Monday, July 30, 2012

New Poetry: Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry: New Collected Poems

It seems to be the inevitable fate of writers who write in more than one genre to have the work they’ve written in one form valued more highly than what they have done in other genres, as if a writer were given but one true talent and whatever else they do is secondary, work in which we politely allow them to indulge but work that is not the foundation of our esteem. And certainly it seems true that often poets write middling novels and novelists write undistinguished poetry, or essays or memoirs or whatever the case may be. Berry’s novels and essays are fairly well known and respected, but his New Collected Poems make it clear that he must be accounted, as well, a major American poet. The New Collected Poems include selections from his poetry from 1964 through 2010.

In terms of form, most of Berry’s poetry is short and lyrical free verse. There are some longer narrative poems, usually of a more elegiac nature, and while they are accomplished, they make clear that Berry’s m├ętier is the short lyric that is built around a single metaphor, image, or contained sequence of action. The shorter poems have greater immediacy and impact, particularly those of his earlier work which is perhaps his best. It is characteristic of a Berry poem that the central metaphor or image tends to vanish into a Zen-like emptiness:


A sparrow is
his hunger organized.
Filled, he flies
before he knows he’s going to.
And he dies by the
same movement: filled
with himself, he goes
by the eye-quick
reflex of his flesh
out of sight,
leaving his perfect
absence without a thought.


Where the road came, no longer bearing men,
but briars, honeysuckle, buckbush and wild grape,
the house fell to ruin, and only the old wife’s daffodils
rose in spring among the wild vines to be domestic
and to keep the faith, and her peonies drenched the tangle
with white bloom. For a while in the years of its wilderness
a wayfaring drunk slept clinched to the floor there
in the cold nights. And then I came, and set fire
to the remnants of house and shed, and let time
hurry in the flame. I fired it so that all
would burn, and watched the blaze settle on the waste
like a shawl. I knew those old ones departed
then, and I arrived. As the fire fed, I felt rise in me
something that would not bear my name---something that
                bears us
through the flame, and is lightened of us, and is glad.


Between the living world
and the world of death
is a clear, cold pane;
a man who looks too close
must fog it with his breath,
or hold his breath too long.

Berry and his wife have lived on a farm in Kentucky for the last fifty years, and the natural world and the working world of the farm are the shapers of his life. They are the source of the rhythms in which he finds meaning, and the subject of his poetry. He is an environmentalist and a critic of the technological and mechanized world. He has been associated with that contingent of the 1960s counter-culture whose ideas about the proper relationship between man and nature were represented in the notion of going “back to the land.”

Whatever its technical merits, one wonders if Berry’s poetic content will be understood and appreciated by a younger urbanized and technologically saturated generation. What has changed fundamentally in our time is the place of nature in the life of mankind. Humankind now holds in its hands the fate of all natural life on the planet, a circumstance and realization that Bill McKibben has termed “the end of nature.” We no longer imagine that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Nature, which so long represented something fundamental, a bedrock reality that was the foundation of morals and meaning, has been replaced by the looking glass world, one in which we view ourselves over and over again in the endless iterations of virtual worlds. We can only hope that Berry’s world and the meaning and beauty of its tropes are not dismissed as something antiquarian and beyond the ken of contemporary and future generations, for though we would not all be farmers, it is the practice, with its attendant discipline and humility, rather than the specific task, that is at the heart of Berry’s poetry. In that way of living he finds the answer to the question he raises elsewhere in his poetry, “What must a man do to be at home in the world?” Berry’s poetry remains important because however brave our new world, it's a question we still ask ourselves.

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