The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Formal Elegy” is written in what one would generally call free verse. It incorporates occasional rhymes but does not follow any strict form. Its ten stanzas range in length from two to twenty lines. The title suggests a closure to the confusion surrounding President John F. Kennedy’s assassination; yet, characteristic of John Berryman’s work, the poem indicates an inability to settle upon any conclusion. Written primarily in the first person, the poem occasionally lapses into third person and first person plural. It consists of scattered images of Kennedy; accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and his murderer, Jack Ruby; Dallas, Texas; Arlington Cemetery; and the poet himself. Almost all images are offered in relation to television, which the poet considers another player in the tragedy. This poem is a traditional elegy only in that it attempts to encompass all of the poet’s thoughts upon the subject. It does not specifically elegize Kennedy but seems to elegize the entire sequence of events related to his presidency and assassination.

In the first stanza, “Formal Elegy” presents the reader with several images that establish the poem’s tone and scope: Americans as survivors, the shocked poet, and the killers and the killed. The beginning of the second stanza—“Yes, it looks like a wilderness”—attempts to summarize this confusion, and the third stanza relates the confusion to television, which has presented these scattered images to...

(The entire section is 441 words.)

Formal Elegy Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Berryman’s fragmented style represents the nation’s confusion. The poem’s images are many and disjointed, their only commonality existing in their having been first seen in televised reports concerning Kennedy. However, the poem’s language acquires continuity through these images as it assumes the reader’s familiarity with the events surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. Thus, the speaker relies upon his audience’s knowledge, through television, of these references. Television, therefore, is the subject of the poem; the human actors are merely the objects.

“Nobody goes anywhere,” the poem asserts, “lengthened (days) into TV.” From now on, but especially in this crisis, Americans are lost to the images reflected on a television screen. “Some in their places are constrained to weep,” the speaker reveals, portraying the messages of television as “Black foam. A weaving snake. An invulnerable sleep.” Though what has happened is real, what people see is somewhat unreal. Televised images actually become reality as “Images of Mr Kennedy blue the air,/ who is little now, with no chance to grow great.”

The poem resembles a montage of Kennedy’s television images, and the speaker calls the reader’s specific attention to the images themselves: Kennedy’s hair “kept not wholly real”; the car in the motorcade, where “Onto him climbed/ a-many and went his way”; Ruby’s “mad claim/ he shot to spare the Lady’s...

(The entire section is 497 words.)

Formal Elegy Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bloom, Harold, ed. John Berryman. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Haffenden, John. John Berryman: A Critical Commentary. New York: New York University Press, 1980.

Haffenden, John. The Life of John Berryman. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

Haffenden, John, ed. Berryman’s Shakespeare: Essays, Letters, and Other Writings by John Berryman. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1999.

Halliday, E. M. John Berryman and the Thirties: A Memoir. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

Hirsch, Edward. “One Life, One Writing! The Middle Generation.” The American Poetry Review 29, no. 5 (September/October, 2000): 11-16.

Kelly, Richard J., and Alan K. Lathrop, eds. Recovering Berryman: Essays on a Poet. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Linebarger, J. M. John Berryman. New York: Twayne, 1974.

Mariani, Paul. Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman. 2d ed. New York: William Morrow, 1996.

Thomas, Harry. Berryman’s Understanding: Reflections on the Poetry of John Berryman. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988.

Travisano, Thomas. Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman, and the Making of a Postmodern Aesthetic. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.