Daniel Berrigan, Poet

by Stephen Vincent Kobasa

Poetry was in everything that Daniel Berrigan did, and not only in his writing. He knew from the Old Testament prophets– Isaiah, of course, but also the less familiar, fierce voices of Daniel, Hosea, Micah, none of them “minor” in their demands or their fidelity – that metaphors were another way to change the world, and that even voices of condemnation needed music to make the conscience turn and listen.

The Catonsville 9 Statement, with its chill irony of apology for “the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house,” was written to take the place of an original draft that Berrigan found wanting. It was not enough to do the action, it was essential to make the words fit the doing.

He was in one respect a selfish man, as the Golden Rule is selfish, using the treatment we expect for ourselves as the measure of how others are treated. And, like Thoreau, he broke the law, first of all, to disassociate himself from murder in the name of the state. He would have called this, as required by his Catholic faith, acting to save his soul.

Darkness was familiar to him; he made no secret of this. And he lived in a time, as we do, that hope is not easy. But that never kept him from doing what was required.

We exchanged poems from time to time and he was always more generous in praise of mine than they deserved. But to be told that there were words he found in them that mattered was the kind of wild grace he granted to everyone he touched through all his days.

And he wrote his own best elegy, as one would expect:

The poem called death
is unwritten yet. Some day will show
the violent last line,
the shadow rise,
a bird of omen
snatch me for its ghost.
And a hand somewhere, purposeful as God’s
close like two eyes, this book.

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