The life of faith finds an enduring metaphor in the notion of the soul’s journey to God. Consider the pilgrim-poet of Dante’s Divine Comedy, who successfully navigates the subterranean circles of hell, ascends the mountains of purgatory, and ultimately experiences the inexpressible beauties of paradise. Or John Bunyan’s seventeenth-century Christian, who proceeds doggedly along the straight and narrow King’s Highway toward the Celestial City past the many obstacles sin puts in his way. Such journeys presuppose the sort of linear progression St. Bonaventure had in mind when he remarked in his treatise The Soul’s Journey into God, “In relation to our position in creation, the universe itself is a ladder by which we can ascend into God.”
Yet for another kind of pilgrim, there exists no such steady progress. For this unsteady soul, instead of the gradual brightening that greets Dante in Paradise, the light of faith flickers in and out; instead of an unshakable movement toward heaven, there is rather an oscillation between belief and doubt. Like the ancient Israelites—a people who found themselves alternately embraced and excoriated by God—these “kind of” Christians don’t so much tread a straight path to Zion as zigzag toward it through the wilderness.
Such a soul was the American poet John Berryman, who was baptized a Catholic as an infant in Oklahoma in 1914 and died—a despairing suicide—in 1972. One of the “confessional” poets of the 1950s and ’60s (a sobriquet he despised), Berryman left a portrait of his spiritual struggles in the series of poems he titled “Eleven Addresses to the Lord,” included in his 1970 book Love and Fame, published two years before his death. Organized in groups of four-line stanzas composed in a loose iambic pentameter, these poems show a wild swinging between faith and despair, light and darkness. Within the considerable corpus of Berryman’s work, nothing so trenchantly reveals the poet’s exhausting, protracted grappling with God as do the “Eleven Addresses.” They constitute the transcript of one man’s sustained spiritual agon.
Alcoholic, brilliant, and prone to self-destructive behavior, Berryman looped in and out of active identification with his faith throughout the years. His “Addresses” were composed shortly after a dramatic religious reawakening he underwent while in the intensive alcohol treatment center at St. Mary’s Hospital in upstate New York during the spring of 1970. Suddenly, Berryman understood God not as a remote and transcendent universal principle, but as steward of the individual fates of human beings. A newfound fervor of faith blossomed forth in the poems, set down by a poet pledging fealty to the “Master of beauty” and “Sole watchman of the flying stars,” and pleading with him to “forsake me not when my wild hours come.”
Though Berryman backpedaled within a few months, embarrassed by his conversion experience, and claimed not to regard “Eleven Addresses” as Christian poems at all, his “Addresses” nonetheless provide a mesmerizing account of an intensely personal engagement with God. They may be seen as the cries of a postmodern psalmist who is not only unable to find meaning in the world, but who questions whether meaning can even exist in an age where “horrors accumulate, the best men fail.” Out of the depths of Berryman’s suffering rises a haunting poetic voice.
It is a voice of many moods. Now the poet is effusive, praising God as “craftsman of the snowflake” and “limner of the clouds.” Now he is blunt: “I say ‘Thy kingdom come,’ it means nothing to me.” He is familiar, naming God as “President of the brethren.” And he is often sarcastic, challenging God on the existence of hell: “I’m fairly clear, my Friend, there’s no such place / ordained for inappropriate & evil man.”
Yet his longing to throw himself into God’s arms is palpable, especially in the sixth and central poem, a kind of spiritual autobiography that begins with the poet’s wry announcement that he is “under new management, Your Majesty: / Thine.” Recalling his Catholic childhood, when he served faithfully as an altar boy at early morning Mass, Berryman attributes the subsequent dimming of his faith to his father’s suicide (painfully described as “my father’s blow-it-all”). Lamenting the “confusions & afflictions” of his own life, he describes hitting bottom: “Bankrupt I closed my doors.” At last comes the moment of longed-for grace. “Finally,” he writes, “you opened my eyes.”
