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.

7 thoughts on “Wendell Berry More than Nature Poet”

  1. Loren, thanks for these ongoing reflections on A Timbered Choir – one of my favorite books. WB is certainly much more than a nature poet… but that’s not to dismiss the centrality of the created world in his work. His critique of our society’s self-defeating agricultural, environmental, economic and cultural strategies runs deep… and has the frequently frightening (and yet heartening) consistency of a ‘single fabric’ world-view… he makes connections.

    In my AP Lit class, after working through Berry’s fine novel A Place on Earth, I presented “The year begins with war” to students in an effort to expand their perceptions of his range as a writer. One student, who will soon be off to the Air Force Academy, responded to the poem by saying that while he admires Berry’s skill as a writer he cannot accept the political or economic positions of the poem. Another student took the poem quite personally and said he didn’t appreciate being called a whore… so he understood.

    Seems that WB properly understood brings not peace but a sword. His work forces a division within thoughtful people. That’s the effect of an oxymoronic cadenza like:

    And liberty to be
    A peaceful murderer,
    A murderous worshipper,
    A slender glutton, or
    A healthy whore.

    Can we stomach a poetry that names our faults and calls us to a saner vision and healthier life? I’m guessing that we still stone prophets.

    As for what he thinks of our current situation, take a look at his thoughts on the new national security strategy at Orion.org. I’ve got a link to that and a mess of other Berry resources at http://www.brtom.org/wb/berry.html

    Many thanks, Loren, for your exceptional site which I’ve just discovered. I hope to become a regular reader.


  2. Berry is indebted i think to William Stafford,
    whose name is not on your list of preferred poets——

  3. Tom, if they’re going to stone ME, I hope it’s a virtual stonning. I’ve taught enough to know that my values aren’t shared by a majority of people — doesn’t mean my values are wrong, though. Unfortunately, I discovered Berry after I quit teaching.

    Actually, Bill, I do have links to William Stafford on my main page, though they’re listed alphabetically by first name because of some quirks in the alphabetizing ability of this blog — or at least my ability to manipulate it.

  4. I posted the following somewhat related thoughts at: http://deeplanguage.blogspot.com/

    In Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology, Robert Pool quotes from David Dietz, Atomic Energy in the Coming Era, published in 1945:
    “Instead of filling the gasoline tank of your automobile two or three times a week, you will travel for a year on a pellet of atomic energy the size of a vitamin pill….The day is gone when nations will fight for oil….
    No baseball game will be called off on account of rain in the Era of Atomic Energy…. No city will experience a winter traffic jam because of heavy snow. Summer resorts will be able to guarantee the weather and artificial suns will make it as easy to grow corn and potatoes indoors as on the farm.”

    Reading Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture has left me with ideas that keep echoing, such as the idea that “We began to see the whole Creation merely as raw material, to be transformed by machines into a manufactured Paradise.” (p. 56) I wish I could better get students to think hard about whether they really believe that technology will allow us to transcend all limits.

  5. Borne Away On A shield

    Their column went away today
    with faces young and full of cheer
    and so we watched and waved and tried
    to feel no fear
    as they went away today.
    And others of them left as well
    with face less young and lined with fear
    and eyes that on another day had cried
    without a tear
    as they thought on this day’s hell.
    To leave behind
    or stay behind
    for such a cause
    is surely point for pause.
    They went away today because
    we sent them there for oil.
    They went away today because
    we sent them there for peace.
    While we, as watchers, didnt’t really need
    the one, or seek the other, in our greed
    for all,
    just one more piece,
    of more than all the rest can have
    and yet we call
    ourselves the nation born of peace!
    They risk return from foreign field,
    in honor, on their own brave shield.
    While we who stay are solemn sealed
    as fighting God’s own word revealed.

    ##Thoughts while watching our own MASH unit
    leave to take their own place in filling body
    bags and healing those they can.

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