Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Auden


This article appeared in Ceylon Today on February 14 2020



Padraig Colman

To pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself. Whenever a man so concentrates his attention – on a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol, or the True God – that he completely forgets his own ego and desires, he is praying. The primary task of the schoolteacher is to teach children, in a secular context, the technique of prayer.

WH Auden


These days, nobody ever listens to anyone else. This may be the case everywhere in the world but I am particularly noticing it during my stay in London. People no longer seem to be able to communicate effectively face-to-face. I initially found it disconcerting to find a constant aural background of solo pedestrians, who appeared to be wearing hearing aids, endlessly talking in mad monologues. After a while, I realised that these apparently deaf soliloquisers were in reality talking on their mobile phones as they walked. There was somebody else on the other end but whether there was any communication is another matter. People sitting face-to-face were also soliloquising.  Jean Piaget observed that if you put several preschoolers together, they jabber away to themselves rather than to one another.


Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.” I have observed many failed dialogues. People talk over each other. One interlocutor asks the other a question. The other attempts an answer but is quickly interrupted. Something in the answerer’s response triggers a connection with the first person’s experience and he/she embarks on a digression on that only to be interrupted by the second person. This has happened many times to me and I have developed a technique to deal with persistent interruptions.


I just keep ploughing on, talking and talking until the other person’s face displays utter panic when he or she realises that I am saying something and splutters to a halt. He/she still does not really take on board what I am saying and gets a distracted look in the eyes. When I try to initiate another conversational thread, she/he often says “sorry” because he/she is deafened by distraction. In Tender Is the Night, F Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “Intermittently she caught the gist of his sentences and supplied the rest from her subconscious, as one picks up the striking clock in the middle with only the rhythm of the first uncounted strokes lingering in the mind.”


I am not the first to notice that this kind of attention deficit and ‘conversation’-hogging has become commonplace. I have recently read a book about it – You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy. She ties in this phenomenon with the constant use of smart phones and tablets and warns about the serious consequences.  “If someone tells a story that takes longer than thirty seconds, heads bow, not in contemplation but to read texts…” There is no thought of letting a joke slowly build to a big payoff. “Think about a time when you were trying to tell a story to someone who was obviously uninterested; maybe they were sighing or their eyes were roaming around the room. What happened? Your pacing faltered, you left out details, or maybe you started babbling irrelevant information or overshared in an effort to regain their attention. You probably trailed off while the other person smiled blandly or nodded absently.” You probably felt a little humiliated, diminished. The average amount of time people devote to listening to one another during their waking hours has gone down from 42 percent to 24 percent.


There is indubitably a link with widespread screen addiction. The serious consequence is loneliness. In a 2018 survey of twenty thousand Americans, almost half said they did not have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend, on a daily basis. About the same proportion said they often felt lonely and left out even when others were around. Compare that to the 1980s when similar studies found only 20 percent said they felt that way. Nilli Lavie, a professor of psychology and brain sciences at UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, has established a clear link between constant phone use and depression.


There are ways to combat this distraction – some form of CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) using practical exercises to replace bad habits with better ones. I have always been a phone-phobe and rarely engage in telephone conversations. I resisted having a mobile phone for a long time and mainly use it now to call a cab and check the time. I have been lucky enough to resist the lures of smart phones and i-pads but I have had these devices thrust upon me by well-meaning addicts. I find smart devices useful for reading the news when I wake up and am drinking my first mug of tea. I don’t watch TV or listen to the radio. I have never used Twitter. There have been times when I have got carried away with Facebook but I reserve a special time for checking my FB interactions and I don’t do Facebook on my phone. I keep my number of ‘friends’ low so that I am not inundated with notifications. If I am eating out with friends, I keep my phone well-hidden.  There is no likelihood of an emergency that would be helped by my immediate input. A study by psychologists at the University of Essex found that the sight of a phone on the table makes those sitting around the table feel more detached and reluctant to talk about anything important. There is a spectre at the feast.

