Wendell Berry’s Poems, from 1970-1977

Although I tend to agree with the philosophy presented in Berry's Collected Poems written between 1970 and 1977, I don't particularly identify with them. The poems written in 1970 are entitled Farming: A Handbook, and the truth is that although I've always had a vegetable garden, I've never seen myself as a "farmer," nor do I identify with the world in that way. Although I've increasingly felt that American agriculture is going the wrong way and that large companies threaten the very nature of agriculture, I am not a farmer, never have been, and have no desire to be one. I identify with nature as wilderness, not as farmland. In other words, I find it much easier to identify with Thoreau's attitude toward nature than I do Berry's. I'm a city boy who returns to nature to seek a deeper understanding of who I am, not a farmer who earns his existence by staying in touch with the soil.

Despite finding much that was amusing and insightful in Berry's "Mad Farmer" poems, I didn't identify with them on a deeper level. There were, though, some poems I did identify with. For instance, "A Standing Ground" reminded me that my new home doesn't have any berries growing yet, and I have a hard time calling a house a home, unless it has berries growing in the yard:

A STANDING GROUND

Flee fro the prees and dwelle with sothfastnesse;
Suffyce unto thy thyng, though hit be smal...


However just and anxious I have been,
I will stop and step back
from the crowd of those who may agree
with what I say, and be apart.
There is no earthly promise of life or peace
but where the roots branch and weave
their patient silent passages in the dark;
uprooted, I have been furious without an aim.
I am not bound for any public place,
but for ground of my own
where I have planted vines and orchard trees,
and in the heat of the day climbed up
into the healing shadow of the woods.
Better than any argument is to rise at dawn
and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.

It's hard to imagine a better way to start your day than to walk out into the backyard, pick a cup of fresh raspberries for your morning cereal, and sit down to a hardy, healthy breakfast.

I also strongly identify with the sense of place found in "The Current:"

THE CURRENT

Having once put his hand into the ground,
seeding there what he hopes will outlast him,
a man has made a marriage with his place,
and if he leaves it his flesh will ache to go back.
His hand has given up its birdlife in the air.
It has reached into the dark like a root
and begun to wake, quick and mortal, in timelessness.
a flickering sap coursing upward into his head
so that he sees the old tribespeople bend
in the sun, digging with sticks, the forest opening
to receive their hills of corn, squash, and beans,
their lodges and graves, and closing again.
He is made their descendant, what they left
in the earth rising into him like a seasonal juice.
And he sees the hearers of his own blood arriving,
the forest burrowing into the earth as they come,
their hands gathering the stones up into walls,
and relaxing, the stones crawling back into the ground
to lie still under the black wheels of machines.
The current flowing to him through the earth
flows past him, and he sees one descended from him,
a young man who has reached into the ground,
his hand held in the dark as by a hand.

Though I'm no farmer, I can certainly identify with this sense of place. I've always identified with the Puget Sound, even though I lived hundreds of miles away in Vancouver, WA. More than that, I found it quite difficult to move away from the two homes I've owned as an adult. After planting trees and digging gardens, I identify with those homes and hated to go back and find that the new owners had built a storage shed over the garden that I worked so hard to enrich with organic soil through composting or that they'd cut down a tree I planted thirty years ago. Though I've never know the continuity of a "family farm," it seems to me a noble tradition, one that our nation abandons at our own peril.

Wendell Berry’s Poems, from 1964-1968

The further I read in Wendell Berry's Collected Poems, the more poems I found that I liked. Today, I'm covering poems published from 1964 to 1968, approximately the first hundred pages of the book. As I read the poems, uncharacteristically I found myself agreeing with a blurb found on the back cover of the book, one that said, ""Mr. Berry is a sophisticated, philosophical poet in the line descending from Emerson and Thoreau." To me, of course, that's somewhat of a mixed blessing, because I find both Emerson and Thoreau far better philosophers than poets. Like these two, I often find aphorisms in Berry's poetry that seem better than the poems themselves, lines like "The truth preserved by lying/ becomes a lie" or " The world is greater than its words/ To speak of it the mind must bend."

Though I'm still unwilling, and unable, to explain exactly what I mean by "poetry," I know it when I read it, and at times I find Berry's poems lacking in the kind of imagery and language characteristic of my favorite poetry. My favorite Berrry poems are the ones that, while remaining philosophical, rely more heavily on imagery to convey the poem's ideas:

THE WILD

In the empty lot " a place
not natural, but wild " among
the trash of human absence,

the slough and shamble
of the city's seasons, a few
old locusts bloom.

