Daniel Berrigan’s poetry reflects his complex evolution as a human being, a Roman Catholic, a Jesuit priest, a peace activist, and a humanitarian. His poems, created over more than seven decades, exhibit wide-ranging subjects, tone, and techniques. Because of his notoriety as an activist, he has been called “the most overlooked poet of our time.” His poetry is rooted in his religious vocation, and the American writer Kurt Vonnegut once called him “Jesus as a poet.” Some critics have found echoes of fellow Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, particularly in Berrigan’s early poems, but his poetry does not manifest the same fascination with rhythm, neologistic language, and form as that of Hopkins, and though Berrigan’s oeuvre is much more extensive than that of his Jesuit counterpart, it has not yet achieved the stature and influence of Hopkins’s more modest output. In his later works, Berrigan refused to separate religion, politics, and poetry, and some critics have praised this mature work as the product of a passionate sensibility refined by his sufferings in and out of prison. However, other critics think that Berrigan’s intertwining of politics and poetry has led to didactic productions that purvey ideas, not imaginative experiences. For them, these later poems lack the mastery of metaphor and emotional insights that characterized his early creations. Berrigan himself feels that his primary responsibility is not to the critics but to the community of peacemakers.
Time Without Number
Berrigan’s first book, Time Without Number, whose poems were written during his years of Jesuit training and his early work as a priest, reverberates with his reactions to life in the Catholic Church during the years before the revolutionary changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council. He found that his soul was “moving in a contrary wind” to conservative Catholicism, and his poems were largely the product of his lonely meditations and social activism. Influenced by Day, he identified with those priests and laypersons who were fighting against poverty, militarism, and racism. In the course of these experiences, Berrigan met a young editor who had heard of his poems, which Berrigan was reluctant to publish. He made an agreement with this editor that, if a “scrupulous and demanding reader” found his poems commendable, then he would agree to publication. The discerning reader was the great American poet Marianne Moore, who became a passionate advocate for Berrigan’s poetry.
In Berrigan’s estimation, his first book was a “minitriumph,” but other readers were more effusive in their praise. Highly honored, this book served as a provocative prelude to all the poems that were to follow. Some of these early poems derive from Berrigan’s experiences of the natural world. For example, “Its Perfect Heart” begins with the poet’s observation of a gray-blue heron in a November dawn. The Hebrews considered these long-necked, long-legged birds to be unclean, but the poet admires the “invisible fire” that enlivens the bird’s heart and drives it north to breed. While humans huddle by their firesides, the heron labors day and night, following the promptings of “its perfect heart.”
Other poems in this collection have a biographical source, such as “You Vested Us This Morning,” dedicated to his “soldier-brothers” serving in World War II. He dedicates “The Innocent Throne” to his brother Philip; it contains references to their childhood and to Daniel’s physical and emotional breach with his mother when he entered the Society of Jesus. According to Jesus Christ, his close followers have to leave father and mother and dedicate themselves totally to his service, a teaching that Jesus himself realized was difficult and that the poet feels is brutal, even tragic, as he “snatches his heart away” from his mother, leaving her with a stranger who “. . . suddenly/ stands at her door.” The religious poems in this first collection prompted some readers to find influences on Berrigan from such seventeenth century Metaphysical poets as John Donne and George Herbert. Although most critics commended the efforts of this poetic novice, some reviewers objected to the preachy tone of some of the poems, while others found that the twisted syntax and cryptic language often muddied the poet’s messages. Still other reviewers observed that the meters and rhythms of certain poems were often at odds with their themes. Despite these criticisms, judges from the Academy of American Poets and the National Book Award found the young poet’s collection extraordinarily promising.
False Gods, Real Men
By 1969, when this seventh book of Berrigan’s poetry was published, he had become more famous for his public protests than his poetry. He had participated in civil rights marches with Martin Luther...
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