Wendell Berry’s Poems, from 1980-1982

Berry’s Collected Poems ends with poems published in 1980 and 1982, and
I must admit a certain ambivalence towards Berry’s poems. Although at times I feel he is too didactic, and, even, a little condescending, towards we, his readers, I must admit I am sometimes struck not by what he says, but, rather, by the way he says it:


We who prayed and wept
for liberty from kings
and the yoke of liberty
accept the tyranny of things
we do not need.
In plenitude too free,
we have become adept
beneath the yoke of greed.

Those who will not learn
in plenty to keep their place
must learn it by their need
when they have had their way
and the fields spurn their seed.
We have failed Thy grace.
Lord, I flinch and pray,
send Thy necessity.

Although this poem makes me feel a little bit like a schoolboy being lectured by his teacher, a feeling I’m not particularly fond of, by the way, it’s hard not be struck by the truth of it. As a nation we do seem to be willing to sacrifice hard-won freedoms for greater wealth, ironical when we consider we are probably already too wealthy for our own good. Must we lose our freedoms once again before we can truly appreciate them? Perhaps so. In a very real sense, the poem’s message lies at the heart of Berry’s poetry. Perhaps his message would seem stronger if I didn’t already belong to the choir.

While I find it difficult to ignore such poems, my real fondness is for simpler poems like:


Planting trees early in spring,
we make a place for birds to sing
in time to come. How do we know?
They are singing here now.
There is no other guarantee
that singing will ever be.

Here Berry manages to convey his message directly through images, and even the last two lines, though they carry the message, seem like an integral part of the moment. Only those who choose to “harvest” trees rather than plant them would find fault with such a poem.