About Richard Berengarten

After winning the 1961 Transatlantic Review national short story competition when he was just seventeen, Richard Berengarten has since been the recipient of many international awards and distinctions, far too many to summarise here. Significant highlights include an Eric Gregory Award in 1972, the 1974 Keats Memorial Prize, the 1992 H. H. Wingate–Jewish Quarterly Prize for Poetry, the 2017 Xu Zhimo Silver Willow Award, Cambridge, and the 2021 Excellence Prize for English Poetry at the International Festival of Poetry and Liquor, Luzhou, China. 

The poems featured here are from Berengarten’s 2006 book, The Blue Butterfly (Salt Publishing 2006, Shearsman Books 2011). This received the 2007 Veliki školski čas (Great School Lesson) award in Kragujevac, Serbia.   

In a short introduction, you can listen to Berengarten describe the two events from which these poems originate. First, in 1941, in the town of Kragujevac, central Serbia, over 2,700 citizens, mainly men and boys, were massacred by the occupying Nazis. Second, in 1985, Berengarten was queuing to enter the museum commemorating this atrocity, when a blue butterfly landed on his writing hand. Here inspiration struck, and the events of the massacre and the arrival of this blue butterfly became inextricably interwoven. 

Berengarten spent over twenty years completing The Blue Butterfly. He worked tirelessly to discover details of the massacre, and from this research more poems emerged. In this current age of social media, where poetry is so often rushed out into the world, it is well worth reflecting on the care and dedication that Berengarten devoted to this ambitious sequence. 

A true international poet, Berengarten integrates many languages and traditions into his writing, and this can be seen in one of the first poems written for this book, ‘Nada : hope or nothing’. Using translations of the word ‘hope’ from the languages of countries in which Jews were murdered en masse, he commemorates the moment his blue butterfly (physically and metaphysically) ‘arrived’. His stunning imagery captures the way in which a poem, much like the blue butterfly, can ‘settle’ on and in you, quite without warning. 

‘The shadow well’ paints a blunt and bloody picture of the brutality experienced in any war. A victim addresses his killers, directing them to ‘ask the ribboned Generals / talking in luxurious halls / if they tremble where they sit / while I rot in a common pit.’ Elsewhere, we pivot to the survivors’ perspective with ‘The death of children’, in which Berengarten muses on the incomprehensibility of ‘natural justice’ in the face of the mass murder of children. In such a situation, how do we find words at all? As this sorrowful and contemplative poem keeps looping back on itself, the listener is drawn into the numbness felt by those left behind, especially the parents and family. 

An excellent reader, Berengarten’s expressivity allows the listeners of these recordings to experience the punch these poems pack: grave at times, wistful at others, arresting always. It is rare that a writer brings together history, humanity and philosophy in such a delicate and meaningful way. 

Apart from poems from The Blue Butterfly featured here, Berengarten’s scope in subject and treatment sweeps across large and varied canvases.  Avebury and Croft Woods are set in England (Anvil Press Poetry 1972, Los Poetry Press 1999). The Easter Rising 1967 and Black Light are set in Greece (Restif Press 1969 and Los 1983). Changing and The Wine Cup draw inspiration from ancient China (Shearsman 2016 and 2022). 

For a full list of publications, awards, prizes, distinction and reference works please click here.

Richard recorded his poems in May 2021 and May 2022 at his home in Cambridge. Photographer credit Richard Topley.

Poems by Richard Berengarten

Clean out the house - Richard Berengarten
The death of children - Richard Berengarten
The shadow well - Richard Berengarten
Nada: hope or nothing - Richard Berengarten
The blue butterfly - Richard Berengarten

Books by Richard Berengarten

Awards

1961

The Transatlantic Review, prize in national short story competition

1972

Eric Gregory Award for Poetry

Prize website
1974

Keats Memorial Prize for Poetry

Prize website
1979

1979 – 1981: Arts Council Writer-in-Residence, The Victoria Centre, Gravesend

Prize website
1982

Duncan Lawrie Prize, Arvon International Poetry Competition

1989

Yeats Club Prize for original poem and translation

1992

H. H. Wingate – Jewish Quarterly Prize for Poetry

Prize website
2005

Morava International Poetry Charter Prize, Serbia

2007

‘The Blue Butterfly’: oratorio for Veliki školski čas (The Great School Lesson), Kragujevac, Serbia

2012

Honorary Citizenship of the City of Kragujevac, Serbia

2017

Xu Zhimo Silver Willow Award, Cambridge

2020

Guest-of-Honour, PEN International Conference, Bled, Slovenia

2021

Excellence Prize for English Poetry, International Festival of Poetry and Liquor, Luzhou, China

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