“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.)