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.

Kubla Sexy Khan

I want to first outline the uses of sex in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and then try and understand what they are doing for the poem. First, and most mysteriously, is the the pleasure dome. Although its name is evocative, it is not linked much further to sex. According to the first stanza it is “twice five miles of fertile ground / With walls and towers…girdled round” and when it reapers in the third stanza it follows “Ancestral voices prophesying war!” Both of these references to the pleasure dome make it seem to be an implement of war, but the idea is complicated in the remainder of the poem. In the third stanza the dome “Floated midway on the waves… A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!” and then in the fourth stanza: “That with music loud and long / I would build that dome in air- / That sunny dome, those caves of ice!” So the poem has appeared on land, in the sea, and in the air, and seems to have very little to do with pleasure, so what is that word doing there?

The Second stanza helps move towards an answer. We begin with a “deep romantic chasm…athwart a cedarn cover!” The effect of which is immediately compared to a “woman wailing for her demon lover!” It’s very Georgia O’keefe to say the least. And that is before “this earth in fast thick pants were breathing, / A mighty fountain momently was forced” From this sexual event the River on which the Pleasure dome is built is born. And thus the two are connected. Furthermore, the event “Huge fragments vaulted” which may have been used to build the dome, and the Ice in the caves may be fed by “sacred river.” In this way the pleasure dome is birthed by the Earth’s sexual climax.

Making the next step in this analysis feels difficult without having fed on honey-dew and “drunk the milk of Paradise”. But, since the dome is built from the earth’s pleasure, its title of pleasure dome makes more sense. Additionally, the fact that the feminine earth’s sexual action is sublimated by Kubla Khan and the Ancestral voices into a military act, and that the “damsel with a dulciminer[‘s]…symphony and song” is used by the speaker to reconstruct the pleasure dome, suggests a patriarchichal structure within the poem. The women of the poem, and their sexuality, are instruments of masculine power.

On The Rights of Earth

William Blake’s “Earth’s Answer” from Songs of Experience is radically anti-God. It is a piece of speculative fiction that places Earth and the heavens at odds with each other, and in doing so sets up a primordial battle between oppressor and oppressed which can be mapped on to other conflicts through a political lens. The conflict is established most directly in the second and third stanzas where earth states that they are “Prison’d on watry shore / Starry Jealousy does keep my den” and that the “father of men” is selfish. Starry jealousy refers to some malicious intent from the angels, often represented by stars, which leads them to prevent earth from shining like them. The charechterization of God, the father of men, as selfish, is interesting in that it does not complain about humans directly or even blame them for what they have done to earth, but instead goes straight to the source, a move which challenges the idea of free will.

Earth does not only complain of its own cause, however, in the second half of the poem it shifts it begins to expand its argument for the oppressed beyond itself.

Can delight
Chain’d in night
The virgins of youth and morning bear.
Does spring hide its joy
When buds and blossoms grow?
Does the sower?
Sow by night?
Or the plowman in darkness plow?
…free Love with bondage bound.
At multiple points these lines demonstrate that the conflict being articulated by earth is one between nature, and restraint. In Earth’s case its natural state of being, a bright hot molten rock (of love?) is restricted by a “watry shore” and a “cold and hoar” den. It equates this prison to nonsensical restrictions that do not exist: restricting delight to the night would prevent it being enjoyed by the innocent, no one would expect spring to be somber, nor for farmers to work at night. Tracking this argument onto the political issues of Songs of Innocence and Experience, a connection can be made to the rights of child workers, we should allow children to exist as their nature dictates, not restrict it with work, Women and Slaves should be free full stop. It is a simplistic argument but by positioning the reader with the earth, a difficult thing to sympathize with, Blake prepares them to be more sympathetic to other, more rational causes.

Consciousness in “Old Man Traveling”

After our conversation in class on Thursday, I wanted to look at the theme of  consciousness in Wordsworth’s “Old Man Traveling.” We see phrases related to consciousness throughout the poem: The birds “regard” the old man not, The old man “does not move with pain, but moves / With thought. He is insensibly subdued,” and “the young behold…the old man hardly feels.” Additionally, the section on patience, treats it as a conscious exertion “of which he has no need.” There is an effect here that the perfect state of being is one which does not have any contradictions with the natural world, and thus has no need of conscious exertions. We see this in the contrast between pain, which signifies resistance of the body and the nervous system, and thought, which is almost effortless. The fact that the young “behold” the thoughtless quality of the man, suggest that his effortless thoughtless being is desirable. It may also be true that the poem is intending to only romanticize his calm and peaceful manner, but that manner is achieved effortlessly and thus that is romanticized too.

If we consider that an unconscious state of being is the status quo in much of the natural world, the poems effect can be taken a step further, into advocacy for humanities return to a more natural state of being. That would also suggest that the old man is closer to nature than the young, and that therefore the process of aging brings us closer to nature, which in death it most literally does. Nature only briefly enters the poem in the form of the “Little hedgerow Birds” which regard the old man not, suggesting again that the old man is one with nature, so much so that he does not disturb small, notoriously skittish, birds. Much of the Romantic treatment of nature seems to be very sublime and awful, or otherwise very separate from ourselves and only achievable to the enlightened poets, so it is nice to see an old man, thoughtlessly doing what they try so hard to achieve.