ways. In lines 20 through 25, the speaker said, “With all that move me, under the water, or whistling, I am not a little boy,” I feel that he was acknowledging that the ball couldn’t come back to him, but one day he would go with the ball. He embraced the pain of the loss and grew into a stronger, wiser person because of the experience that is why he feels he is not a little boy anymore.

  8. Everyone experiences loss at some point. Who or what we lose may change, but the feeling is universal. From that first experience of loss, we learn something that we can never unlearn. We try to take that and learn “how to stand up” and be strong. We try to learn how to prepare ourselves for future losses. But like the speaker in the poem, a little piece of us always ends up searching the water, even though we know the loss is final. Sometimes knowing that the loss is final isn’t enough. Most of us stay content with just imagining that the ball is still there, just beneath the surface. We don’t do anything about it, and we don’t try to retrieve it, but it’s comforting to think that you know what became of it. For others, wondering isn’t enough. Some people will fling themselves into the water and search in vain for something that is never coming back. And yes, the imagery of jumping into the water does foreshadow the author’s suicide by water, but this peom stands alone without making that connection. This would be a great poem whether the author was depressed and killed himself or if he lived a long happy life. I think that the poem isn’t as sad as it is lonely. That first feeling of lasting loss is a very isolating feeling, but I think it’s something we can all relate to in one way or another.

  9. The Ball Poem is a poem that really sticks out to me and will be one that I remember for some time to come. The analogy of the boy that loses his ball and suddenly realizes what true LOSS is all about is profound. He makes it clear to us that regardless of age, race, gender, etc… we all will experience loss of some type. There is a sense of sorrow for the boy and Berryman ponders over whether or not to “help” him by offering him either money for a new ball or a new ball itself. Neither of those options will suffice the loss the boy feels. Dispite the fact that the boy (and all of us) has and will experience loss, there is good news. Berryman tells us that “gradually light returns to the street”. This tells me that loss is painful but with time, that loss will become easier for us to deal with however never do we forget it.

  10. To me, this poem speaks volumes about loss and one’s ability to accept the idea of losing as a part of life. I feel that the loss of the ball is the defining line between the boy’s youth and his acceptance into the realm of society. Upon losing the ball is when the boy begins to realize that there is no relief from the loss of this ball, because although such an object can be replaced, it will not be. I personally feel that this poem encourages the idea of having individuals cope with losses by accepting that they have occurred, as opposed to trying to replace our losses in other ways. We are encouraged by the author to grieve, and to fully accept what it is that we have been deprived of as this lesson is a lesson which the author feels that ‘every man must one day know’. I personally agree with this advice, as I feel that as children, we are too often told that somehow, things will sort themselves out in our favors. However, as many of us experience firsthand, such representations of situations are ideal, as we aren’t always dealt the cards that we would have wanted to begin with. I find the ending of this poem slightly difficult to interpret. In some ways, I am convinced that the ending captures the amalgamation of the boy with a not-so-pleasant reality, as the boy is suffering. Also, the boy is drowning in this reality, which would cause me to think that the boy is being greatly pressured by the situation. On the other hand, the boy continues to want to explore the ‘deep and dark’. Is he, in a sense, attempting to understand and explore his losses from a new perspective? Irrespective of such questions, the idea of loss is exquisitely captured in an event so ordinary that it happens daily, yet few of us would be able to generalize such an accident into a life lesson.

  11. This poem is anotherone of my favorites. It comes across as a poem of respect and deep thought. It could be related to anything and onyone. Loss and diappointment have always been part of life. Lesssons are to be learned and tought in differnt ways. They will be tought either by someone else or by life itself. To some the way that they were tought stayes with them forever, and they become the teacher sooner or later. The aurthor saw himself in the little boy who had lost his ball. He too had gone that road already and knew that he dared not Interfere for at times one must expierence it by themselves. That ball could symbolize just about anything in life. It seems at times that the same lesson repeats itself. The only thing that changes is the ball.

  12. In John Berryman’s poem, “The Ball Poem,” the speaker’s feelings of loss and hurt are echoed throughout the entire poem. This poem has been one of my favorites since the countdown began. In our lives we have all stood at a place where something was lost to us. Whether it was a relationship, a person, a thing, it doesn’t matter. We all know how lonely and desolate things can be when we have lost something special to us. In lines 5 and 6 of the poem, Berryman writes “No use to say ‘O there are other balls': An ultimate shaking grief fixes the boy.” Sometimes a loss cannot simply be fixed by the replacement of what is lost. One has to come to terms with the loss and accept the loss and move on. In the poem it is evident the speaker has come to terms with the loss and the use of language is brilliant when describing this in lines 15-19. I especially like the lines when he says “Knowing what every man must one day know And most know many days, how to stand up”.

  13. This poem is a part of everyone who reads it. We all have our own lost ball in some way. There is a multitude of possibilities to what each and every person’s ball may be. Mine was a set of Legos that I had as a child. They came in a big red suitcase that was lost in a move from one house to the next. I remember searching through countless boxes looking for the big red box that I had lost. I eventually learned to accept it, but it was always my favorite. Another set of Legos wouldn’t be the same as the ones I already had to begin with. Perhaps the only difference between me and the writer is I’m not suicidal. It is interesting how Barryman says that money is external. It is almost as if he is implying that the ball is not external as well. It is as if the ball has earned a right to be a part of him through the time he spent with it. It is possible that I will someday be united once again with my Legos, or I may never see them again. Regardless of what happens I will still possess the memory of having them, and that may be enough to keep my sanity. I cannot relate to his underlying theme of suicide, and he may have written it this way unintentionally. I cannot say. The section of the poem that touches on the theme of loss has enormous meaning that all can embrace. We all have or will soon experience loss in some way, shape or form. It is in our nature to grieve what is taken away from us. We must come to grips with the fact that some things will forever be lost to us. Some cling to the hope that we will be reunited with what has been lost. Is this your hope? Personally I agree with Barryman on this matter. “With all that move me, under the water Or whistling, I am not a little boy.” I do not condemn the belief that we will be reunited in some way, but I do not believe that spending your life staring into the water will make the “ball” come back.

