A CONVERSATION WITH DANIEL BERRIGAN
New York, New York
January 30th, 1999
Daniel Berrigan’s first book of poetry, Time Without Number, earned the Lamont Poetry Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a nomination for the 1957 National Book Award. Berrigan, a Jesuit Priest, has published fourteen volumes of poetry in the last forty years. In spite of this, Berrigan is perhaps better known for his fierce commitment to the cause of peace. He and his brother, Philip, have both served time in prison, and Philip was incarcerated for an antinuclear demonstration in Maine at the time of this interview. The name “Berrigan” evokes images of pacifist protest. His most recent book of poetry, And the Risen Bread, was published in 1998. Daniel Berrigan died on Saturday, April 30th, 2016.
FOX: Why did you start writing poetry?
BERRIGAN: Well, that’s quite a question to start with. I think it had a lot to do with our father who, for years, was turning out awful stuff but who had great ambitions and who was very well read but was stuck, I would say, in the romantics of the 19th century and he never got out of it. He was a big Shelley man, a Keats man, etc., though he knew a lot of Shakespeare, too. Anyway, I was typing a lot of his stuff, under duress [Fox laughs] and much against the grain. We had this old, old manual typewriter, and I was always getting it wrong, because he was meticulous about all this punctuation. I didn’t like the stuff to start with, so it was really kind of a bondage. But I guess in a kind of curious way it got me very interested in poetry and eventually, as a very young person in high school, writing poetry. Then, of course, in the order we had a vigorous regime of poetry in Latin and Greek and English, and later in French. So I sort of swam with the tide at that point. I was publishing when I was 20, 21. And it really never stopped.
FOX: And you’ve published, what, fourteen books?
BERRIGAN: I think someone said eighteen.
FOX: You seem to command a rich use of language …
BERRIGAN: Well, it’s the Irish gift of gab. [Fox laughs] And you have to be at least part ham. My father had very little formal education. For a while he was a railroad engineer on the old locomotives where the proud guy sat way up there and the thing chugged away across the plains and he would have Shakespeare in that cockpit and he would be memorizing Shakespeare. And when he came back, he liked to tell the kids stories, he was wonderfully inventive. “Pa, tell us a story.” And we’d all gather round. And it was just a feast for a little boy’s imagination. And we wanted to hear his stories about the railroad which he could make up on the spot. It was really quite a start.
FOX: How were his stories different from his poetry which you didn’t like?
BERRIGAN: Well, that’s very interesting. He was on a different plane when he was talking to the kids. He wasn’t trying to be literary. There wasn’t any varnish to it. He was just being a dad, a dad with his kids.
FOX: How has your work changed over the years?
BERRIGAN: Well, I think I was always sort of reflecting where I was and my sense of surroundings and ecology, urban or country, or foreign, living in Europe, very affected by all of that. It’s also reflective of a young person’s religion or faith in that it’s highly charged with sacramental imagery and with country imagery, because I was in the seminary for so many years in the country. I was quite bucolic for a beginning [laughs] until life caught up with me. [Fox laughs] And then everything changed and, let’s see, I got into the civil rights movement with my brother and then that became very electrifying, trying to interpret that, trying to set down some emotional response. And then, of course, the war in Vietnam certainly changed radically my view of the world and of the world of literature.
FOX: In your writing do you sometimes try to get out a message, or affect the course of events?
BERRIGAN: I don’t think so. I just felt that I wanted to write poetry even if it stayed in a drawer somewhere. Though, of course, no poet wants that, but I was trying to interpret my life and make sense of it. Also, of course, I always had access either to a classroom or to the public through poetry readings so that there was always the other end of this to be considered. That is to say, is it going to make sense to others or is it going to affect people emotionally or am I at a dead end? I did want to test it out in a certain way, and did, all the time.
FOX: How are you affected by the reaction of others to what you write?
BERRIGAN: I always have a sense that it’s a modest gain, and that for a lot of complex reasons I would never be a front runner, and wasn’t particularly affected by that. But I did want to deal with young people and with people at large in a way that would offer something.
FOX: Offer something like a path?