Throughout the “Addresses,” any assertion of faith is tugged back by an undertow of doubt. Acknowledging his repeated deliverance by God, Berryman nonetheless places firm limits on his commitment: “how can I ‘love’ you? / I only as far as gratitude & awe / confidently & absolutely go.” Later, he puts his doubt forthrightly on the table: “If I say Thy name, art Thou there? It may be so.” And in a meditation on God’s infinitude and incomprehensibility, the poet’s wonder at the natural emanations of divine power—the “crumpling, to my sister-in-law terrifying thunder,...the candelabra buds sticky in Spring, / Christ’s mercy”—yields to a grim reflection on the depredations of the twentieth century—“the lost souls in ill-attended wards,...all evil men, / Belsen, Omaha Beach...” Theodicy pure and simple underscores Berryman’s plangent cry: “Man is ruining the pleasant earth & man. / What at last, my Lord, will you allow?”
Read one of Berryman's "Addresses" here.
Berryman’s struggles with alcohol and depression are writ large, and at times his despair has an intensely personal feel. In the beseeching tones of the strikingly intimate third address, he begs his creator to exorcise the demons of lust, alcoholism, anger, and madness: “When all hurt nerves whine shut away the whiskey.” The connection between pain and poetic craft is on full display here, as Berryman lays out in stark terms his longing for wholeness and peace, and modulates his interior chaos by the strictures of meter and a steady succession of imperative pleas: “guard me,” “teach me,” “sustain my grand endeavors,” “forsake me not,” “grant me,” and most movingly, “Unite my various soul.”
In the end, that riven soul could not be stitched back together. Wanting desperately to believe that God heard him, Berryman was unable to reconcile his longing with his fear. Exhausted by years of wrestling with life and death, he took his own life—leaping from a bridge in Minneapolis, scarcely a year and a half after publishing the “Addresses.” His poems stand as a stark reminder that, for many, what’s between themselves and God is not a straight and narrow path, but a wild and arduous wasteland.
What does John Berryman have to say to us, forty years on? Why is this crazy, addictive, suicidal poet worth paying attention to? For two reasons, at least. First is the fierce authenticity of his struggle, a struggle that quivers with longing for God. From early on, beginning perhaps with his father’s suicide when he was twelve, Berryman wrestled mightily with the idea of God. Wanting to believe, he could find no incontrovertible evidence of God’s existence; indeed, both his personal traumas and the horrors of the twentieth century militated against belief. But he kept on struggling, asking the important questions, pouring out his soul in his poems. Each of the eleven “Addresses” shows the poet deeply engaged with the divine—naming God, conversing with God, beseeching God to make himself known. Though Berryman’s suicide demonstrates the cost of despair, his tenacity in the quest for God remains breathtaking, even exemplary.
His second gift to us has to do with the relationship between pain and beauty. Throughout much of his oeuvre, perhaps most arrestingly in the “Eleven Addresses,” Berryman succeeded in transmuting woundedness into poetry. Just as Yeats found his themes in the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart,” Berryman mined the gritty pain of his own life to fashion a poetry that reflected and ultimately transcended its source. The frequent syntactic dislocations of his verse—“May fade before, sweet morning on sweet morning, / I wake my dreams”—mirror an interior landscape of disorder. The bursts of praise—Berryman lauds God as “endower of Earth so gorgeous & different from the boring Moon”—echo his moments of creative clarity and joy. Throughout the “Addresses,” the poet’s careful craftsmanship orders his internal chaos and sublimates his pain into verses of intense complexity and gracefulness.
Buffeted throughout his tumultuous life by contrary forces of brilliant creativity and self-destruction, John Berryman managed to give voice to his struggles as an artist and a seeker of God, in poems that are dark with pain and bright with beauty. While it might be too much to view his poetry as redemptive, Berryman’s suffering did not have the final victory in his work. We may grant the last word to the eleventh and final Address, haunting testimony to one poet’s longing for the peace that passes understanding:
Make too me acceptable at the end of time
in my degree, which then Thou wilt award.
Cancer, senility, mania,
I pray I may be ready with my witness.