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Poem-a-Day is the original and only daily digital poetry series featuring over 200 new, previously unpublished poems by today's talented poets each year. On weekdays, poems are accompanied by exclusive commentary by the poets. The series highlights classic poems on weekends. Launched in 2006, Poem-a-Day is now distributed via email, web, and social media to 350,000+ readers free of charge and is available for syndication. For more information about how to syndicate Poem-a-Day, contact [email protected].

There Ought to Be a Law Against Henry

Recorded for Poem-a-Day, January 19, 2018.
About this Poem 
"Of course the title of this piece, 'There Ought to Be a Law against Henry,' is from John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs, a book I’ve cherished for years for its wit and invention and pure nerve. Recently—given that our national life seems to be unraveling—I am coming to understand the rage and unspeakable sorrow of those songs. This is a poem of gratitude, pure and simple.”
—Marianne Boruch

There Ought to Be a Law Against Henry

given his showing up to teach at the U 
disheveled, jittery cigarette and cigarette and probably 
the drink, losing the very way there 
over river, river of all song, all American story 
which starts way north of St. Paul quiet or undone 
wandering south, not 
enraged mostly, something stranger. 
That’s one epic shard of John Berryman anyway.

Notorious. And par for the course in a classroom
destined, struck-by-lightning 
in sacred retrospect, the kind those long-ago students 
now can’t believe themselves 
so accidentally chosen, grateful though one 
probably claimed the poet absolutely 
bonkers then, out of his tree toward the end, 
so went the parlance. Wasn’t he 
always late—Give them back, Weirdo!—with those
brilliant papers they eked out, small dim-lit 
hours when a big fat beer would’ve 
been nice. Really nice. 
Fuck him, I hear that kid most definitely 
blurting were he young right now 
though the others—  From the get-go their
startle and reverence. But not even that malcontent 
did the damning I can’t believe 
they gave him tenure. 

Here’s where I think something else, think
of course it’s the Dream Songs that rattled him until—
as grandparents used to say—he couldn’t 
see straight. Like Dickinson’s bits of shock and light 
did her in between naps and those letters to
some vague beloved unattainable. Or Plath, her 
meticulous crushing fog. Maybe closer to Milton working 
his blindness—literally blind rage, if you want 
to talk rage—into pages soaked through with triumphant 
failure and rhyme, always 
that high orchestration, that alpha/omega big voice thing.  
And Satan, after all, as wise guy
and looming because for chrissake, Jack, get an interesting 
character in there! Someone must have
lobbed that right. 

All along, Berryman: how those Dream Songs surely
loosened a bolt or a wheel in his orderly
scholar-head, must have come at him 
like Michael the Archangel, 77 days of winged flash 
searing him to genius, some kind of
whack-a-mole version. Maybe like Gabriel
cutting that starry celebrity deal 
for a most dubious conception in the desert, near a fig tree, 
no proper human mechanics required. At last 
Berryman’s rage wasn’t rage 
but sorrow turned back on itself. With teeth. 

Henry my hero of crankiness and feigned indifference,
unspeakable industry, exhaustion 
and grief, half funny-crazy, half who-knows-what-
that-line-means. A henry whole 
universe of Henry, of 
there ought to be a law against Henry—pause 
and pause—Mister Bones: there is.  
Will be! Was! Not to say poetry’s
worth it or the most healthy fascination for the sane.
I’m just, I mean—is this love?  

There’s break, as in lucky, as in 
shatter. There’s smitten and there’s smite.

Copyright © 2018 by Marianne Boruch. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 19, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2018 by Marianne Boruch. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 19, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.