BERRIGAN: Maybe a vision, maybe another view of what we were all going through at the time, because all of us were walking the same tormented earth, and let’s see if we can make something of it or even enjoy certain aspects of it, like friendship and children and nature, and let us all also attempt to grieve together over losses.
FOX: What relationship do you find between poetry and life?
BERRIGAN: Well, it’s very close. I would say it’s almost a mirror image, convex to concave. And everybody goes through very dry periods, but I would think that if something remains so opaque or so labyrinthine or so impossible of entrance, then I better look at it again. I mean, if I can’t write about it, is it really there? And not merely a poem, but I’ve been doing these biblical studies for years now, and if I can’t bring a critical sense to the page and find some kind of congruence there, I’m puzzled and I’m stalemated and I’m not very happy.
FOX: Has your writing helped you to make sense of what you go through, what you learn?
BERRIGAN: Yes, at least in a minimal sense, because a lot of life is certainly beyond me. I think it’s beyond all of us these days. I mean the depth of, the depth of the death urge, I think, and the extent of it day after day in the world is just simply, I don’t know, appalling, it stops one short. It’s very hard to make sense of, let’s say, a traditional understanding of the human being when you see this kind of behavior. You wonder if those of us who don’t believe in killing others are simply residual or if we’re just sort of biological sports.
FOX: How did the civil rights movement affect you or your work?
BERRIGAN: Well, as I look back it seems to me that was pretty much the beginning or the opening of a whole kind of gamut of planetary travel. I was seeing the world from a radical uprooting in my own life by going south and by taking part in Selma and elsewhere, and then later [it] became a direct linkage with my work in South Africa in the late ’60s. And I was able to join those points across the world in my own understanding and in the way I was talking to people in South Africa or here. It was like landing among people one knew nothing about, and seeing suddenly we have a common burden, we have a common hope, and let’s walk with it. And that was very liberating and very beautiful for me, but it was very painful at the same time.
FOX: Painful in what way?
BERRIGAN: Well, it was painful because I saw their pain.
FOX: Ah, yes.
BERRIGAN: And because I could do so little about it. But at least I could be with them and I could walk with them and worship with them and learn from them, and I tried all that.
FOX: Do you feel you’ve had the impact that you wanted to have?
BERRIGAN: I don’t think I ever wanted any impact. I just didn’t know what the word meant. I just wanted to be in certain situations that I felt called to, and that I felt maybe I could even be helpful in and that I could learn from, and see where it went.
FOX: What authors have influenced you?
BERRIGAN: Well, I guess a lot of these great people. I carried an all dog-eared copy of Yeats’ complete poems for maybe 20 years, and kept marking them up and noting them. Hopkins, of course, was a great inspiration, and, oh, within the last five years, I kept coming back to him. In fact, I did a whole book of poetry on his life and his poetry, as a tribute to his centenary. Others are staples, like Frost and Eliot and Pound. Then I try to keep a weather eye open for young poets and new poets, new to me. The ancients and the moderns both appeal to me from different ways, very different ways.
FOX: Are you still writing?
BERRIGAN: I kind of eased away from it once that book came out and started doing well and getting some very fine reviews. I’m mainly in scripture studies right now.
FOX: It sounds like you’ve always kept learning.
BERRIGAN: Yes, and of course, these writings all get tested constantly because I’m before people on these retreats across the country, and so I’m just working mainly through the prophets offering what they have to offer today. And it finally coalesces in a book. Now that also, of course, includes especially in Isaiah and Jeremiah a great effort to be faithful to their poetry. And I’m not interested in another translation from the Hebrew; I’m interested in the resonance of those great human spirits in life today. And I had a very hard time with publishers, especially with Protestant publishers, explaining all that, that I was not translating these, I was not going verse by verse, I was trying to say what would they say today. And that was very puzzling, but it worked. I mean, they eventually reach people.
FOX: What do you think they would have to say today?
BERRIGAN: Oh, my, [laughs] where will we start?
FOX: Two hours or less.
