Home > Conversations > An Evening with Daniel Berrigan
Published: Mon Oct 15 2001
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Bañando en Tiron / Bathing on Holy Saturday (detail), 2017, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
An Evening with Daniel Berrigan

PEN New England, June 4, 2000

Introduction by Fred Marchant:

The Vasyl Stus Award is three years old, and this is the first time there are two such awards. For this is the first time we’ve tried to imagine both an international dimension to it and a domestic one. It is in that spirit that we invited Daniel Berrigan to come tonight.

Of course, introducing Daniel Berrigan is a daunting task. So I’m going to begin with a quote:

I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believed in…nor is humanity itself believed in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. . . .

That’s not Daniel Berrigan. It’s another writer writing toward the second half of his century: Walt Whitman, in Democratic Vistas, around 1870, after the terrible war of his period, and the assassinations. A time of great booming economies and brutal force. And yet, of course, the words still have the ring of truth, the perennial American truth of our deeply flawed experiment in democracy. Whitman concludes this great paragraph by saying that for all our material success, we have failed in the “social aspects” and the “really grand religious, moral, literary, and aesthetic aspects.” We have grown a vast and well-fed body, but we are left, he says, “with little or no soul.”

We are gathered this evening with Daniel Berrigan to think about matters such as a country with and without a soul. We are going to honor not only Daniel Berrigan but his brother, too. But first we thought it would be good to have an evening of Daniel Berrigan’s poetry. Father Berrigan will read from his recent volume of selected poems, And the Risen Bread, for roughly twenty minutes, and that should leave us with an equal amount of time for discussion. Then we will conclude the day’s events by presenting Daniel and Philip Berrigan each a Vasyl Stus Award. Following that there will be a short reception with another chance for conversation with Father Berrigan.

To continue introducing Daniel, let me also quote his brother Philip, who wrote this in 1996 on Daniel’s seventy-fifth birthday:

Who is my brother Dan Berrigan? Very simply, Dan Berrigan is what Dan Berrigan has done, is doing, does. According to Ghandi, conduct is the best yardstick of a person’s life. Dan’s identity is the excellence of his life. He is one of those remarkable people who has narrowed the gap between word and deed, who has put flesh on his words.

To provide a backdrop to those words and deeds, Daniel Berrigan was born in 1921, the fifth of six sons, in hardscrabble mining and logging country in Northern Minnesota. He grew up in Syracuse, New York, to which the family had moved back, and in 1939, at the end of the Great Depression and the beginning of the next World War, he entered the Jesuit seminary in Poughkeepsie, New York. In 1942, in the middle of that war, he published his first poem in America, the Jesuit order’s national magazine. He was ordained in 1952, taught and studied in Europe, and in 1957 published his first book of poetry, Time Without Number, which received the Lamont Poetry Award and caused Marianne Moore, who had evaluated it for the publisher, to say his poems seemed “as much revealed as written.” More books of poetry quickly followed, and in 1965 the poet Allen Tate (I have it on good authority) declared Daniel Berrigan to be “one of our most important poets.”

Of course, 1965 is also the year the Vietnam War began in massive earnest, and American life changed in every corner. So, too, Daniel Berrigan’s life and writing. Since that era all his writing has been inextricably bound to his peace and justice work. As a writer he has been prolific, with fifty or so books to his credit. The genres have included drama, memoir, essay, homily, translation, scriptural commentary, interviews, epistles, speeches, and, of course, lyric poetry.

Just to mention a couple of the most notable ones: Night Flight to Hanoi, a mixture of poetry and journal entry concerning his and Howard Zinn’s journey to Hanoi in 1968. You’ll recall that this was a mission to help with the release of three American fliers. This book has to be one of the primary literary documents of the War. Then there is The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, a drama composed mostly from the court records concerning the trial of the Berrigan brothers and others who burned draft files in protest of the War. In 1970 that play received an Obie Award.

