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.



Robin said...

What you write here is wonderful and beautiful! For some reason I think about this poem often. Maybe it's partly because we have a "barker" in the form of a sherherd dog who works extremely hard to keep our "flock" together. Here's to togetherness! Thanks for including Berryman on your blog. I am also amazed that you found a photo of a lone sheep on a snowy mountain.

cj white said...

The pervasive feeling of loneliness conveyed by Berryman in this poem is really impressive.

I've been trying to interpret "There seems to be eat / nothing", grapsing for a good understanding of the broken grammar. On one hand, it is natural for the voice a simple sheep to have incomplete or incorrect grammer. However, the concept of "seems" is to me more complex than using "nothing to eat". What are your thoughts on this?

Robin said...

I didn't look it up, but I remember the line as, "there seems to be to eat/ nothing." I've always thought of it as a use of iambic pentameter that really makes the line stop and go and stop and go. You can't say it quickly, the way you can, "there's nothing to eat." That aspect seems important to me. I also like what you say about the child-like quality of the non-standard grammar.

Gilbert Koh said...

This can be a tricky poem, depending on how deeply you want to try to read a sheep's mind. There's enough to support the following interpretation:

1. She never liked the shepherd nor the dog.

2. In fact she didn't even like the flock.

3. She intentionally ran away on her own.

4. She was quite happy until a storm hit.

5. She starts wishing she hadn't run away on her own. To be alone is a good thing, but now she feels she may have gone too far ("I'm too alone").

6. Her situation is precarious, but even then she isn't exactly overwhelmed with longing for the shepherd and the dog.

7. She feels that the ideal situation is that she runs away on her own and doesn't meet weather/food problems. The next best position is actually for all the sheep to run away together, from the shepherd and the dog ("If we could all run, even that would be better"). But now that she is alone AND cold AND hungry, she wishes that the shepherd and the dog would find her.

I'm fairly sure that Berryman had Psalm 23 in mind. The sheep's stupidity (in running away from the flock) takes on new meanings when we see it in light of a relationship between man and God.

My favourite line is "There may be horribles; it's hard to tell."

To me, the line echoes the atheist's uncertainties, in those quiet moments where he wonders, "What if I'm wrong - what if God exists?"