  14. This poem reminds me of the various losses that I have experienced thus far in my life. As a child, I would lose insignificant things like toys. As insignificant as those material items seem to me now, they definitely did not seem that way when I was a kid, and as hard as my parents tried, they could not convince me otherwise. My toys meant the world to me, and I felt like my world ended when I lost them. As I grew older, the importance and significance of my losses seemed to increase. The older members of my family began to age and die. Some deaths were expected, and some were not. When a very close family friend of mine died unexpectedly a few years ago, I felt the same loss that I had felt as a child. It was at that very moment that I realized how foolish I was for feeling the same sort of loss over a toy as a child. This poem reminded me of that experience, and made me take another look back at the foolish way I felt about the losses that I experienced as a child.

  15. John Berryman strikes me as a very interesting writer. “The Ball Poem” is a simple, yet remarkably deep and thought out as an interesting work of art. This story is dark and depressing (which I usually don’t enjoy, being a positive person), but the lesson that I seemed to get out of it is very necessary and real. Some people deal with loss better than others, but everyone has to witness it at some point in their lives. It is one of the few guarantees we have in our complicated existence. The mindset that the author is in reminds me of the themes Pink Floyd would use in some of their songs. Overall, the poem is well written and truly does convey the ideas about being irreplaceable. For Berryman to have ended his life early, also shows that even brilliant minds can be weak.

  16. When I read this I think of a transformation occurring. I think the ball rolling down the hill and away is a metaphor. It seems to represent his childhood or adolescence. The eighth and part of the ninth line say: “All his young days into the harbor where His ball went.” Furthermore I think it represents a childhood innocence. The thought of growing up to kids is bitter-sweet. You get much more freedom, but with that you must take on responsibility. The tone of the poem shifts dramatically. It has a innocent kind of feeling in the beginning, then moves to a kind of heavy feeling, then to a deeply depressing tone. I think it’s interesting how he puts “A whistle blows” right at that shift into depressing. It is almost like an indication that something is changing. I read the words but in doing so I hear a whistle blow in my head which makes me think something is about to start or stop. I really try not to let this poem drag me down, but the author makes me feel sorry for him in this extremely sad piece.

  17. It is very interesting to me how he intertwines this underlying message of losing ones life with losing a ball. He establishes that often times we have emotional connections with inanimate objects and when we lose them it is hard to cope with this loss, or the same is true when we grow up and out grow these things. However, life is the focal point of this poem and it expresses how he feels about life. It is obvious that he values it, however, he is confused by it and believes the best way to deal with it is to get rid of it.

  18. I enjoyed reading this poem because as I did so it took me back in time when I was a little girl. I love it when I can read something and as I do, I feel as if I have a picture in front of me. The picture painted in my mind as I was reading this was one of a very happy (merry) little boy playing with his ball until he lost it and became extremely sad. I believe that this poem signifies loss. Loss is a part of every individual’s life, which is why it is so easy for many of us to relate to this poem. Like I’ve mentioned in other responses, poets write about what they know or feel. John Berryman writes about loss and depression. He probably lost something or someone significant in his life and wanted to express his feelings throughout his writing. At the conclusion of the poem he uses words such as ‘suffer’, ‘deep’, and ‘dark’…these words could have something to do with suicide. It is actually quite interesting to read something someone wrote who took his/her own life because we can see what kind of language that person uses to try to relate that language to their feelings or way of life. I am not sure if the poem is solely about a little boy or his ball, actually I believe it has much more meaning than that. Initially, as I read the title of the poem I thought it would have a happy tone to it, and it started out that way, but at the end it turned out to be depressing.

  19. Well we could said the poem is good despite it is a depressing one its the way the author wnated to express so its a nice job, also we can learn from it that in life there are other important things and we can recover from losses, so we should move on and enjoy life because everyone dies someday so its a thing to think about it.

  20. I agree with this analysis. The Ball Poem is very well written where the author is comparing his childhood to a ball. WIth the discussion about loss before reading this poem, and then actually reading it, soon did i realize this poem is very relevant and focus’s on the idea of losing something in a metaphoric way. This poem tone is sad and yet at specific points like “he is learning, well behind his desperate eyes, this epistemology of loss, how to stand up” the tone changes a bit to be more optimistic and positive. This is what makes the poem so relatable. To grow up can be the hardest thing one does, and in a sense you could be losing a lot. The innocence of your youth and/or maybe losing someone in your childhood could also happen, either way this poem is some how getting us to think about the loss of SOMETHING and how to over come it. The main idea is recovering from loss, and it’s evident that the tone of this poem is sad (despite the change for a couple lines to happy). The ball symbolizes childhood, and throughout the poem it’s talking about how “you can’t buy a ball back”. Theres no way to just grow up and then magically get your youth back, once you grow up and hit reality… there is no way to go back into time. So what is there to do? Cope with it, and learn to recover.

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