Only John Berryman could see life with both such unbearable dread and such earnestly childlike wonder, and only he could capture those contradictory feelings in such a poignant and devastating nursery rhyme about something as elementary as the alphabet.
Mr. Pou & the Alphabet—which he do not like
A is for awful, which things are;
B is for bear them, well as we can.
C is for can we? D is for dare:
E is for each dares, being a man.
(What does a man do? bears and dares;
and how does a little boy fare? He fares.)
F is for floor we stamp wif our foot,
G is for grimy we getting from play,
H is for Hell wherein they do put
the bad guys, maybe. Oh, and I is for ‘Ay’
(And this will puzzle the Little Pou,
but his mommy can explain it. Do.)
J is for Jackknife which later will come,
when Poukie is bigger, K is for key.
L is for Little Pou, M is for some
men who have definite reason to be.
And N is for now, the best time of all,
And O is for ouch when it hurts—quite so.
P is for Pouki, of Paul and piano,
and Q is for quiet, while Mommy tells Paul.
R is for rudiments Poukie now learn.
S is for sea-horse, erect fish, weird,
T is for Turks whom we take by the beard.
U is for utter-don’t-know-where-to turn.
V is for vowels the Pou is to learn.
(So vivid splendid subject hide ahead,
the stars, the grasses, asses and wisemen, letters and the word.)
W’s for why, which ask and ask;
X is for Xmas, where I cannot be.
Y is for Yes (do his Daddy love he?)
Z is for zig-zag—a part of our task.
(Straight’s better, but few can.
My Xmas hope: boy head for man.)
John Berryman (1914–1972) was an American poet and scholar. He won the Pulitzer Prize for 77 Dream Songs in 1965 and the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize for His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, a continuation of the Dream Songs, in 1969.
Steven Pfau is a publicity assistant at FSG.