The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The title of “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” suggests its basic structure and intent. Eleven short poems, each capable of standing alone but enhanced by association with the others, compose the whole. Each poem is written in quatrains of varying line length; rhyme is often, though not consistently, used.

In the first address, Berryman (there is no perceivable distance between the persona-narrator and the author) praises God as the “Master of beauty” and the fashioner of things exquisitely small and lovely (the snowflake) and grandly inspiring (the earth). These are common ways of looking at God, but soon Berryman’s focus becomes more personal: God has come to his rescue “again and again” over the years. Had he not, the implication is quite clear, the narrator would have destroyed himself as so many of his friends have done. Both the praise of God’s creation and gratitude for his sustaining blessing are traditional poetic gestures. What is less traditional, however, is the open doubt expressed by the poet: “I have no idea whether we live again.”

The first address sets the pattern that the succeeding ten will follow in whole or in part: praise of God and his creation, gratitude for his assistance, and a strain of doubt that is sometimes subtle but elsewhere blatant enough to border on cynicism or sarcasm. Address 2 finds Berryman once again praising God the Creator and especially for his “certain goodness to me.” By the...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Berryman has long been considered one of the twentieth century’s great innovators, a master manipulator of poetic conventions. These manipulations are most fully developed in The Dream Songs (1969) and are, to a degree at least, more muted in “Eleven Addresses to the Lord.” Nevertheless, Berryman provocatively utilizes many poetic devices to enhance the sequence’s complex interplay of sincerity and irony. Indeed, just as the poem thematically wavers between faith and doubt, its form varies from the almost anachronistically traditional to innovations that, especially in a context of conventional devices, are deliberately jarring.

At first glance the conventional elements seem to predominate. The title predisposes the reader to expect something traditional, “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” being as appropriate for the twelfth century as the twentieth. Moreover, the individual poems seem very close to Horation odes—that is, discourses on a single subject employing an unvarying stanzaic pattern. As with this centuries-old form, the language, initially at least, seems appropriately lofty and dignified.

Even if the reader did not recognize the Horatian ode form, however, one glance at the page would seem to promise poetic conventionality: All sections are written in apparently standard quatrains. This promise seems confirmed at the beginning of the poem, where God is described as “Master of beauty, craftsman of the...

(The entire section is 541 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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