A few wood birds
fly and sing
in the new foliage

--warblers and tanagers, birds
wild as leaves; in a million
each one would be rare,

new to the eyes. A man
couldn't make a habit
of such color,

such flight and singing.
But they're the habit of this
wasted place. In them

the ground is wise. They are
its remembrance of what is.

Perhaps a few months ago this poem wouldn't have struck me quite as much as it does now that I live across from an undeveloped lot (which, of course, is also part of Pt. Defiance park) that wild birds and animals seem to desperately claim as their own. But I can remember my own pleasant surprise forty five years ago when I found that wild rabbits still claimed unused parts of the industrial area where I worked in Seattle. What clinches my love of the poem, though, is the use of multiple meanings of "habit." While the word "habit" ties all the multiple meanings together, it also seems to quietly raise the observation to a religious level.

Although "Against the War in Vietnam" is really a little too didactic for my taste, it does reminds us how little we seem to learn from history and why any concept of "progress" is questionable:

AGAINST THE WAR IN VIETNAM -

Believe the automatic righteousness
of whoever holds an office. Believe
the officials who see without doubt
that peace is assured by war, freedom
by oppression. The truth preserved by lying
becomes a lie. Believe or die.

In the name of ourselves we ride
at the wheels of our engines,
in the name of Plenty devouring all,
the exhaust of our progress falling
deadly on villages and fields
we do not see. We are prepared
for millions of little deaths.

Where are the quiet plenteous dwellings
we were coming to, the neighborly holdings?
We see the American freedom defended
with lies, and the lies defended
with blood, the vision of Jefferson
served by the agony of children,
women cowering in holes.

If there's any doubt why I like this poem, just see how accurately the first paragraph seems to apply to the current Bush Administration. Ask yourself what has happened to the ideal of Jeffersonian democracy.

There was a long sequence of poems entitled Window Poems that I was rather apprehensive about before I actually started reading the sequence, because generally I dislike long, rambling poems. Turned out, though, that some of my favorite poems are found in this section. Poem number 9 may not be my personal favorite, but in some ways it is more typical and offers a better idea of what the section involves than some of the poems that I prefer a little more:

9.

There is a sort of vertical
geography that portions his life.
Outside, the chickadees
and titmice scrounge
his sunflower seed. The cardinals
feed like fires on mats of drift
lying on the currents
0f the swollen river.
The air is a bridge
and they are free. He imagines
a necessary joy
in things that must fly
to eat. He is set apart
by the black grid of the window
and, below it, the table
of the contents of his mind:
notes and remnants,
uncompleted work,
unanswered mail,
unread books
-the subjects of conscience,
his yoke-fellow,
whose whispered accounting
has stopped one ear, leaving him
half deaf to the world.
Some pads of paper,
eleven pencils,
a leaky pen,
a jar of ink
are his powers. He'll
never fly.

Again, it's easy for me to relate this poem to myself, because one of the main selling points, for me, of our new home is that the computer room is on the second story and has two large windows that allow me to constantly observe the sky and much of the old-growth forest that makes up Point Defiance. Even if I can't be outside, I want to be part of that world.

Clearly, though, the window is a metaphor for man's relationship to the natural world, a complex metaphor that is alluded to here, but is really only fully developed in all twenty-seven poems. Still, we would all do well to remember that no matter how much we identify with nature, we are "set apart/ by the black grid of the window/ and, below it, the table/ of the contents of his mind." It is this very separation that, in the end, makes it impossible for us to really "fly."

Wendell Berry More than Nature Poet

During a slight lull in tax preparation, I managed to finish Wendell Berry’s A Timbered Choir. Strangely, about the time I started feeling that Wendell Berry was an overly optimistic poet, I suddenly encountered this poem from 1991:

The year begins with war.
Our bombs fall day and night,
Hour after hour, by death
Abroad appeasing wrath,
Folly, and greed at home.
Upon our giddy tower
We'd oversway the world.
Our hate comes down to kill
Those whom we do not see,
For we have given up
Our sight to those in power
And to machines, and now
Are blind to all the world.
This is a nation where
No lovely thing can last.
We trample, gouge, and blast;
The people leave the land;
The land flows to the sea.
Fine men and women die,
The fine old houses fall,
The fine old trees come down:
Highway and shopping mall
Still guarantee the right
And liberty to be
A peaceful murderer,
A murderous worshipper,
A slender glutton, or
A healthy whore. Forgiving
No enemy, forgiven
By none, we live the death
Of liberty become
What we have feared to be.