BERRIGAN: Well, let me summarize it this way. It seems to me that I see a clear path from, let’s say this fifth to the eighth millennium, of the Common Era Before Christ and Christ. The continuity of ancestry and progeny in a spiritual sense to me is quite evident because they are all talking about the God who stands at the bottom with the victims and with the “widows and orphans” and stands with them, witnesses with them in the world, and from that terrifying vantage point which is like the bottom of the dry well that Jeremiah was thrown in, from that vantage point, well, first of all, defines the crime and sin, and from the point of view of the victim indicts the unjust, the oppressor, the killer, the war-maker. And the message is very clear, and it’s a very clear indictment of every superpower from Babylon to Washington.
FOX: How do you reconcile what seems to be the fact that human beings can be both so evil and so good? Do you find that to be true?
BERRIGAN: Well, I find it true beginning with myself [laughs]. So that’s, it seems to me, a good point, of learning to start with, where are you in all this, where am I in all this, and so on. And then look on the world with a certain kind of compassion. So, drawing from the prophets again, with a very strong bias in favor of the victim and a very strong sense of judgment of evil structures and those who run them.
FOX: That seems to have been true throughout all of human history. What do you have to say to people who don’t like poetry?
BERRIGAN: Well, there’s not much to be done about Disneyland of the mind, and if people want to go to Disneyland, that’s their option. And, of course, Disneyland is right in our living room through the tube, so that kind of moves matters up a little closer. But I like to talk to people. I’m teaching at Fordham this semester and dealing in poetry with a lot of young people who are very new to it. I wouldn’t say they dislike it, but it’s terra incognita. And I try to give them a sense without being insulting that they’re missing something. And I think it takes. I think generally they end the semester very differently.
FOX: What change do you see in them?
BERRIGAN: Well, they’ve gotten onto the moon and they find they can breathe there, against all odds. And they find that their dislike or their second thoughts or their kind of prejudice has kind of melted in the sun. And I would say the vast majority of them write thoughtfully about this or that poem that struck home.
FOX: How do you teach? What’s your style, your approach?
BERRIGAN: Well, let me tell you what we’re doing this term. It’s called poets in torment and we’re starting with poets of this millennium, just finishing this century, who have suffered atrociously for their writing around the world, who have been in gulags, who have been tortured, who have been exiled, who have been disappeared, and it’s a very, very tough course. I tread lightly with it because these young people are not emotionally prepared for something this rough. But I think it’s very important that they be shown it. It’s their world, and the world that they’re being shoved into, the world that we’re leaving them. And these are the noblest spirits of this century, and this is what happened to them and what are we going to make of it? And what are we to make of their legacy and what kind of resources do young people think are available to be able to celebrate such suffering, and leave those notes in the bottles for us to read? So it’s, it’s challenging. I say to them, try to remind them again and again that you can best cope with material like this, about human degradation and human glory, you can best cope, with that kind of, electricity, if you are serving others yourselves, but if the campus is your world, this is very dangerous ground for you, and it gives a little ictus, and maybe even an impetus, to grow up to middle-class kids who are very privileged and who are very slow to arrive.
FOX: Do you find your students think mostly of themselves?
BERRIGAN: Well, there’s everyone in there. And I think they self-select. Most of them, maybe through their parents, or through other teachers, will know who I am, and some of them will be urged to take that course. I can go to other classes and have a very difficult time just as a visitor because attitudes are so entrenched and so racist or so this or so that, but with the students that are with me week after week it’s a very different game. I can start with a kind of sense of common understanding about what a human being is.
FOX: What is that?
BERRIGAN: Well, we have examples of them in these great poets. And it’s a very tough definition that emerges by way of, let’s say, ricocheting off one’s own life and one’s own privilege and one’s relative unconsciousness of the fate of the majority of people.
FOX: Can you describe the satisfaction that you derive from teaching?
