John Berryman

poetry

Sonnet 115

All we were going strong last night this time,
the mots were flying & the frozen daiquiris
were downing, supine on the floor lay Lise
listening to Schubert grievous & sublime,
my head was frantic with a following rime:
it was a good evening, and evening to please,
I kissed her in the kitchen – ecstasies –
among so much good we tamped down the crime.

The weather’s changing. This morning was cold,
as I made for the grove, without expectation,
some hundred Sonnets in my pocket, old,
to read her if she came. Presently the sun
yellowed the pines & my lady came not
in blue jeans & a sweater. I sat down & wrote.

– – –

I decided this week to get all classical on yo’ ass. Sort of. While the subject and style is decidedly modern, the form is old skool: the sonnet. More specifically, the Petrarchan Sonnet, one of the oldest poetic forms still recieving serious attention today. Indeed the sonnet is perhaps the most well-known poetic form, behind perhaps the ballad. A Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet is broken into two stanzas, an octet (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). The octet and the sestet are meant to be different thematically; traditionally, the sestet is meant as a response to or commentary on the theme presented in the octet. Berryman’s separation here is similar, but different. I’ll get to that in a minute. The sonnet form simply specifies a rhyme pattern; in the case of the Petrarchan sonnet, this is a-b-b-a-a-b-b-a for the octet, and c-d-e-c-d-e or c-d-c-c-d-c for the sestet. Berryman’s octet is perfect, but he plays with the sestet somewhat: c-d-c-d-e-e, which more closely resembles an English sonnet with its ending couplet (and even this isn’t quite right, with “not” and “wrote” being half-rhymes at best).

But to look exclusively at his questionable rhymes is to miss the exquisite and mournful beauty of this poem. I feel as if I’m giving away the ending by reprinting this poem: this is the final sonnet of the book Berryman’s Sonnets, a book chronicling the author’s attempts–unsuccessful, as we can see–to win over “an Excellent lady wif whom he was in wuv.” (That line is from the book’s introduction.) In real life Berryman’s muse was the wife of one of his grad students, and the Sonnets charts their affair from giddy beginning to guilty end. The octet finds Berryman hopeful and wistful; he’s drunk at a party, watching “Lise” on the floor. He uses warm words like “ecstasies,” “sublime,” “supine,” “good,” “strong.” They kiss in the kitchen and he halfway believes “the crime” will continue on into a real relationship; in reality the kiss is one of farewell. The ninth line signals transformation: “The weather’s changing.” Berryman has collected all he’s written and he waits for her; she does not come. He is “cold,” “old,” “yellowed.” By the end of the book and this poem you really do want the two to end up together, despite the sordid nature of their love; yet one is not surprised when they part ways with a kiss. As we all know, heartbreak makes for great poetry. Perhaps the broken nature of the final couplet’s rhyme is entirely appropriate.

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Carl Sandburg
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Walt Whitman

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