Device dependency has many of the same behavioral, psychological, and neurobiological components as substance abuse. There is even a poet addressing this issue: Charly Cox. Her book Validate Me is subtitled A life of code dependency. Another writer has suggested that one day the excessive use of mobile devices in public, which has become ‘normal’, will one day be regarded with the same distaste that smokers are today.


Kathy Murphy offers some advice on how to be a better listener. Listening is the simplest way to show someone you respect them. When people feel the urgency to always sell themselves, they tend to exaggerate, which lowers the level of discourse and fosters cynicism. People generally don’t want you to solve any problems they present to you; they want you to listen sympathetically. Sympathy does not mean interrupting them to say you had the same problem. Not everything needs to be said as you are feeling it. Murphy tells a story about visitors to the home of the wonderful writer Eudora Welty noting that she didn’t have a TV or radio on in the background. She did not talk on the phone. There were no distractions. The focus was on the guests and they carried away a lasting impression of her courtesy. Welty no doubt found material for her writing from listening to her guests.




The Brilliant Work and Difficult Life of John BerrymanPart One

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday August 10



The school of “Confessional Poetry” was associated with several writers who redefined American poetry in the ’50s and ’60s. These included Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and John Berryman, ‘Confessionalism’ is a style focusing on extreme moments of individual experience, the psyche, and personal trauma, including previously taboo subjects such as mental illness, sexuality, and suicide.

John Berryman incorporated much of his personal experience into his poems and his was an eventful life. The poet started out as John Allyn Smith Jr. He was born in Oklahoma where he was raised until the age of ten, and then submitted to a peripatetic existence. When Berryman was twelve years old, his father, John Allyn Smith Sr, shot himself. With the Florida land bust, suicide was not uncommon and Smith’s death did not grab the attention of the Tampa police. Much was made of Smith’s insomnia, depression and money worries, but nothing of his marital problems or the absence of powder burns. Ten weeks after her husband’s death, Martha Smith married John Angus Berryman, who had been her lover before Smith’s demise. The future poet took the new husband’s name and was taught to call him “Uncle Jack”. His mother took to calling herself “Jill”.

His father’s suicide (or murder?) left a mark on the poet.

Thought I much then of perforated daddy,

daddy boxed in & let down with strong straps,

when I my friends’ homes visited, with fathers

universal and intact


In his 1990 biography of Berryman, Dream Song, Paul Mariani wrote: “Much of what Berryman wrote about himself in his various autobiographical guises was brilliantly and highly original in its manner of saying. But it was also oblique, defeated, and – because of his long obsessions with alcohol, love, and fame – often, as he came himself to understand, delusory”.

After a long struggle with alcoholism and mental illness, Berryman threw himself off a bridge in 1972.

Early Work


Berryman’s early work formed part of a volume entitled Five Young American Poets, published by New Directions in 1940. One of the other young poets included in the book was Randall Jarrell, whom I will discuss in future articles. New Directions published Berryman’s first book, entitled Poems, in 1942. His first mature book, The Dispossessed, appeared six years later, published by William Sloane Associates. Charles Thornbury recognised in this early work themes that would recur throughout Berryman’s work- the rite of reformation, cycles moving simultaneously to the alternations of day and night, desire and conception, the progression of the seasons, and the stages of youth and age.


The Dispossessed was not well-received. Randall Jarrell wrote, in The Nation, that Berryman was “a complicated, nervous, and intelligent [poet]” whose poetry in The Dispossessed was too derivative of WB Yeats. Berryman later said, “I didn’t want to be like Yeats; I wanted to be Yeats.”

The influence of Yeats is everywhere in the early work. Berryman also tried on the ill-fitting public persona of the WH Auden of the 1930s. Most of these socio-political poems are what Randall Jarrell called ”statues talking like a book”.



