Poets Who Make Us Better: Wendell Berry
Growing up in the home of a Christian poet who loves nature and small towns, my son knew I’d be eager to hear the poet who had been invited to speak at our local university. Located in DeLand, Florida, Stetson University often had (and still does) such interesting guest speakers as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, anthropologist Jane Goodall, and theologian and social activist Desmond Tutu. And so, during a time when my son was completing undergraduate studies, Wendell Berry came to visit.By then Berry had written “Mad Farmer” and other manifestos of which I was unfamiliar, being interested primarily in his poetry.
After hearing this down-to-earth yet sophisticated Kentucky poet-philosopher speak and purchasing my signed copy of his Collected Poems, I began reading this paperback collection of his first eight books, starting with The Broken Ground.
“All day our eyes could find no resting place.
Over a flood of snow sight came back
Empty to the mind. The sun
In a shutter of clouds, light
Staggered down the fall of snow.
All circling surfaces of earth were white.
No shape or shadow moved the flight
Of winter birds. Snow held the earth its silence.”
The poem continues for five sections, the latter of which ends:
“The shape of the wind is a tree
Bending, spilling its birds.
From the cloud to the stone.
The rain stands tall,
Columned into his darkness.
The church hill heals our father in.
Our remembering moves from a difference place.”
The next book in the collection, Findings, includes “Three Elegiac Poems,” the second of which offers these lines:
“At the house the light is still waiting.
An old man I’ve loved all my life is dying
in his bed there. He is going
slowly down from himself.
In final obedience to his life, he follows
his body out of our knowing.
Only his hands, quiet on the sheet, keep
a painful resemblance to what they no longer are.”
By the book Openings, the poetic voice speaks with an uncommon clarity and sensitivity as shown in the poem, “My Great- Grandfather’s Slaves,” which concludes:
“I see them go in the bonds of my blood
through all the time of their bodies.
I have seen that freedom cannot be taken
from one man and given to another,
and cannot be taken and kept.
I know that freedom can only be given,
and is the gift to the giver
from the one who receives.
I am owned by the blood of all of them
who ever were owned by my blood.
We cannot be free of each other.”
What profound insight Berry brings as we ponder who owns whom! How many of us with an Anglo-Saxon heritage, for example, realize the need to be free of the enslavement we have – the inherited guilt of ancestral ownership of other persons? How many of us long for pardon from those whom we have harmed in any way, whether individuals or collected cultures of the one human race we all share?
At this writing, racial tensions have flamed up around the world, and social change continues to be a need and strong priority. But while we look for a more perfect peace found in clarity, wisdom, pardon, and divine inspiration, these lines from Berry’s long poem “Windows” might ease the wait.
“Peace. Let men, who cannot be brothers
to themselves, be brothers
to mulleins and daisies
that have learned to live on the earth.
Let them understand the pride
of sycamores and thrushes
that receive the light gladly, and do not
think to illuminate themselves.”
This idea of being siblings to ourselves may well enable us to be better citizens and siblings to one another. Meanwhile, nature calls us all. (Pun intended, if you want to read it that way.)
In the next book included in Collected Poems, Berry addresses Farming: A Hand Book with poems such as “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer.”
“I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my
inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission
to go in exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor,
in spite of the best advice. If I have been caught
so often laughing at funerals, that was because
I knew the dead were already slipping away,
preparing a comeback….”
This sense of life and death, people and place coupled as one entity comes together in the book The Country of Marriage. The first of seven parts in the poem by that name begins:
“I dream of you walking at night along the streams
of the country of my birth, warm blooms and the nightsongs
of birds opening around you as you walk.
You are holding in your body the dark seed of my sleep.”
Part 7. goes on:
“I give you what is unbounded, passing from dark to dark,
containing darkness: a night of rain, an early morning.
I give you the life I have let live for love of you….”
The love of his wife of many years widens the poet’s embrace of the land, nature, people in particular, community, and peoples in general. However, this vision of a land at peace – an earth in love with life and the lives of every living thing – is not sentimentalized in Berry’s poems and other works as shown by these lines in the poem “The Clearing” from the book of that name.
“Vision must have severity
at its edge:
bushes grown over the pastures,
vines riding down
the fences, the cistern broken;
against the false vision
of the farm dismembered,
sold in pieces on the condition
of the buyer’s ignorance,
a disorderly town
of ‘houses in the country’
inhabited by strangers;
against indifference, the tracks
of the bulldozer running
the dread of too much to do,
the wish to make desire
easy, the thought of rest.”
In A Part, the book dedicated to his mother, Berry offers “A Warning to My Readers.”
“Do not think me gentle
because I speak in praise
of gentleness, or elegant
because I honor the grace
that keeps this world. I am
a man crude as any,
gross of speech, intolerant,
stubborn, angry, full
of fits and furies. That I
may have spoken well
at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.”
I would be more inclined, though, to call it wisdom and perhaps the inversion of pride – not arrogance but delight in the timeless cycles of life and death as shown in this oddly named poem “Desolation” from the book The Wheel.
“A gracious Spirit sings as it comes
and goes. It moves forever
among things. Earth and flesh, passing
into each other, sing together.”
Although I have other books by Wendell Berry – and he has far more published than I have shelf space – his Collected Poems give us a sweeping view of his insights and his farsightedness. As an author, essayist, naturalist, and “mad farmer,” who challenges us to expand our thinking, the perspectives of this poet might make our views better too.
Mary Harwell Sayler began writing poems in childhood but, as an adult, wrote almost everything except poetry! Eventually, she placed three dozen books in all genres including books of poems and how-to’s on poetry and writing. She continues to maintain the Poetry Editor blog and provide resources for poets and writers on her website. Cyberwit.com has just published her newest poetry book, Talking to the Wren: Haiku, Short Verse, and One Long Poem.