Throughout the years since the Vietnam era, Father Berrigan has continued to be a voice for peace, making a passionate case for radical non-violence. In his writings and direct action, he, along with others, including his brother, have embodied and helped inspire a sustained opposition to American militarism and particularly nuclear-ism. But his work has also widened to include other spheres of human suffering. In the eighties he wrote about his five years of work in cancer wards and eight years of work in an HIV/AIDS hospice center in Manhattan. In 1987 he published his formal autobiography, To Dwell in Peace, and in 1998, And the Risen Bread: Selected Poems appeared from Fordham University Press.

There is more to the facts of this life, but I would like to end this introduction with a personal response to Daniel Berrigan’s writing, particularly his poetry: Although I began by invoking the spirit of Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson is the American forebear who has come most frequently to mind as I’ve recently read and reread Daniel’s works. Though not a political activist, certainly not in the Berrigan sense, Emerson was still a very public figure, a secular preacher and teacher who often stood in defiance of fraudulence in whatever form the world provided. For Emerson, too, poetry was at the center of his writing life, but the exigencies of his times often led him to reach for a wide-ranging poetic prose. Most of all, in the past few weeks preparing for this day, I have been thinking about Emerson’s idea of “self-reliance.” Emerson had a deep faith that human beings could indeed learn how to discern and trust that gleam of light that flashes across the mind from within. For Emerson that light was a manifestation of divinity within us. That is why, Emerson implies, you can and should rely on it, even if the world whips you with its displeasure.

Everywhere one looks in the life and work of Daniel Berrigan, he finds that courageous self-reliance that Emerson talks about. It is not the same as self-centeredness or selfishness. Quite the opposite. When one gets to that final doorway of the innermost self, she discovers a sense of connectedness to others, a sense of oneness with them and responsibility for them. One could call this love, one could call it the soul, one could call it the Deity. However you choose to name it, this connectedness is what is in desperately short supply in most places most of the time. This is what Daniel Berrigan’s writing, especially his poetry, turns us toward.

Thus, it is a great privilege to introduce Father Daniel Berrigan.

Daniel Berrigan:

Thank you. This is very moving. I’m almost wordless in a response, but I won’t be entirely wordless, I being I. But thank you, thank you to so many. If I began listing names I would exhaust the time allotted, so thank you to everybody in the room.

My brother Philip is really quite different—someone who’s never accepted an award before. He says, No, all these proffers of peace awards, well, they’re kind of redundant. He says we were only trying to act like human beings; we don’t need these awards. I, however, take anything that comes along. He was especially delighted, though, that Fred had written him in prison and that this award was not precisely for peacemaking. This was about being a writer, and that made a difference to Philip. I’m sure this is going to encourage greatly the writing that he never stops hectoring and perfecting. . . .

I can think of many metaphors tonight for this kind of brother. He’s about being a lifeline, which I can twitch at times and know there’s someone at the other end, and he’s also in a place that keeps me at least relatively honest, because his decision to go again and again and again to prison has made me more thoughtful about where I live. . . .

This first poem has to do with a continuing kind of search for and discovery of a metaphor for that kind of connection. It is about a paperback Bible that Philip’s been carrying into jail for at least ten years now. It’s probably not anything close to a world record, but it’s probably a national record that he has spent ten out of the last thirty years in prison. So this is called “Philip’s Battered New Testament Carried into Jail Repeatedly.” [Published as “My Brother’s Battered Bible, Carried into Prison Repeatedly.”] That’s not the poem, that’s the title.

That book
livid with thumb prints,
       and lashes—
I see you carry it
into the cave of storms, past the storms.
I see you underscore
like the score of music
all that travail
that furious unexplained joy.

A book! the police
shake it out for contraband—
the apostles wail, the women
breathe deep as Cumaean sibyls,
Herod, Herod screams like a souped-up record.

They toss it back, harmless.
Now, seated on a cell bunk
you play the pages slowly, slowly
a lifeline humming with the song
of the jeweled fish, all but taken.

This next one is about a sentence he served in Pennsylvania some years ago, and it’s called “Zip Code”:

The precious info—
your whereabouts in the maze—
‘Camphill Prison, PA.’ I memorize it
down to the absurd
talisman 1 7 0 1 1

Open Sesame!
the tomb shudders
a crack opens,
this wafer of life
slips through.

