Insects seem to be a popular topic for poets. William Wordsworth, William Blake, Robert Burns, Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath were all inspired by the antics of various of crawlers and creepers. Joining this crew was John Berryman (1914-1972) whose poem “They Have,” appeared in his collection “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1956). I am grateful to my late cousin, the poet and critic Philip Hobsbaum, for sending me this poem by email in 2002.
A thing O say a sixteenth of an inch
long, with whiskers
& wings it doesn’t use, & many legs,
has all this while been wandering in a tiny space
on the black wood table by my burning chair.
I see it has a feeler of some length
it puts out before it.
That must be how it was following the circuit
of the bottom of my wine-glass, vertical: Macon:
it smelt & wanted some but couldn’t get hold.
But here’s another thing, on my paper, a fluff
of legs, and I blow: my brothers and sisters go away.
But here he’s back, & got between the pad
& padback, where I save him and
shift him to my blue shirt, where he is.
The other little one’s gone somewhere else.
They have things easy.
Note: John Berryman’s collection Homage to Mistress Bradstreet won him widespread acclaim as a boldly innovative poet when it was published in 1956. It was soon followed by 77 Dream Songs (1964) which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Berryman committed suicide in 1972 by jumping off a bridge in Minneapolis.
Of Mistress Bradstreet, (1612-1672) Philip Hobsbaum wrote, “America’s first woman poet. She wasn’t very good, but, bearing children and seeing them die in primitive Massachusetts, with wolves and bears and competing Indians, it is a wonder she got any writing done at all.”