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:


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:


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:


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.”

4 thoughts on “Wendell Berry’s Poems, from 1964-1968”

  1. I love “The Wild”. It’s a vision and scene to which I can relate, and when I read it I can see places I know. And “Against The War” is a powerful statement, although it’s difficult to see these as written by the same person. Number 9 doesn’t speak to me as poetry, however; rather, it comes across more as stylistic prose than poetry. Maybe that’s all poetry is, really. But I didn’t respond to it the same.

    So, you’ll have to present more by Wendell Berry, because right now he seems to be two poets and an author.

  2. I think that the “stylistic prose” is an example of what I also objected to in his poetry, though this last poem probably makes better sense, and seems more poetic, when seen as part of a long sequence of poems.

    I’d guess it’s the philosophic idea that no matter how hard we try our mind inevitably separates us from “nature.”

    I’ll post at least two more entries on Berry.

  3. After reading your comment, I re-read 9, but this time without looking at the other two poems. The message is consistent with “The Wild” – is this a recurring theme in his works? I guess a trip to the library is in the near future.

  4. Poetry is what results when someone puts into precise, beautiful words something we have felt, seen or thought ourselves. It may be didactic, or lyrical or both. Billions of words have been written about Vietnam, but what you’ve quoted is all that needs to be said.

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