This next poem was written after the first of the Plowshares Eight 1981 convictions in Pennsylvania. Nine of us had been sentenced to three to ten years for an anti-nuclear action, and we were tried and locked up by a very difficult judge, and all day long we were on this bus in these different-colored coveralls, so they would know which prisons we were bound for. Different colors for the different prisons. And so we were seeing prisoners come aboard and leave all day long. And the two of us, Philip and I, had a final destination on the Ohio border near Pittsburgh. I learned an expression that day: this travel by bus was called by the prisoners “diesel therapy.” Well, it occurred to me that that day-long ride with all its overtones of everything from despair to a kind of resigned hope, that that had something to do with the old Catholic devotion of the Stations of the Cross, stopping at various points that would represent something about the last day of Christ. So it’s called “Prisoners in Transit”:

They took the prisoners, willy-nilly
on death’s own outing
shod like dray horses
jump suits    pied like mardi gras
& curses & groans & ten pound shoes
& starts & stops
at every station of the cross
across Wm Penn’s

‘Here’s where that first trouble-
shooter started his last mile,’ the guard yelled
     through his bull horn mouth—

‘& here he did a phony fall—
gaining time was all
‘& here it was
he rained like a red cloud
& here
we built his everloving ass
an everlasting memorial—

‘this mile square Christian tomb
& closed the book

‘You may all
come down now
take a 3 to 10 year
close look.’

Well, there’s one aspect of being in jail that is always striking: this kind of being stripped to the bone and joining the poor of the earth. In a number of ways. So this is called “Poverty”:

A prisoner, a prisoner is very poor—
1 face, 2 arms, 2 hands, 1 nose, 1 mouth
also 3 walls
1 ceiling

10 or 12 iron bars—
then if lucky
1 tree, 1 tree
making it, making it
in hell’s dry season

I almost forgot—
no legs!
contraband!  seized!
they stand stock still
in the warden’s closet.
There like buried eyes
they await the world.

This next one I wrote just last week for the four who are in prison now. Susan is a retired schoolteacher with a grown son. Liz is a Catholic worker from Philadelphia. Steve is a Jesuit priest from my community in New York. And Philip, my brother.

Turnabout is Fair

Turnabout is fair.
You do the time
I the poem.
Doing the time
is one with the poem,
one and the same,
if only I discover the key.
it glimmers on no sheriff’s belt, no
the emblem rests in your hands.
Key to the poem
a key lit like a candle
held aloft, by hostages to light
lighting the way
And the world darker by far than the sheriff’s soul
darker by far than the sheriff’s soul
raging against the light.
Hold the light high prisoners, hear the cry.
Hardly in the cornered world another glimmer to walk by

In your hands the key
in the world, the conundrum.
O set right the unutterable awry
O set right the unutterable awry
this for a start:
Let judges be judged, let the key
turn on the turnkey,
let death rows die
In death throes
Let Christ
Let Christ
Would that you could walk free.
You can.
The man did.

Well, I lived for a number of years on upper Broadway in Manhattan, and every day I would see a sight that I figured I would not only not see twice, I would never see anything to equal it again. And the next day I would see something that surpassed what I thought could never be equaled. And the human variety and the funkiness and the glory of it all was there on this street. So one day I saw coming along quite grandly, on a string led by somebody, a dog with two legs-a two-legged dog! I haven’t gotten to the poem yet. But this struck me as quite an image. So the little poem is called “Penalties”:

You, you in prison
I so to speak, I so to speak at large
taste the penalty too—
half a world
half a loaf

like a two-legged dog
I saw once
body precariously balanced—
left front leg
right hind leg

tottering about, image
of half a soul so to speak,
alive in the so-called world—

the hunger,
the half a loaf called life.