In 1947, Berryman started an affair with a married woman named Chris while he was still married to his first wife, Eileen. He documented the affair with a sonnet sequence of over a hundred poems. This marked a major stage in his development, moving from a public rhetorical style to a more intimate, confessional, nervous voice. He refrained from publishing the Sonnets to Chris until 1967.

Homage to Mistress Bradstreet

Berryman’s first major work was Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. The long title poem first appeared in Partisan Review in 1953 and the book was published in 1956. Berryman addressed the life of 17th century puritan American poet Anne Bradstreet, the first recognized poet of the American literary tradition, and combined her history with his own fantasies about her. Berryman told an interviewer in 1972: “The idea was not to take Anne Bradstreet as a poetess – I was not interested in that. I was interested in her as a pioneer heroine, a sort of mother to the artists and intellectuals who would follow her and play a large role in the development of the nation.”

Anne Bradstreet enjoyed a relatively privileged life in England. She was born in Northampton, in 1612, the daughter of Thomas Dudley, a steward of the Earl of Lincoln. Because of her family’s position, she grew up in cultured circumstances and was a well-educated woman for her time, tutored in history, several languages and literature. At the age of sixteen, she married Simon Bradstreet. At the age of eighteen, she, her husband, and her parents sailed with John Winthrop for the Puritan settlement at Massachusetts Bay. Her first book of poems, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was published in England in 1650 by her brother-in-law without her knowledge. These first poems are sometimes candid and immediate, but more often they are conventional in style and on accepted topics — her love for husband, children, God. Later poems show a different attitude. Both Anne’s father and husband were later to serve as governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.


In Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, a series of fifty-seven, eight-line verses, Berryman comments on, converses with and courts Bradstreet and sometimes speaks as her. In section 31, Berryman has Bradstreet moving towards him:


–It is Spring’s New England. Pussy willows wedge

up in the wet. Milky crestings, fringed

yellow, in heaven, eyed

by the melting hand-in-hand or mere

desirers single, heavy-footed, rapt,

make surge poor human hearts. Venus is trapt—

the hefty pike shifts, sheer—

in Orion blazing. Warblings, odours, nudge to an edge-


Berryman employed an eight-line stanza of great flexibility, gravity and lightness. The poem took him five years to complete and demanded much from the reader but won plaudits from critics at the time and continued to win praise in later years. In 1989, Edward Hirsch observed, “the 57 stanzas of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet combine the concentration of an extended lyric with the erudition and amplitude of a historical novel.” Berryman’s friend Saul Bellow described the poem as “the equivalent of a 500-page psychological novel”.

Out of maize & air

your body’s made, and moves. I summon, see,

from the centuries it.”


Berryman makes Mistress Bradstreet a rebel speaking out against the constraints of gender and environment. The underlying subject is, as Berryman indicated later, ”the almost insuperable difficulty of writing high verse in a land that cared and cares so little for it.” The poem examines the tension between Bradstreet’s personal life and her artistic life, concluding in a spirit of fatalism. The work primarily examines creative repression, religious apostasy, and the temptation to adultery. Critic Luke Spencer focused on “Berryman’s intimate dialogue with Anne Bradstreet and the mutual sexual attraction”. Berryman tried to “colonise” and seduce a virtuous member of the Puritan community by turning her into his mistress. Berryman portrays her as rejecting both her husband and father and the Puritan deity that sanctions their view of life. The historical Bradstreet’s letters portray her as a model of devotion to her husband; members of her family encouraged her writing of poetry.


Among the most moving parts of Berryman’s work are about Bradstreet’s conflicts with her own sensuality and the struggle for religious faith and peace. Berryman finds Bradstreet’s value and meaning in her suffering.


Veiled my eyes, attending. How can it be I?   

Moist, with parted lips, I listen, wicked.   

I shake in the morning & retch.

Brood I do on myself naked.

A fading world I dust, with fingers new.

—I have earned the right to be alone with you.   

—What right can that be?

Convulsing, if you love, enough, like a sweet lie.



More about Berryman’s life next week and about his masterwork Dream Songs.


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