'The song would speak/ Of that interminable building reared/ By observation of affinities/ In objects where no brotherhood exists/ To passive minds' - William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book 2
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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 (Anvil Press Poetry 1972, Shearman Books 2018) and Croft Woods (Los Poetry Press 1999) are set in England. 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
The blue butterfly - Richard Berengarten
Nada: hope or nothing - Richard Berengarten
The shadow well - Richard Berengarten
The death of children - Richard Berengarten
Clean out the house - Richard Berengarten
Books by Richard Berengarten
London: Menard Press , 1980
Roots/Routes (with seven monotypes by Douglas Kinsey)
Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland State University Poetry Center , 1982
Black Light: Poems in Memory of George Seferis
Cambridge, Los Poetry Press, 1983: reprinted 1995, Norwich. King of Hearts
Cambridge: Los Poetry Press , 1999
Norwich: King of Hearts , 1999
London and Bath; Elliot and Thompson, 2001; reprinted 2008, Cambridge, Salt Publishing; and Bristol, Shearsman Books, 2011
Book With No Back Cover
London: David Paul Press , 2003
For the Living: Selected Longer Poems 1965-2000
Cambridge, Salt Publishing, 2004; reprinted 2008; and Exeter, Shearsman Books, 2011
In a Time of Drought
Nottingham, Shoestring Books, 2005; reprinted, Cambridge, Salt Publishing, 2008; and Exeter, Shearsman Books, 2011
The Blue Butterfly
Cambridge, Salt Publishing, 2006; reprinted 2008; and Bristol, Shearsman Books, 2011
Under Balkan Light
Cambridge, Salt Publishing, 2008; reprinted Bristol, Shearsman Books, 2011
DYAD (with Will Hill)
Newton-le-Willows: Knives Forks and Spoons Press , 2022
The Transatlantic Review, prize in national short story competition
Eric Gregory Award for PoetryPrize website
Keats Memorial Prize for PoetryPrize website
1979 – 1981: Arts Council Writer-in-Residence, The Victoria Centre, GravesendPrize website
Duncan Lawrie Prize, Arvon International Poetry Competition
Yeats Club Prize for original poem and translation
H. H. Wingate – Jewish Quarterly Prize for PoetryPrize website
Morava International Poetry Charter Prize, Serbia
‘The Blue Butterfly’: oratorio for Veliki školski čas (The Great School Lesson), Kragujevac, Serbia
Honorary Citizenship of the City of Kragujevac, Serbia
Xu Zhimo Silver Willow Award, Cambridge
Guest-of-Honour, PEN International Conference, Bled, Slovenia
Excellence Prize for English Poetry, International Festival of Poetry and Liquor, Luzhou, China
Feature on Changing - CHA: an Asian Literary Journal, based in Hong Kong
Founding of the Cambridge Poetry Festival
Medellin International Festival 2021 in Colombia: on poetry and ecology
On poetry against oppression (in the context of Ukraine)
The Critical Companion: essays on Richard Berengarten’s writing
Richard Berengarten's reading at Lunch Poems, Berkeley
Richard Berengarten: First Imaginationalist Manifesto
From the Book of Changes to the Book of Changing
Volta: a Multilingual Anthology