And, finally, it’s very difficult to send a gift to a prisoner; you can only really send imaginary gifts, which maybe are the best kind since they don’t come from the mall. So that sort of implies that there’s a poetry in all this if you can only send an image of a gift. Maybe that would be a kind of freedom. This poem uses an image out of the Acts of the Apostles in the Christian Testament. Remember, Peter is in prison, and he’s been capitally sentenced, and they’re going to lead him out in the morning, but that night he’s freed, the bars sprung by an angel. It’s called “A Few Gifts for the Prisoner”:

I send
The sea, a bearded mime
mimicking lambs and lions

And the sun
betokening variety and
crystalline steadfastness.

Then one or two gestures of children
seizing, tossing, meandering—
like the prisoner, making
much of little.

Then an episode
of Luke’s gospel; healing.
Let the prisoner bear that gift
onward, hands incorrupt, empty.

And in and out of his cell
a flea circus trooping
too small for the guards’ gimlet.

Let Christmas come around
for the prisoner alone—
cold, deprived, true.

And the angel
who succored Peter in chains—
the prisoner’s soul, whispers
Magisterially; Not yet, No
Not yet.

I wanted to dedicate this final poem to PEN New England, and to all the friends who’ve gathered here. It’s called “Some” [published as “To the New York West Side Jesuit Community”]:

Some stood and stood and stood.
They were taken for dummies
they were taken for fools
they were taken for being taken in.

Some walked and walked and walked.
They walked the earth
they walked the waters
they walked the air.

Why do you stand?
they were asked, and
why do you walk?

Because of the children, they said, and
because of the heart, and because of the bread

the cause
is the heart’s beat
and the children born
and the risen bread.


DB: (following a question from audience): I recently had occasion to visit Kent State University for the first time. I went there for the thirtieth anniversary commemoration just a few weeks ago. (Parenthetically, since I came back I’ve discovered a couple of very good poems among the many written as a result of those events, one of which was written by Denise Levertov and another by Yetvushenko. And others which were written by students.)

I just want to mention very briefly that when I was there I met one of the students who was shot, and he introduced me to the father and sister of a person my age who was involved in the aftermath of Kent State at Washington University in St. Louis. His real name is Howard Mechanic, and he went to jail for six months for violating an injunction and protesting at the ROTC building at Washington University, and then was charged on federal charges for supposedly throwing a cherry bomb when the ROTC building was being burned. Although it didn’t hurt anybody and although he denied throwing this cherry bomb, he was sentenced for the federal charge to five years in prison.

Rather than go to prison he went underground, eventually moving to Scottsdale, Arizona, where he’s lived ever since and been involved in many different community works. Finally he was encouraged to run for city council, and in the course of running he was uncovered by an inquisitive reporter who put the news out, and he had to turn himself in to U.S. marshals. And he’s now beginning the five-year sentence on top of the original six-month sentence for something he denies having done. And of course we can all see the irony of someone who denies having thrown a cherry bomb, contrasted with Nixon and the others who used real bombs. I just want to mention his name, Howard Mechanic, and, as with so many other things these days, there is a web site: www.howardmechanic.org. They’re asking people to write the Justice Department for a pardon or clemency.

And, finally, I do want to pick up on the question that was brought up earlier, because it is something I think about. I continue to feel positive about resistance in terms of resistance, but I find myself questioning putting myself at the mercy of a bunch of morons and fools, which is how I understand many of the judges at whose mercy you may end up putting yourself. I wonder what sense it makes, not to continue to resist in a variety of ways, but to put yourself at the mercy of people and a system that predictably will respond in the way that they do, and, I’m afraid, at a time (which I think was the point of the question) when we don’t seem to have the likelihood of a wider public response to these acts of conscience.

FM: I really appreciate the full context of what you said, but if I may take the question and focus it down to that “morons and fools” moment, the question is: What is the meaning of really being in active resistance, of putting your fate in the hands of or before the minds of morons and fools who will judge you and put you in jail, without much of an audience to read about it and try to understand it?

