Daniel Berrigan: Priest, Poet, And Protestor Bound By Commitment
Change in life is inevitable and we expect it. Sometimes, however, its suddenness catches us by surprise. In the literary world, students of a particular author and work refer to this phenomenon as maturity. Poet Daniel Berrigan serves as a qualified example. His poetry has definitely changed. There was no immediate overnight break in appearance. The transition has been gradual, though consistent and undiminishing. One would not recognize two of his books separated by the short span of only 13 years as originating from the same poet. Few of his earlier poetical conventions have survived passage into his later poetry. The themes, motifs, forms, method of execution, and audience have all evolved into an entirely different brand of poetry. But it is not enough merely to examine the poetry. One must also consider the poet himself. In fact, the best way to understand Berrigan's poetry is to view it in the context of his life. In the case of some poets it makes no difference for the critic to be aware of their biography. Background information is irrelevant to appreciating their work. The poetry can be judged solely upon its own merits. Berrigan's poetry, however, is intensely an extension of his identity and background. One cannot fairly separate the two. He makes this point abundantly clear in his poem, "The Poet to Himself:" Color it not kind with skies of love and amber: make it plain with death and bitter as remember Your paint be blood your canvas, you.1 So to know the poet is to know, or at least be capable of making sense of his verses. For Berrigan relies heavily on his education, travels, experiences and life events for inspiration and material with which he directly infuses his poetry. And he does not bring to his poetry the background of the stereotypical priest (if such a stereotype does indeed exist) who after the seminary settles into the comfortable routine of his assigned parish, perhaps transferring from one parish to another where he would continue to dispense the sacraments, say mass and eventually retire. No, instead, Berrigan prefers change and an openness to the possibilities of life and growth in his ministry.