Summary of The Ball Poem by John Berryman

About the poet:

John Berryman was born John Smith in McAlester, Oklahoma, on 25th October 1914. He taught at many American universities, ending at the University of Minnesota.

In his writing, Berryman was influenced by YeatsAudenHopkins, Hart Crane and Ezra Pound. In his early work like Poems (1942) and The Dispossessed (1948), he displayed great technical control in poems that remained firmly rooted in the conventions of the time.

However, the collection that would seal Berryman’s reputation as an essential American original was 77 Dream Songs (1964). This collection was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and unveiled the unforgettable alter egos “Henry” and “Mr. Bones” in a sequence of sonnet-like poems whose wrenched syntax, scrambled diction, extraordinary leaps of language and tone, and wild mixture of high lyricism and low comedy plumbed the extreme reaches of the human soul and psyche.


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Berryman was elected a Fellow of the Academy of American Poets in 1966 and served as a Chancellor from 1968 until his death. Berryman, who never recovered from the childhood shock of his father’s suicide, was prone to emotional instability and heavy drinking throughout his life. Tragically, on January 7, 1972, he died by jumping off a bridge in Minneapolis.

About The Ball Poem:

“The Ball Poem” is a very subtle and beautiful poem about a little boy’s growing up. The poet sees this little boy one day when he has just lost his ball. The loss of his ball is teaching him that in life, we often lose things and they cannot be easily replaced. Such lessons are a part of growing up, and everyone has to learn them at some point in time or the other. However, it is painful for the poet to watch the boy in his sad state. He is sure that the ball, as well as the person who whistles by the boy, feels the same way as he does.

The setting of The Ball Poem:

This poem is set near the harbour, as the poet says that the little boy’s ball rolled away from him and into the water. Both the poet and the boy are near the harbor. The poet can, in fact, see the boy and even his facial expressions very clearly.

Summary of The Ball Poem:

The poem consists of 25 lines in total. These lines are not divided into stanzas. Here they are divided into meaningful segments for the purposes of this summary in order to make the poem easier to understand and follow.

Lines 1 – 4:

What is the boy now, who has lost his ball.

What, what is he to do? I saw it go

Merrily bouncing, down the street, and then

Merrily over—there it is in the water!

In these lines, the poet asks his readers a question. He has seen a young boy’s ball rolling away from him, bouncing happily on its way, and finally falling into the water. He asks his readers what the boy should do now that his ball is gone.

Lines 5 – 10:

No use to say ‘O there are other balls’:


An ultimate shaking grief fixes the boy

As he stands rigid, trembling, staring down

All his young days into the harbour where

His ball went. I would not intrude on him,

A dime, another ball, is worthless. Now

In these lines, the poet thinks for a moment that he ought to console the boy who has lost his ball by telling him that there will be other balls just like that one that he will come across sooner or later. However, he understands that such false consolation will not make the boy feel any better. A feeling of grief has come over the boy. He stands very straight for some time and then starts shivering all over. He watches the ball go into the harbour and down in the water, and he feels that his childhood has also taken the same route away from him. At such a time, the poet feels that it would be wrong to go up to the boy and intrude on his solitude. Giving him a dime to purchase another ball will not hold any value for him.  

Lines 11 – 14:

He senses first responsibility

In a world of possessions. People will take balls,

Balls will be lost always, little boy,

And no one buys a ball back. Money is external.

In these lines, the poet tells us that the little boy is undergoing a transformation. He is just now coming to the realisation that the ball was his responsibility, as many things will be after this. In this world, everything you own is our responsibility and you must keep those things safe. However, nothing you own will be yours forever. Other people will take away your ball, or it will get lost in some way or the other. No one will buy another ball for you. Money is only something you can show off, but ultimately it cannot buy you inner peace. Here the ‘ball’ is a symbol for all of one’s possessions, and the poet is saying that we will certainly lose them one day and that they cannot be easily replaced.

Lines 15 – 20:

He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes,

The epistemology of loss, how to stand up

Knowing what every man must one day know

And most know many days, how to stand up

And gradually light returns to the street,

A whistle blows, the ball is out of sight.

In these lines, the poet says that the boy’s eyes have become filled with an awful sadness, but that behind all the grief, he is learning an important lesson. He is learning about the loss of things one considers precious. He is learning a lesson that every man must learn, and one that man must learn again and again. He is learning how to accept the loss and then move on. Suddenly, the boy is brought back to his senses after hearing the sound of a whistle nearby. He can no longer see the ball at all.

Lines 21 – 25:

Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark

Floor of the harbour . . I am everywhere,

I suffer and move, my mind and my heart move

With all that move me, under the water

Or whistling, I am not a little boy.

In these lines, the poet says that he is the ball that is now about to reach the very bottom of the harbour. He is moving away from the little boy, and that pains him. Or he may be the one who blew the whistle as well. The truth is that he is everywhere but within the little boy. He has already grown up and therefore, he has already learned about loss. He is always only watching others learn the same lesson as he has.

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