BERRIGAN: Well, I’m very privileged. I’ll begin with that admission. I’m amazingly blessed from many angles to have those students. Let me just say, practically speaking, I try to keep a very open classroom. Anybody is welcome. After a while they want to bring their parents if they’re visiting town. They want to bring their friends. Last year I was in touch again, while I was teaching, with an ex-prisoner who had been in prison with me, a guy who had been a kind of classical Times Square trickster. He hit bottom and was in jail for endless years. He was an addict, an alcoholic, was just at the bottom of life. He eventually joined a group that Philip and I had formed to do some studying and discussion, and he got his life together when he came out. And he heard about this class. He was now in his middle 50’s, a little black guy with a gimp leg and on a cane. And he says, “I come to that class?” I said, “Sure, come along.” Very alive intellectually, always, even in prison. So he came to the class. Well, this was really quite a thing because eventually he told his story and told our story and all these kids are going, you know, it’s up here, [laughs] and then he died. He died. He was diagnosed in his last weeks as latent AIDS that had really eaten him alive and he died. And a whole group of us went to the funeral. Anyway, it was really quite a saga in the middle of that class, that kind of life and death, and that kind of impact on these students, like, boy, that was another slice of life. Why’d I bring that up? Well, it was all about the variety that can occur because one is open to what might happen.
FOX: You were in Danbury Prison for over a year?
BERRIGAN: Two years.
FOX: How did that affect you?
BERRIGAN: Well, I wrote a book of poems [both laugh], to indulge in a stereotype. It was interesting, too, because there was a little tinge of this atmosphere around us and the officials standing about, “watch their writings, watch their writings.” It was almost a little bit of Russia in a sense, a poet taken seriously? We’re watching his writings? Anyway, they were, and even later they were preparing for a conspiracy trial, another trial. So we had great difficulty, I had great difficulty getting poems out and I had to use a lot of enterprise because they wanted those poems. And I would put them in my shoe. A kind of Quaker prayer group came in and we were allowed to embrace the women visitors once on leaving, and I could pass these poems to her, she was willing to take them. Now why do I bring that up? Well, it was kind of a back-handed compliment, that they were very interested in my poems [laughs] and that they were considered rather dangerous.
FOX: Why do you think the authorities considered your work to be dangerous?
BERRIGAN: Well, they were on a fishing expedition at that point. They wanted some evidence of criminal intent. But in a larger sense in the world, let’s say, from Black Africa to the Soviet Union, poets have acted as the lost conscience of the regime and in very powerful ways have indicted what was going on. Well! And then when you have enormous audiences for poetry as in Russia, you know, this gets to be quite a movement.
FOX: Why do you think there is so much more interest in poetry in Russia than in the United States?
BERRIGAN: I’ve traveled in Russia but I haven’t lived there, so I can’t contrast these kinds of psyches very well. I don’t know. Poetry has never taken on a major kind of stature here. I guess we have other interests. Disneyland, maybe.
FOX: [laughs] Well, Disneyland is very popular. What is your view on the prisoners that you met while you were at Danbury?
BERRIGAN: Well, in a sense I think Philip and I were, we were demythologizing prison. We were peeling the onion and saying, in a very prosaic way, we certainly have a lot of work to do here just as we have had a lot of work to do on the street. The war was still on and now it took the form of these prisoners. And they needed a lot of attention and counseling and at times, if they were being brutalized, we could get outside attention. They needed worthwhile diversion or to watch something above slimy movies that were being shoved at them so we got literally thousands of books in. And the federal law doesn’t allow any convicted felon to practice his or her profession while in prison.
BERRIGAN: Yeah, but they didn’t know what priests do [both laugh], so the only thing they could think of, because the warden was a Catholic, he said, “Well, they’re priests, they can’t celebrate Mass.” Well, that was fine with us, we went to Mass with the prisoners … as a prisoner, and that was just fine. But they didn’t know that we were both very experienced teachers, and so before they could frame a new rule, we were holding classes [laughs] and we had all these books; they brought in carloads of paperbacks, a lot of them very good. The prisoners chose what they wanted to discuss and read.
FOX: Did you find the prisoners different than other groups you’ve come into contact with?
BERRIGAN: Well, you know the sociology that governs life outside, let’s say in the class system, was working up close there. That was a lot to learn. They had rich crooks that had the neat front-office jobs and had creased pants and had the best clothing and had access to food and probably drugs, and then you had the minority people that were working the prison factory for slave wages. And as we discovered at one point, they were making parts of fuses of bombs that were being dropped on Vietnam. This is part of the big prison industry.
BERRIGAN: So, we had a strike that we engineered in the prison industries, and that was very interesting. One of the prisoners made me this cross on a string. It was made by soldering two screws that were used in the prison factory to make those bombs and he made me that lovely cross.
