Daily Archives: 22 September 2009

#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.


#44 “Desert Places” (Robert Frost)

Robert Frost liked to invoke his own name, at least from a distance: he loved to write about winter and spring, with their snow, frost, thaw, and refreezing. “Desert Places” is probably his frostiest poem. In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” despite the overtones of suicide, there’s at least a pony. In “Desert Places” we are left “with no expression, nothing to express.”

I’d like to digress for a moment to praise a small verbal detail that “Desert Places” shares with many other poems in the Countdown. At several junctures in “Desert Places,” Frost repeats a word, or most of a word, that he’s just used. “Snow falling and night falling.” “Lonely as it is that loneliness.” “No expression, nothing to express.” “Between stars – on stars.”

Think of others we’ve recently looked at. In “They Feed They Lion,” lines like “pounded stumps, out of stumps.” In “Inniskeen Road,” the sequence “being king . . . a mile of kingdom, I am king.” Or in “An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum,” the phrase “Awarding the world its world.”

I am not talking here about the thematic repetition of a key word at several points across a poem, which is inevitable in any kind of focussed writing. Rather, the device I’m pointing to is an immediate repetition of the same word, usually a pretty common word for which there are a lot of synonyms.

In prose writing, this might be a flaw. A teacher might tell a composition student to hit the thesaurus and find some synonyms to use for the purpose of variation. Or maybe it doesn’t even get that fancy: prose writers sometimes avoid repeating the same word just because they don’t want to bore their audiences or sound like their vocabulary is tiny.

As often, poetry breaks the rules. I am struck by how great poems, so often, find that the exact right word is the word that’s just served as the exact right word: and that using it over again makes the language stronger, not weaker.

#45 “Inniskeen Road: July Evening” (Patrick Kavanagh)

“Inniskeen Road: July Evening” by Patrick Kavanagh is the first sonnet we’ve seen in the Countdown. There won’t be many; the sonnet is alive and well, but it hasn’t been a predominant verse form in modern English poetry since the early 19th century.

The trick for 20th-century masters of the sonnet (and Kavanagh was one of the greatest) is to observe formal constraints while writing a natural-sounding language. There’s almost nothing in “Inniskeen Road: July Evening” that the poem’s speaker (a rural Irishman of the mid-20th century) mightn’t have said in his everyday speech.

The setting of the sonnet is not literary (a dance in a barn, an uninvited poet). The references in the poem are not recherché. “Alexander Selkirk,” the only unfamiliar name in the poem, is a pretty plain allusion. Selkirk was the castaway who became the model for Robinson Crusoe. He stands here for isolation, in a very direct way. (We call this kind of figure of speech “metonymy,” where an example or a directly connected item stands for something else; it’s the opposite of “metaphor,” where an unlike thing stands for something else. Selkirk is a metonym for being cut off from other people.)

Sonnets like this one fall into a four-part pattern, with 10/11-syllable lines rhyming ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The pattern gives the poet a chance to craft three long sentences (or short paragraphs), each with a vivid idea, and then to round the poem off with a climax in the final two-line couplet. There’s usually a break in subject or idea between the CDCD and EFEF quatrains, as here where the speaker, who’s been describing a social situation, suddenly uses the word “I” for the first time and reveals that he’s been excluded from the party.

There’s irony here. A noisy party is no place for poets, yet all the poet wants is to be part of the fun and forget about his lonely calling for once. But there’s also mystery (a word that appears in the poem’s third line). Why is the poet uninvited? Why isn’t he asked in to participate in the clannish, clubbish, exciting (and dimly, sexually provocative) dance?

We don’t come close to knowing. As so often, a great poem works its magic by virtue of the things it leaves out.