Thursday, March 31, 2011

'He Resigns' by John Berryman & 'The Widow's Lament in Springtime' by William Carlos Williams

He Resigns

                   Age, and the deaths, and the ghosts.
                        Her having gone away
                        in spirit from me. Hosts
                        of regrets come and find me empty.

                        I don’t feel this will change.
                        I don’t want anything
                        or person, familiar or strange.
                        I don’t think I will sing

                        anymore just now,
                        or ever. I must start
                        to sit with a blind brow
                        above an empty heart.


                        The Widow’s Lament in Springtime

                   Sorrow in my own yard
                        where the new grass
                        flames as it has flamed
                        often before but not
                        with the cold fire
                        that closes around me this year.
                        Thirty-five years
                        I lived with my husband.
                        The plum tree is white today
                        with masses of flowers.
                        Masses of flowers
                        load the cherry branches
                        and color some bushes
                        yellow and some red
                        but the grief in my heart
                        is stronger than they
                        for though they were my joy
                        formerly, today I notice them
                        and turn away forgetting.
                        Today my son told me
                        that in the meadows,
                        at the edge of the heavy woods
                        in the distance, he saw
                        trees of white flowers.
                        I feel that I would like
                        to go there
                        and fall into the flowers
                        and sink into the marsh near them.


After the reserved grief of Anne Sexton’s ‘The Truth the Dead Know’ here are two of my favourite loss poems. I read them when I started writing and transcribed them into a notebook, knowing I would return to them both many times. In a sense, it is a reminder to myself to never forget the power of the emotionally direct and tender poem. There is no showy sentimentality here. There is simply feeling.

What strikes me is the surface simplicity, both of language and approach; the power also of the plain statement. In Berryman’s poem there is a sudden shift of focus at the end of the 2nd stanza: “I don’t feel this will change”. In ‘The Widow’s Lament in Springtime’ (at approximately the same position in the poem and acting rather like a 'beat' in a dramatic scene) there is a similar stark statement: “Thirty-five years / I lived with my husband”. There is no theatricality here, just naked emotion; no striving after heroic loss but the simple fact of loss as felt.

I mentioned Berryman’s Dreamsongs in an earlier entry in relation to use of the third person strategy that he employs brilliantly and often in the sequence. It is almost impossible to define what Berryman does in these poems. His alter ego, Henry, is part vaudevillian showman, part clown, part tragic-comic protagonist. With ‘He Resigns’ Berryman moves back from all his theatrical tropes and present a very direct and surprising piece. When you encounter it among the other wildly imaginative poems, its simplicity almost makes your heart break.

An interesting nugget for those interested in the long project that was the Dreamsongs. Berryman spent some time in Dublin in 1967 and wrote a large number of poems for the sequence during his stay in the Emerald place. I always find this surprising given the quintessentially America flavour of the poems. What a strange figure he must have also cut as he read from them on, at least, one occasion in the capital. The Irish poet John Montague recounts that event in his book of essays The Figure in the Cave and how Patrick Kavanagh was persuaded to go, after some effort, but only if Berryman didn't say that Yeats was the greatest Irish poet. Berryman got word of this and with his known sense of mischief, started his reading by proclaiming how wonderful it was to be in Ireland, 'the home of that genius among Irish poets: W.B. Yeats'. On hearing this, Kavanagh - standing at the back of the hall - lived up to his threat and noisily departed the gathering with his cohort of Palace Bar comrades, much to Berryman's amusement. What I would give to have been a fly on that wall.

In any case, here are some images of Berryman in Ireland from The Big States blog:

Here is a clip of Berryman reading Dreamsong ‘There Sat Down, Once, A Thing on Henry’s Heart’ which I’m happy to report was recorded during that famous stay in Dublin in an extended with A. Alvarez for the BBC. The director of the segment was apparently quite put out by the fact that Berryman was clearly already 'in his cups' for this lunchtime recording session, as the reading somewhat belies... So, fantastic that this rare footage has turned up again.


  1. I really enjoy your choices. Such striking poems. The direct statements reach right out and touch us. It makes me not want to be married for years and then lose somebody! It's enough to make you want to stay single.

    One thing I find funny about William Carlos Williams is that, when I was studying him and other poets in the 1970s, I was taught that he 'wasn't a great poet' but that he was interesting. Instead he seems to have become more and more of a classic. A great poet after all.

    I'll now watch the Berryman video - so good to have these recordings.

  2. Hey Adele, interesting what you say about Williams. I was thinking of looking at another two short - and perhaps more typical - pieces from him at a later stage and try to explain why the plainness of the writing is very deliberate and highly crafted.

    In general though, it's interesting how reputations climb and fall. In the 60s Lowell and Sexton were the lauded poets of the East Coast, whereas now people talk more of Elizabeth Bishop and Plath. And perhaps Williams is coming back into fashion. I'm not sure. I hope so. In any case, this is far from my mind when choosing the poems!