FOX: That’s very meaningful.
BERRIGAN: That’s kind of turning things around, isn’t it.
FOX: Yes. Have you maintained contact with people you met there?
BERRIGAN: Well, it was very funny. For a number of years I would be walking on Broadway or I would be walking on 125th street from the subway in Harlem, and someone would dash out of a pub or a betting joint or a numbers joint and yell, “Dan, remember me?” And it was one of the guys from Danbury. I think they’re pretty well scattered by now.
FOX: How has being famous impacted your life?
BERRIGAN: Oh, I don’t know, it never really got to me.
FOX: Has it made much difference?
BERRIGAN: No, I don’t even know what it means.
FOX: People who want to be famous probably become movie actors.
BERRIGAN: Yeah. I’ve been there, too.
FOX: Tell me about that.
BERRIGAN: Well, I’ve been in several films including documentaries, but the big blockbuster, I was hired as advisor to the actors, I was trying to make Jesuits out of them. That was called The Mission with DeNiro and Jeremy Irons and others. So, I was on the set, the jungle set, for about five months, trying to, and it was quite a job because these people were not particular Christians and they, anyway, it was fun. [both laugh]
FOX: Did you feel you succeeded?
BERRIGAN: I think so. I liked the film as it turned out, and I was very interested ever since to note that it became kind a cult film among young people. I go to colleges where they’re showing it and ask them, have you seen this before, and they say four and five times. It’s very affecting to them, a very tough film. It’s in video. It’s very interesting, and the music is magnificent. So then they thought maybe I was getting bored down there in the jungle so they said, “Well, why don’t you take a few scenes?” so I ended up in the film. As someone said, “If you can’t be a Jesuit, go off and play one.” Oh, my. That was great.
FOX: Can you describe your relationship between your beliefs and your poetry?
BERRIGAN: Well, it’s so much a part of me. I guess it’s right in the blood stream, and the family and ancestry that it would be unthinkable that it wouldn’t get into the poetry. I think in the beginning it was kind of sacramental, and transparently so. But then it got to be more indirect and I was concentrating more upon the human suffering because it was beginning with myself, and therefore the poetry took on a darker hue.
FOX: For many poets, their poetry has a darker hue. Why do you think that is?
BERRIGAN: It seems to me it’s inevitable given the world, unless one can create some kind of nirvana which wouldn’t be very interesting.
FOX: What would you like your work to be remembered for?
BERRIGAN: I’m not sure I even want it remembered.
FOX: Say more about that.
BERRIGAN: Well, I like the little story they told about Gandhi who said that he wanted his ashes to flow down the Ganges and that was quite a symbol for him. Let it go, let it go, let it go. And I feel very much like that.
FOX: Do you feel that people can lead a more meaningful life if they are not concerned with their own ego?
BERRIGAN: I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t want to generalize. I live with some very marvelous Jesuits here and I think there would be a very diverse response to a question like that. And you would find a number of these very admirable priests who are doing great work, longing to be remembered. The Jesuits I know who have died and all their lives were great teachers, they’re the least remembered people. The students go on and they scatter and then you see this great priest after 50, 55 years of teaching, and there might be 25 people at his funeral. They’re all gone. You just let it go. And I take that as a very powerful kind of instruction from on high. Let it go, and don’t, I’m talking about myself, don’t ever seek that stuff about celebrity or anything like it.
FOX: Would that interfere?
BERRIGAN: I’m sort of a very interesting outsider / insider in the order. I never met a Jesuit before I applied for the order. I read a great deal about the order and with my best friend came in. Then I was surrounded by these Jesuit hotshots who’d all been through classic schools in New York here. They were way ahead of me on background and languages and everything, and it gave a particular coloration to my love of the order because I always felt I had the right to be a loving critic of what was going on. I was not an inside player. Now, why did I get on all that?
FOX: It was ego, and—
BERRIGAN: See, at least in principle, Jesuits are supposed to be people who do good work without any thought of the outcome. They do good work and they let the outcome go. And it gives a great integrity and substance as far as I’m concerned. Because success is such a weasel word anyway, it’s such a horribly American word, and it’s such a vamp and, I think it’s a death trap. It defines the war industry or something like that. You have to know the outcome before you do the good. You have to know that this thing is going to work before you work on it.
