The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

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“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 public. In the fourth stanza, the speaker likens himself to a car, another machine, which represents the mechanical perceptions people have acquired through television by recalling images of cars as they appeared throughout the televised drama in question. The following two stanzas relate television to people: their paralysis in front of their television sets, their perceptions of Dallas, and their perceptions of Kennedy himself, who now moves and acts only on television. The next three stanzas relate the events to the poet, a one-time Texan and an indirect participant (through television), who takes some of the shame upon himself.

The poems ends with its longest stanza, which, as any good elegy should, points the reader toward the future; yet, this future is less secure. Kennedy’s youth is mourned but then dismissed in a halfhearted attempt to face facts. The end suggests that the nation should “continue,” that it will, as it always has, though “stunned, survive.” Yet due to television’s persistence in numbing people to horrors, this ability to survive is no longer admirable but is an “insolence,” a symbol that the nation is unable to move (or be moved) either physically, away from its black-and-white screens, or emotionally, toward a more natural grief.