DB: You know, I think that question could be raised, and undoubtedly has been raised, all over the world in our lifetime-from Chile to South Africa and many other places. Everybody who’s been put in jail, from Mandela to the Chilean heroes, is put in the hands of charlatans and fools and bigots and worse-and worse. It seems to me that the mistake in putting it that way is to say that that’s the whole picture. We have preferred-knowing, knowing, knowing that that kind of person is going to be in charge of your immediate and maybe mediate future-knowing also that you are in other hands. You are in the hands of friends and community and families and a growing sense of understanding among other good people, etc., etc., etc. In other words, these people who lock others up are not the last word on human life. And they shouldn’t so petrify us with these images of unaccountable power that we can’t see other elements in the picture of where our lives are going.

At Philip’s last trial there were people from all over the country, and they were commonly, inevitably appalled at the misconduct of the trial. But when the moment came that there was harassment of one of the women with the goal of widening the charges-Who drove the van?-everybody in court stood up and said, “I drove the van.” That drove the judge mad. But it was part of that commonality, that kind of growth of passion and conscience and unanimity, that makes all this make sense. So that people are not saying in the courtroom, He’s got us stymied, we’d better stay in lock-step, and he’s in charge. Wait a minute, wait a minute, you know? And who knows where all that will go? Who knows where anything good will go? We know a great deal more about where evil will go-but that shouldn’t deter us here.

Q: We’ve all seen some pretty awful writing offered up as political poetry. What is it for you-when you look at your own work or the work of Neruda or a local writer like Martin Espada, who writes really artful, compelling political poetry-what is it for you that makes a poem a piece of art, a poem, and not simply a speech or essay or diatribe?

FM: Everyone’s heard scads of bad political poetry, that is to say, poetry that has a good heart but is moving in the direction of the propagandistic, simplified, and so forth. What makes your poetry good poetry, and what makes good political poetry?

DB: In the film Il Postino, loosely based on Pablo Neruda’s time in exile in Italy, the great poet is approached by this very simple kind of village working man who wants to become a poet and who asks, “What am I to do?” Neruda says, “Go down to the ocean and walk around for, I don’t know, an hour or more, and come back and tell me what you saw. In fact, tell me what it was like, tell me what it was like.” And then he repeats again and again, “Metafora, metafora.” I think that to put it very simply, poetry worthy of the name is telling us what life is like. What is it like? And that separates it from every other branch of human understanding and knowledge, in which metafora is not a great element and people are trying to deal more horizontally or even ploddingly with the measure of things. “Tell me what it is like.”

James Carroll: I’m hoping you’d care to say something about what your faith in God means to you.

DB: Could I see you later about that? Well, I don’t know, maybe Jim would want to comment on this. I think that the closer a reality is to one’s life, the more difficult it is to scramble around for words about it. Or perhaps about a person, about someone. And the metefora here that means a great deal to me is friendship, or, I suppose, marriage-those realities that, because they are gifts, are beyond words for the most part, though not entirely. I don’t know if I want to say anything else here. I guess I have never felt a greater difficulty in believing in God or, on the other hand, a greater or more crucial necessity for believing in God. And maybe the two go together. . . . Maybe the two go together.

Q: I’m wondering, now that you’re in your eighties, whether or not you see yourself as having changed much and what the effect of aging is on your life as you perceive it now.

DB: Well there’s no really great big report to make, except that in March I had spinal surgery, which I’ve been a little slow coming back from. But, you know, whatever change I’ve noticed at any period of my life is always for the worst, so I’m not surprised.

See what's inside AGNI 54

Daniel Berrigan is a Jesuit priest and author of more than fifty books of poetry and prose. He is deeply involved in the global peace movement and a contributing editor of Sojourners, a Christian social justice magazine. (updated 6/2010)

“A Conversation with Daniel Berrigan” by Mark Wagner appeared in AGNI 43.

Fred Marchant is the author of five poetry collections, including Said Not Said (Graywolf Press, 2017), The Looking House (Graywolf, 2009), and Tipping Point, his first book, which won the 1993 Washington Prize and was reissued in 2013 in a twentieth-anniversary edition. He is professor emeritus at Suffolk University in Boston, where he is founding director of the creative writing program and the Suffolk University Poetry Center. He is a contributing editor of AGNI. (updated 4/2022)

Marchant’s Tipping Point was reviewed in AGNI 42 by Jennifer Clarvoe.

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