FOX: Your focus is on the work itself.
BERRIGAN: When I studied Buddhism I was living in a Buddhist community in Paris and I was going to the lectures of my dear friend, the venerable Thick Nhat Hanh, at the Sorbonne, and I was finding over those months as we studied together and prayed together and lived together, that there was this terrific congruence between that understanding and Christianity and in Buddhism. Their way of putting it was something like “the good is to be done because it is good, not because it goes somewhere.” And their conviction is that if it is done with that kind of purity it will go somewhere. I believe that with all my heart, but I’m not responsible for its going somewhere. Gandhi would say, I think, pretty much the same thing in another way, that the means are the end, the means are in the end, the end is in the means. One day I remember, he wrote something about, “If the British yoke were still on the neck of my people and I died tonight, I would die content, because the whole day has been congruous with means and end.” And in true sense, he says, “The end is already achieved.”
FOX: Say more about that.
BERRIGAN: Maybe I’m talking out of school, but it seems to me that his spirituality was so profound that he was relatively unaffected by this kind of mesmerizing outcome of things. And yet at the same time he’s endlessly fascinating because he was such a brilliant tactician. He wasn’t putting tactics to the four winds. He was just, I think, insisting that soul, soul force is what he called it, was the main issue. Spirituality was the main issue. Connection with God was the main issue. And if that were the main issue, the issue of tactics would fall in place. I don’t know what more to say. I mean, we’re all going to die in a world that is worse than when we entered it. That’s true of my great friends who have died. I don’t know if you know about Dorothy Day, but she founded a Catholic Worker here and now these houses among the poor are in every city, but when she died at age 84, after 55 years on the Lower East Side, the city was filled with much more misery than when she started, and yet that was never the point. The outcome didn’t catch her and trouble her, because she kept at work that she knew was pro human and was in accord with her beliefs and the outcome wasn’t in her hands.
FOX: You do what’s right because it’s right, that’s the purpose in and of itself.
BERRIGAN: Yes, and then that letting go I think is so, so beautiful, so freeing.
FOX: It’s so difficult sometimes.
BERRIGAN: Oh, indeed, not easy, not easy. We’d all like to see the fruit of our labors, but biblically speaking I’d almost say that there’s some kind of a mysterious law operating in this way that the more serious the work to be done the less one will see of the outcome.
BERRIGAN: I really believe that. And so you have a very interesting measuring stick about serious work. And that’s very hard. I mean this business about peacemaking, it’s tough, unfinished, blood-ridden, everything is worse now than when I started, and I’m at peace. I don’t have to prove my life. I just have to live.
FOX: If you don’t need that outside validation, then it is freeing, by definition.
BERRIGAN: Absolutely, true.
FOX: And then much more can be accomplished.
BERRIGAN: I think of the example of all this that I have in my own family. I think of my brother just out of prison again. He will have spent 10 years of the last 30 in prison. The arms race is worse than it ever was, the dumping of creation down a military rat hole is worse than it ever was, the wars across the earth are worse than they ever were. He’s completely at peace. And he radiates that in his family, the children are just so admirable and the joy of my life. One of them, the boy is just back from Iraq with medical supplies and is off joining the Catholic Worker in Minnesota to work among the poor. And it goes on like that with the two girls. And they have a very close bond and it’s worked. And he has nothing to show for his years in prison except that, except that.
FOX: It’s the difference between the superficiality of Disneyland and integrity.
BERRIGAN: Yes, a great help. We have one of our priests in prison right now, Steve Kelly, for his antiwar actions, and three of us in the community are forbidden to visit him because we’re all convicted felons. And so they have us on their computers. Well, this is a little bit tough. We all love him very much and just can’t see him. But he’s very much like my brother. He has a sense of his vocation as being in and out of prison for nonviolent activity against war. And his health is standing up to it and he’s going to be back in when he gets out. Now his effect upon our community is just very deep. It just sends us all off to our work more thoughtfully, because of what he has chosen.
—from Rattle #11, Summer 1999