The Poem

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

“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.

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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.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

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 testifying”; Kennedy’s casket, which “I sidled in & past”; “schoolgirls in Dallas”; and “black & white together, stunned.” The language of the commentary also refers to images, to what people see rather than (necessarily) to reality: “it looks like a wilderness”; “Fat Dallas, a fit set”; “He seemed good:/ brainy in riot, daring, cool”; “We compose our faces.” The speaker comments upon televised images by speaking in their own terms, leaving the reader with the postmodern sense that reality is different for each person rather than a truth known to all. Yet since national television has homogenized these images, they have become the only truth.

The poem’s montage, then, creates its own reality, displaying for the reader, as it did for the viewer, a confusing sequence of events, repetitious, nonchronological, and without conclusion. The elegy must, therefore, be disjointed as well. Viewers could not draw a conclusion and neither can the elegy; it must tell the truth as it knows it: without certainty.

Therefore, Berryman’s fragmented presentation and his alternately reverent and irreverent tones further emphasize the scattered nature of the poem’s images. In this sense, the poem is not really an elegy at all. It offers no conclusion, no satisfaction, and no understanding. It merely reflects on a relatively new American condition—the age of television—while it literally reflects a situation that promises to become a classic example of this condition. Images are key; their meanings and order are not. People learn from their memories. As a culture, Americans remember what they see, and what they see is now fuzzy and unreliable.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 165

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.

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