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The Ball Poem written by John Berryman is about a young innocent boy who has lost his ball and seems to be depressed over the loss. The ball here symbolizes the things which we love but lose.
According to the poet, it will be of no use to give him a new ball because the boy loved his ball and has a very deep emotional attachment and memories associated with it. Hence money cannot buy it. The poet thinks that he may be sad at the moment but he is also learning the lesson of life. He is learning to bear the loss and move on.
The poem is written in a single stanza. However we will try breaking the poem into parts in order to go through the words and beyond the words. We will also discuss meanings of difficult words.
Part 1 (Lines 1-4)
In the very beginning of the poem, the poet seems to be sad. He wonders what is the boy now i.e. how the condition of the boy would be now who has just lost his ball. So the first stanza tells the whole story.
There is a boy who has lost his ball which he used to play with. The poet was watching him losing the ball. The boy is sad and so is the poet. The poet further wonders what , what is he to do? i.e. what he will do now without the ball.
The poet says that he has seen it (the ball) go merrily bouncing, down the street, and then merrily over – there it is in the water.
Merrily means happily but here it means freely (as the boy cannot catch it). Bounce here means going away fast by moving up and down. So in the line, the poet says that he saw the ball going down the street fastly and then drowning in the water.
Part 2 (Lines 5-10)
According to the poet, there is no use to say “O there are other balls’ i.e. it is useless to make the boy happy by saying there are balls in the market because the boy is standing rigid (motionless).
He is trembling (with fear or sorrow) while staring down (watching and thinking of) all his young days (i.e. the memory of the balls which he used to play with) into the harbour (the bank of the river) in which his ball went.
The poet thinks that he should not intrude on (here it means “try making him happy”) him because a dime (here it means money) and another ball (purchased by money) are worthless for the boy. It is because the boy was very attached to the ball and loved it very much. Money cannot bring back his ball. Hence a new ball cannot make him happy.
Part 3 (Lines 10-14)
The poet says to the little boy (in an imaginary conversation) that, in the world of possessions (i.e. the world in which we own things), people will take balls. The balls here means ‘things’. So, the lines mean that in this world, every human gets things that they love a lot and get attached to them.
However, these balls i.e. things which they own, will be lost like the ball of the little boy. So, the boy senses first responsibility i.e. he learns the first lesson of his life i.e. we own things and we lose them. It will remain the same throughout our lives.
No one buys a ball back because money is external. In other words, the poet is saying that no one can bring back the things which they lost because money can buy materialistic things but not emotions and attachment which one has with the things which they owned but lost.
Part 4 (Lines 15-20)
According to the poet, the boy is learning the epistemology of loss though his eyes are desperate i.e he is hopeless and sad. He is learning how to standup after falling down (because of the loss).
He is learning that every man must know (i.e. accept the loss) and stand up (i.e. move on). Most people learn that sooner or later. Hence when a whistle blows, the light returns to the street i.e. the boy becomes he little bit hopeful. He returns back and forgets about the ball because it is out of sight now.
The boy has finally learned to move on. Like other people, he has learnt to give up on the things which went away from his life. He returns back with a hope.
Part 5 (Lines 21-25)
The last part of the poem is autobiographical. We must be aware of the fact that the poet’s father committed suicide when he was just 11 years old. His life was miserable and he also ended by life by jumping into the river.
In these lines, the poet is talking about himself. According to him, a part of him i.e. his mind will soon explore the deep and dark floor of the harbour. In other words, the poet is saying that he will soon learn to accept the fact that his father has died and will never come back. So, he will have to move on.
He further says that he feels as if he is everywhere. Perhaps he is trying to say that he is thinking of father and at the same time, he is trying to move on. He suffers (when he thinks of his father) and moves on.
His mind and heart sometimes move i.e. think of what is under the water (what he lost) and sometimes, he becomes hopeful and thinks of whistling (tries to move on) because now he is not that little boy. He has learned about the reality of life.
In other words, he sometimes becomes sorrowful and sad when he memorizes his father. However, sometimes he becomes hopeful of a better future and tries to accept the reality and move on. Hence, the whole poet was actually about himself.