Struggling to Believe: John Berryman’s “Eleven Addresses to the Lord”

The Holiday Seasons are a time for us to deepen our understanding of, and appreciation for God. And for me at least that means poetry. Not all poets are prophets, but all prophets are poets–and a few of them even got anthologized in the Bible. But there has been a lot of prophetic poetry since then, and a good bit of it is in the 2013 anthology Before the Door of God, edited by Jay Hopler and (Amazing BYU English Professor) Kimberly Johnson. The book covers devotional poetry from the ever-popular “beginning of time” through the present focusing, not entirely exclusively, on the English tradition. This is easily enough work for a lifetime, and I plan to make it my work during this year’s holiday season.

For the last week or so, I have been wrestling with one of the poems towards the end of the book. The poet is John Berryman–whose name I recognize, barely, as one of the mid-20th century figures in what anthologists call the “Confessional School.” It is possible, and even probably, that I read a few of his famous Dream Songs in a graduate seminar in the late 1980s.

But I know that I have never before encountered the sequence of poems called “Eleven Addresses to the Lord.” And I am fairly sure that, if I had read these poems in college, Berryman would have become one of my favorite poets ever. And this line from the first of the eleven poems would have changed me then in ways both similar and different to the way that it changes me now:

I have no idea whether we live again.
It doesn’t seem likely
from either the scientific or the philosophical point of view
but certainly all things are possible to you,

and I believe as fixedly in the Resurrection-appearances to Peter & to Paul
as I believe I sit in this blue chair.
Only that may have been a special case
to establish their initiatory faith.

Whatever your end may be, accept my amazement.
May I stand until death forever at attention
for any your least instruction or enlightenment.
I even feel sure you will assist me again, Master of insight & beauty.

These lines sum up, as well as Camus ever did, the position that the existentialists called “the absurd”: our desire for meaning and purpose in the modern world exceeds our capacity to believe in meaning and purpose, so we are stuck forever wanting something that we can’t have.

Among the possible responses to this position are suicide, religious fanaticism, art, and eternally rolling a rock up a hill just to watch it roll down again. Berryman likely tried all of these, including suicide, which he committed in 1972, only two years after these poems were published.

But that is not his answer in this poem. The answer he gives here is to ask God to accept his “amazement.” And, in the second poem, he defines what he considers so amazing:

Holy, as I suppose I dare to call you
without pretending to know anything about you
but infinite capacity everywhere & always
& in particular certain goodness to me.

Yours is the crumpling, to my sister-in-law terrifying thunder,
yours the candelabra buds sticky in Spring,
Christ’s mercy,
the gloomy wisdom of godless Freud:

yours the lost souls in ill-attended wards,
those agonized thro’ the world
It this instant of time, all evil men,
Belsen, Omaha Beach,—

incomprehensible to man your ways.
May be the Devil after all exists.
‘I don’t try to reconcile anything’ said the poet at eighty,
‘This is a damned strange world.’

Here and throughout the eleven addresses Berryman grapples with the impossible nature of eternity and realizes that it is impossible in both directions. The bigness of infinity defies the human capacity for explanation both positively and negatively. Nothing can explain it, but, and the same time, NOTHING can’t explain it–precisely because it is something. The only wisdom we have is the wisdom of the old poet who says, ” ‘I don’t try to reconcile anything . . . ‘This is a damned strange world.’

What does one do in a damned strange world in which the existence and the non-existence of God are equally impossible? Berryman leads us there in the only named stanza of the eleven addresses, the eighth stanza, “A Prayer for the Self”:

Who am I worthless that You spent such pains
and take may pains again?
I do not understand; but I believe.
Jonquils respond with wit to the teasing breeze.

Induct me down my secrets. Stiffen this heart
to stand their horrifying cries, O cushion
the first the second shocks, will to a halt
in mid-air there demons who would be at me.

May fade before, sweet morning on sweet morning,
I wake my dreams, my fan-mail go astray,
and do me little goods I have not thought of,
ingenious & beneficial Father.

Ease in their passing my beloved friends,
all others too I have cared for in a travelling life,
anyone anywhere indeed. Lift up
sober toward truth a scared self-estimate.

This, I think, is what it looks like when hope turns into faith. This is not a certain knowledge that can be expressed “without a shadow of a doubt.” Genuine faith is made up of equal parts of belief and doubt–with both the faith and the doubt shrouded in uncertainty. Faith, in other words, is the struggle to believe, not the belief itself. And like any other struggle it is one that we sometimes fail at. But sometimes we don’t. And there is both great beauty and great meaning in the struggle.

Comments

  1. Michael, thank you for your thoughtful introduction to this anthology. I enjoyed the chance to read the excerpts you selected and appreciated your reflections on them. Whatever our individual conclusions, this is certainly ground we all trod.

  2. Touched my heart, thank you M.A.

  3. Olde Skool says:

    That’s a heck of a cover on that book, seriously.

  4. Thanks for your posts. They don’t touch hot-button issues, but I really appreciate their grounded faith and striving for understanding.

  5. I appreciate this (missed it when it came out). I will acquire the book, somehow. This is my first exposure to Berryman. For obvious reasons it causes me to reflect that Seminary-level instruction was full of answers. Simple certainties that have not survived the decades since, but have been replaced by I don’t think I will ever know. Damned strange world indeed.

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