Dualities, Dichotomies and Do-Overs: John Berryman’s “The Animal Trainer”

In his two poems, “The Animal Trainer (1)” and “The Animal Trainer (2),” Berryman explores the possible effect of writing a poem twice, each time with a different ending. Both poems share the same three opening stanzas, and shift in opposite directions in the remainder of the poems. The poems are written in the form of a conversation between the speaker and the speaker’s heart. Running below the poem is a conversation about giving up a difficult and dark life of living for one’s art versus a life of light (which can also be interpreted as suicide).

The opening three stanzas reveal that the speaker, an animal trainer in a circus, wants to leave that lifestyle, leave “the tension that decays”, for “a suburb of the spirit.” After the speaker sets up his argument in the first stanza, the heart responds, “What will become of you in the pure light / when all your enemies are gone, and gone / the inexhaustible prospect of the night?” The heart believes that darkness is more fruitful, that in order to stay an artist, he must embrace it, an “inexhaustible prospect.” The speaker responds:

– But the night is now the body of my fear,
these animals are my distraction. Once
let me escape the smells and cages here,
once let me stand naked in the sun,
all these performances will be forgotten.
I shall concentrate in the sunlight there.

The speaker wants to reject his life, and live its opposite. After this stanza, the two poems diverge into two directions. In “The Animal Trainer (1),” the heart tells the speaker that he is the animals’ livelihood, that they are his “immense responsibility.” The word “immense” suggests a grander purpose in his life. The speaker tells the heart that even though he “reared” them, his animals are uncooperative, they don’t do what he tells them; they plague him. They are his creations, and they have failed him. This poem ends with a briefer back-and-forth, begun by the heart:

– You are an animal trainer, Heart replied.
Without your animals leaping at your side
No sun will save you, nor this bloodless pride.

– What must I do then? Must I stay and work
With animals, and confront the night, in the circus?

– You learn from the animals. You learn in the dark.

In this first poem, the heart speaks as if being an animal trainer is the speaker’s fate, that he can’t give it up and live a false life. In “The Animal Trainer (2),” the heart continues on after the third stanza to tell the speaker once again that the animals need the speaker to survive, but this time they are his “despair, responsibility.” The speaker responds that they serve no “soul-delighting” purpose; their existence has no justification. The speaker is not plagued by them, he seems to feel that they are trivial and below his art, inconvenient, “They quarrel, snort, leap, lie down, their delight / merely a punctual meal and to be warm.” With the same stanza structure as the first poem, the heart tries to convince him otherwise, that the animals, and the speaker’s art, mean more:

– The animals are coupling, and they cry
‘The circus is, it is our mystery,
It is a world of dark where animals die.’

– Animals little and large, be still, be still:
I’ll stay with you. Suburb and sun are pale.

– Animals are your destruction, and your will.

Here, the speaker is more conclusive. He ends up in agreement with the heart, not resisting what it tells him the way he does in the first poem. He seems to have more control in his tone, more confidence. While the final line of the poem still contains a note of dark inevitability, the speaker chooses it instead of submitting passively.

Berryman could have written one long poem with more turns in the conversation. He could have shown these two possible sides of the speaker without writing the poem twice, each with a different ending. This form choice has many implications, and adds more layers to the poem than it would have had as one. First, the conversation form makes for a complex poem, bringing in two voices and a built-in conflict. Rewriting the poem the way Berryman did deepens the conflict, since now there are not only two voices in argument, but now the poems speak to each other through their inevitable connection in the reader’s mind. Second, rewriting the beginning again with a new ending makes the beginning read two different ways. The beginning of the first poem makes the speaker sound like he’s contemplating suicide. The darkness and despair in his tone and his outlook make “a suburb of the spirit” and his reference to light and sun sound like elusion to heaven or the afterlife. In the second poem, the confidence and power of the speaker makes “suburb and sun” sound like a physical relocation to a more pleasant dwelling. Third, the poem is filled with dualities. The poem has two voices with two opinions, splitting the poem in half doubles the dualities and complicates them. They are skewed pictures of each other.

In this light, Berryman’s poems can be read as an exploration of art, or fear, or fate. He put two different animal trainers, or the same animal trainer, in the same situation and made the point that it won’t unravel the same every time. This approach to writing a poem demonstrates the vast possibilities of writing. I often think, when I ‘finish’ a poem, if I had written this yesterday, how would it have gone differently? Would it have turned in a different direction or ended differently depending on how I felt and what I experienced in that particular moment?

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