Monday, January 10, 2005

John Berryman

Many thanks to Robin for this week's beautiful poem by John Berryman (1914-1972). Be sure to take a look at Robin's lovely site about poetry and "other things that quicken the heart." To read more about Berryman, check out this page at the Academy of American Poets.

Dream Song 28: Snow Line

It was wet & white & swift and where I am
we don't know. It was dark and then
it isn't.
I wish the barker would come. There seems to be eat
nothing. I am usually tired.
I'm alone too.

If only the strange one with so few legs would come,
I'd say my prayers out of my mouth, as usual.
Where are his note I loved?
There may be horribles; it's hard to tell.
The barker nips me but somehow I feel
he too is on my side.

I'm too alone. I see no end. If we could all
run, even that would be better. I am hungry.
The sun is not hot.
It's not a good position I am in.
If I had to do the whole thing over again
I wouldn't.

John Berryman

Robin writes that the speaker of this poem is a sheep that has strayed from its flock, and suggests that it may be a take on the 23rd Psalm. There has been a storm, "wet and white and swift," which has led to the sheep's predicament. I am interested in the way the sheep thinks both individually and communally; for example, she thinks in terms of "I" and "me"--"I am usually tired," "The barker nips me"-- but slips easily into a "we" voice--"where I am / we don't know;" "If we could all / run, even that would be better." This sheep is accustomed, and perhaps even designed, to exist as one within a group of the same--one sheep among many sheep, living and eating and existing together. Other sheep are not specifically mentioned, only alluded to through the "we" voice. Those who are not sheep, however--the man ("the one with so few legs") and the dog ("the barker")--are viewed as separate from the flock; where other sheep are viewed as part of the self, "we" being interchangeable with "I," the dog and man are spoken of in the third person, from an outside perspective.

The loneliness of the lost sheep is intensified by the use of the "we" voice. This creature is intended to be in a group of like creatures. She thinks of I and we as referring to the same thing: sheep, a word that is is the same for both singular and plural. To find herself now lost, tired, alone, cold, and hungry, is devastating. She does not want to be independent. She longs for the interdependence of her life in the flock, where her needs were provided for by the sheep, the shepherd, and the dog. She loved her simple, content life.

From a broader perspecctive, I see this poem as a statement of longing for the kind of life the sheep had before becoming lost, a life of simplicity, contentment, and community. It is a longing humans are familiar with, but one we are frequently not willing to satisfy, as it required a shephered whoe makes all decisions as to where we will go, and a "barker" who keeps us in line. The sheep is willing to live within these parameters in order to enjoy the community and safety of the flock. But humans, who are apt to think of "following the flock" as something negative, tend to value independence more than dependence. Perhaps this is the speakers point--we may choose to live independent lives, but there is a price to pay; and at least as far as the speaker is concerned, it isn't worth it.


Monday, January 03, 2005

A Sonnet by Mathilde Blind

I am so glad I asked for poetry suggestions, because I am learning a great deal about poets I have not yet studied. Today's poem is by Mathilde Blind, a "late-Victorian poet, biographer, novelist, essayist, translator and editor" born in Germany. (Check out this page for a biography of Blind.)

The following sonnet is from Blind's Song's and Sonnets, published in 1893:

Dost thou remember ever, for my sake,
When we two rowed upon the rock-bound lake?
How the wind-fretted waters blew their spray
About our brows like blossom-falls of May
One memorable day?

Dost thou remember the glad mouth that cried--
"Were it not sweet to die now side by side,
To lie together tangled in the deep
Close as the heart-beat to the heart--so keep
The everlasting sleep?"

Dost thou remember? Ah, such death as this
Had set the seal upon my heart's young bliss!
But, wrenched asunder, severed and apart,
Life knew a deadlier death: the blighting smart
Which only kills the heart.

The speaker in this poem states that a broken heart is worse than death; that is is, in fact, "a deadlier death" than death of the body. It is a poignant statment about the crushing sensation of being rejected by one who once claimed to love you intnesely, but now does not. The speaker's lover had "set the seal" of love on her young heart, but the seal was ripped open and her heart wounded by the lover's desertion.

Because Blind was a fervent feminist and socialist who chose never to marry, I can't help searching for some irony in this poem. Was Blind, who had a great love for the standard male romantic poets, just creating her own sonnet about love and loss, in one of her last published works? It seems to me that is the case. It is not a political turning the tables on the sonnet form, but a participation in it, creating a beautiful, painful illustration of the feeling of love, abandonment, and grief.