The poem evoked some eerie feelings for me. The lines “Hour after hour, by death/ Abroad appeasing wrath,/ Folly, and greed at home” could aptly summarize our current attacks on Iraq, couldn’t they? The war is little more than an attempt to appease America’s wrath over the 9/11 attack despite little evidence that there is really any direct link. If Berry thought “Desert Storm” was “folly,” what must he be thinking about “Operation Iraqi Freedom?” Surely, America’s attempts to secure the oil fields before anything else would support his contention that greed is a major factor in these wars.

I wonder how accurate Berry is in ascribing the causes of this war to the same greed that threatens to destroy our environment. Does our love of “highways” and “shopping malls” drive not only the destruction of our environment but also our attempts to dominate the world?

In our attempts to “make the world safe for democracy” will we merely become a “capitalistic empire,” little different from the British Empire that we seceded from in order to ensure our ability to control our own fate?

Thankfully, “The year begins with war” is but a temporary interruption in Berry’s celebration of man’s relationship to nature and to each other. The following poem, one of my favorites in the second half of A Timbered Choir, is typical of what follows:

A bird the size
of a leaf fills
the whole lucid
evening with
his note and flies.

I strive to believe that the human soul, as small as it seems, can, like the small bird, illuminate our world and fill it with music.

Wendell Berry’s A Timbered Choir

Since it’s impossible to entirely ignore the war in the newspaper, on the television, on the net, or even in friends’ blogs, I’ve been working hard to make sure that I devote the rest of my life to more uplifting sources. It’s hard to imagine a writer more uplifting than Wendell Berry. I’ve agreed with almost everything I’ve read by him in the past, and I’ve particularly enjoyed his writings at Orion.http://www.oriononline.org/pages/om/03-2om/Berry.html

I find little to disagree with in A Timbered Choir: The Sabbeth Poems 1979-1997, though I haven’t found the poems quite as stimulating as I thought they might be judging from poems I’ve previously read.

The book opened auspiciously with a poem that captures my own feelings about venturing into primeval forests:


I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.


Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.


Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.


After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.

While I seldom “go among trees and sit still,” preferring a “walking meditation,” I certainly identified with the overall experience described in the poem. He accurately describes three different stages of experiencing wilderness. You begin by feeling a sense of inner “silence” that is difficult to attain in the city. Once you begin to fit in, the squirrels, rabbits, deer, etc. begin to return and accept you as part of the environment. Next, if you’re lucky enough and fade into the background, the higher predators, cougars or bears, will appear out of nowhere. Finally, if you spend enough time alone in the wilderness you begin to find yourself, the ultimate discovery.

“Slowly, slowly, they return…” is the title poem of the book. Although I’ve only experienced evergreens, not deciduous trees, the idea of “a timbered choir” resonates with me. I have a few favorite places that I’ve revisited over the last sixty years where giant firs have gradually begun to reclaim the logged-over areas:

Slowly, slowly, they return
To the small woodland let alone:
Great trees, outspreading and upright,
Apostles of the living light.

Patient as stars, they build in air
Tier after tier a timbered choir,
Stout beams upholding weightless grace
Of song, a blessing on this place.

They stand in waiting all around,
Uprisings of their native ground,
Downcomings of the distant light;
They are the advent they await.

Receiving sun and giving shade,
Their life's a benefaction made,
And is a benediction said
Over the living and the dead.

In fall their brightened leaves, released,
Fly down the wind, and we are pleased
To walk on radiance, amazed.
0 light come down to earth, be praised!

Personally, I like the phrase “apostles of the living light” since trees reach closer to the sun than any other plant. The image is reinforced in the next stanza by the phrase “timbered choir,” the giant trees singing the praise of Nature. There is something miraculous in the transformation of “sun and giving shade.” Unlike the giant fir trees of the Pacific Northwest, the giant deciduous trees drop a magical carpet of “brightened leaves” in the fall, bringing the sun’s “radiance” down to man’s level.

I must admit that though I share a similar viewpoint of nature, I found Berry’s poems a little too didactic for my taste. I would have preferred poetry that relied more on imagery and less on mere description to convey his ideas. Of course, perhaps this is to be expected from a work with the subtitle: The Sabbath Poems.