A Double Poem by John Berryman

Content note: this post references a poem about suicide



I’ve found out why, that day, that suicide
From the Empire State falling on someone’s car
Troubled you so; and why we quarreled. War,
Illness, an accident, I can see (you cried)
But not this: what a bastard, not spring wide!…
I said a man, life in his teeth, could care
Not much just whom he spat it on… and far
Beyond my laugh we argued either side.

‘One has a right not to be fallen on!…’
(Our second meeting… yellow you were wearing.)
Voices of our resistance and desire!
Did I divine then I must shortly run
Crazy with need to fall on you, despairing?
Did you bolt so, before it caught, our fire?

-John Berryman



For some context, John Berryman’s sonnet was first published in 1952 in a collection of 115 sonnets, all of them about an affair he was having with a colleague’s wife. Learning about Isobel Armstrong’s theory of the double poem reminded me of his seventh sonnet.

In Berryman’s poem death is introduced first, then transformed into love. First “suicide” is what brings death into the text, but that phrase is quickly replaced by variations of “fall on”. By the time “fallen on” is used in the ninth line “’One has a right not to be fallen on!…’” the phrase has completely replaced any explicit mention of death. As a result, the language has become ambiguous, and as Armstrong argues, it is “systematically ambiguous language, out of which expressive and phenomenological readings emerge” from double poems (Armstrong 15). The language becomes even more ambiguous in the next line when it is taken completely out of the context of the suicide at the empire building with the lines “Did I divine then I must shortly run / Crazy with need to fall on you, despairing?” The inclusion of  “Despairing” points toward a use of “fall on” which is similar  to its function in the rest of the poem, but the lines are preceded by “our resistance and desire!” and followed by “…our fire” all phrases which suggest a passionate relationship, a fraught and dangerous one, but not a miserable death inducing one. With the added context that this is a poem about the second meeting of future affair partners, “Crazy with need to fall on you” seems to be abandoning its meaning as a substitute for suicide and is instead alluding to the phrase “to fall in love”.

The double meaning of “to fall on” as both love and suicide is impressively disparate and as Armstrong foretold, “expressive and phenomenological readings emerge” from it. At a kind of meta level, the double meaning is either a critic or an exhibition of how language is so fickle that a single phrase can mean two opposite things. It is also potentially part of an argument that love and suicide are two sides of the same coin or at least more similar than one might think, since they can be merged together in a poem. I would argue, though, that the most “expressive and phenomenological” reading which emerges, is that Berryman’s love is a kind of suicide. This reading is backed up by biographical information on the back cover: “after several years of a happy marriage, he had fallen helplessly, hopelessly in love…The affair was doomed to end, and end badly…obsessive, impossible love…Here is the poet…as nutcase.” By falling in love with this woman, Berryman is putting himself in harms way. If it is not quite death, it is something like it, especially since he is risking his marriage, which is meant to be the joining of two people into one. In this light, the women’s request not “to be fallen on!” can also be read as a request for Berryman not to interfere with her life and her marriage, a reading further emphasized by the last line which states that she bolted “before it caught, our fire”. In a similar vein, the man in  “a man, life in his teeth, could care / Not much whom he spat it on” could be read as Berryman, and this line could be indicative of his lack of concern for the harm he does to himself or to anyone else through his affair. This reading could even answer the question of “why, that day…/ Troubled you so; and why we quarreled” which Berryman claims to know the answer to. Maybe the woman is arguing in order to defend against all kinds of falling on. Maybe, even before the poem is written, the “right not to be fallen on” is standing in for the right not to be accosted by crazy love sick poets.

One thought on “A Double Poem by John Berryman”

  1. What an interesting idea to map Isobel Armstrong’s reading of Victorian poetry onto Berryman. I see your obsession with this guy… I guess there is something to be said about the similarities between confessional and Victorian poetry. Readers are encouraged to take a biographical approach with confessional poetry as critics do with Victorian poetry (according to Professor Kersh). Also what’s a better form to showcase one’s toxic masculinity than Petrarchan sonnets?

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