John Berryman is an incredibly interesting writer who is best-known from his “Dream Songs,” a collection of 385 “songs” that expanded throughout his lifetime. In this particular poem, he steps away from his world of dream songs but is still as recognizably thoughtful and purposeful as ever. While on the surface ‘The Ball Poem’ initially appears simple, it’s actually quite impactful and intense the deeper one digs into the content.
Explore The Ball Poem
Summary of The Ball Poem
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by describing, in very simple language, a child who loses a ball he’s playing with. It soon becomes clear that this ball was not something simple that can be replaced. It was the only one that the child is going to get. Once it’s gone, rolled into the harbor, he’s not going to get another. The child experiences this loss as all human beings experience their entrance into adulthood. Its a transformation marked by a new understanding of the darker and more brutal parts of life.
The poem concludes with the speaker transitioning into the first person narrative perceptive. He steps back from this metaphorical child and regencies that he is o longer that person. He is someone else entirely. Someone who explores the dark parts of the harbor that the child was fearful of. He knows what resides there.
You can read the full poem here.
Themes in The Ball Poem
In ‘The Ball Poem’ Berryman explores themes of loss, growing up, and transformation. This is something of a coming of age poem that is seen through the lens of loss and suffering. The child comes to better understand the world through the recognition that he’s never going to get his lost ball back. It is gone for good and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. The child undergoes a transformation in the poem that is only hinted at. The speaker, who is the focus of the last lines, is on the other side of that transformation. He is in the harbor, in a place of loss, looking back at the child that he used to be.
Structure and Form
‘The Ball Poem’ by John Berryman is a twenty-five line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern but that does not mean the poem is entirely without either. For example, numerous lines, although not nearly all of them, contain five sets of two beats. Some of these are iambic while others are trochaic. Line two is a good example of how the stresses are rearranged.
Berryman makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Ball Poem’. These include but are not limited to anaphora, imagery, and caesura. The first of these, anaphora, is a kind of repetition that is focused on the first lines of a poem. For example, “Merrily” at the start of lines three and four and the word “And” at the start of lines eighteen and nineteen.
Caesura is a formal technique that appears when the poet uses punctuation to separate lines of verse. For example, line four reads: “Merrily over—there it is in the water!” Another good example is line twelve: “In a world of possessions. People will take balls”.
Imagery is one of the most important techniques in any poem as without it readers will be unable to connect to the scenes or emotions being depicted. The best poetic imagery is that which encourages readers to use different senses in order to imagine it. Lines seven and eight are a good example: “As he stands rigid, trembling, staring down / All his young days into the harbour where”.
Analysis of The Ball Poem
What is the boy now, who has lost his ball.
A dime, another ball, is worthless. Now
In the first lines of ‘The Ball Poem,’ the speaker begins with a question/statement considering the “boy” who is at the center of this poem. The speaker wonders “What is the boy” now that he has “lost his ball”. Rather than ending this line with a question mark is ends with a period. This unusual use of punctuation should make the reader consider it differently. It feels more final as if it is less of a question and more of a new state of being. It suggests that the boy is nothing now that his ball is gone.
In the next lines, the speaker describes how the ball bouncing away down the street. There is, he says, no use in telling the child that “there are other balls” because it was this one ball that meant something to him.
A surprisingly emotional reaction follows as the boy realizes that he’s lost something irreplaceable. His “young days” went into the “harbour where / His ball went”. It is at this point in the poem that a reader should be well aware that this poem is not, in fact, about a boy losing a ball but about loss in broader, more emotional terms. The child is not a child, he is a representative of all people as they move through life and see the things they love, family members, friends, their own youth, drift away from them.
He senses first responsibility
In a world of possessions. People will take balls,
A whistle blows, the ball is out of sight.
The child learns, in the next lines of the poem, what loss is. He feels the first “responsibility /In a world of possession”. One ball is all anyone gets, “no one buys a ball back. He learns about life, about perseverance, and about standing up and facing loss. He is undergoing a transformation that turns him into an adult—someone who is wise to the ways of the world and knows how to take care of the things that mean the most. The “loss’ referenced in these lines is more than a ball and more than a symbol of possessions. It is about a broader state of change, a transition from a time of innocence to one of experience, and an understanding that things can’t remain the same forever. Relationships, feelings, and dreams, it all changes.
Although there are dark moments of this poem, light comes into the next lines as the ball rolls out of sight into the harbor. Light “will return to the street” if one allows it to. The loss does not have to control you, the speaker is implying.
Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Or whistling, I am not a little boy.
In the final five lines of ‘The Ball Poem,’ the speaker concludes by transitioning into the first person narrative perspective. Now, he describes himself and his desire to “explore the deep and dark / Floor of the harbour”. He is at a distance from this child, recognizing that he used to be him but is no longer. He has moved past this period in his life and is much closer to a world of brutal truth and loss in the harbor.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Ball Poem’ should also consider reading some of Berryman’s other poems. His “Dream Songs” are the works for which he is best known. Two of these are ‘Dream Song 29’ and ‘Dream Song 14’. Additionally, there is a huge array of poems out there that tap into themes of growing up, coming of age, loss, and transformation. Some of these include William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’, ‘Ode: Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’ by William Wordsworth and ‘Rapture’ by Carol Ann Duffy.