Over the past four decades, Wendell Berry has been one of the most prolific writers in America, averaging around a book each year.  Much of this output has been in the realm of poetry, for which he has been honored with the T.S. Eliot Award, the Aiken Taylor Award, the John Hay Award, and other lesser prizes.  Unlike his fellow Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren, Berry has not yet come to be known as the General Pinochet of American Letters for the sheer weight of his medals.  Still, the man has been lionized—particularly by anti-industrialists, who share his scorn for modernity if not his resolution to live an agrarian life.  As a long-time farmer-poet, Wendell not only talks the talk; he walks the walk.

The problem with any individual who has become an institution or cultural metaphor is that a gap inevitably separates his reputation from his achievement.  After all, Michael Jordan missed more shots than he made, and Babe Ruth held the major-league record for career home runs and strikeouts until he was superseded in both categories by Henry Aaron.  By the same token, one is likely to find both hits and misses in a volume of poetry by Wendell Berry.  When he is least effective, his verse reads like prose arranged in lines—it tells much, shows little, and sings not at all.  If these qualities seem jarring, it is largely because a good Wendell Berry poem is very good indeed.  Typically, such a poem contains sharp, even startling imagery and ends with an epiphany of sorts.  It may be some profound revelation but can just as easily be a note of Frostian irony or an unexpected but convincing affirmation of the mundane.

Consider, for example, the understated brilliance of an early poem in Berry’s most recent collection, Given.  “The Rejected Husband” reads as follows:

After the storm and the new

stillness of the snow, he returns

to the graveyard, as though

he might lift the white coverlet,

slip in beside her as he used to do,

and again feel, beneath his hand,

her flesh quicken and turn warm.

But he is not her husband now.

To participate in resurrection, one

first must be dead.  And he goes

back into the whitened world, alive.

In the section Sabbaths, 1998-2004, which constitutes two thirds of the volume, I count about 30 poems of this quality.

In other poems, Berry achieves memorability through different but equally familiar techniques.  “In Art Rowanberry’s Barn,” for example, paints a remarkably full portrait of a man simply by having a survivor catalogue what was found among his belongings after death.  (The first time I recall seeing this device used was in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, when Zooey rummages through his parents’ dresser.)  The trick is to bring the list to a decisive closure.  Berry does so with the following lines: “He found a good farrier’s knife, / an awl, a key to a lock / that would not open.”

If the voice in this poem sounds suspiciously like that of Robert Frost, the influence in “Burley Coulter’s Song” more nearly resembles that of Thomas Hardy.  The rustic scene of a country dance, remembered after many years, is perfectly rendered through an intricate but completely natural-sounding rhyme scheme.  In fact, the rhythm of the dance and the poem are so well matched that we are apt to infer that an unambiguously happy moment is being recalled.  But subtle differences suggest a darker undertone.  At the end of the first stanza, the speaker asks his beloved if she remembers “how we danced / And how the fiddler played.”  At the end of the next stanza, he is reduced to recalling the memory of a memory on his own.  Then, in the closing lines of the final stanza, the pall of melancholy is complete:

The old time comes around me now,

And I remember how you glanced

At me, and how we stepped and swayed.

I can’t forget the way we danced,

The way the fiddler played.

We are prepared for the final twist by just the slightest break in harmony in the enjambment “how you glanced / At me.”

Yet another discernible influence is that of William Carlos Williams.  The speaker in Berry’s “The Future” sounds very much like the one in Williams’ “Tract.”  The emphatic, even hectoring tone of voice elevates an otherwise pedestrian message from the level of prose to poetry.  Moreover, the way in which the poem ends—in an unexpected direction—is typical of Berry at his best.  Although it is not indicated by any change in punctuation, we seem to leave the speaker’s voice (which exhorts us to do our small part to improve the world rather than speculate grandly about the future) to an objective description of the world that sounds as if it could have come from a modern translation of Ecclesiastes:

. . . The Day is

clear and bright, and overhead

the sun not yet half finished

with his daily praise.

Many other poems demand our attention, but, given the limitations of space, I will note only one: “Original Sin.”  This is a natural topic for a certain kind of visionary poet, but rarely has it been treated better—certainly not in Robert Penn Warren’s much-anthologized poem of the same name and only slightly so in Edwin Muir’s magnificent “One Foot in Eden.”  Although Berry’s poem is essentially a statement, it is not simply prose in lines but a thought that demands the conciseness of poetic expression.  If Cleanth Brooks is right that poetry is the language of paradox, what better subject for poetry than the paradox of the fortunate fall?

The argument begins with a clever turn on the adjective original.  One thing good about Original Sin is that it is manifestly not original in the vulgar and colloquial sense in which we use the term.  In other words, it is not something that we were clever and daring enough to come up with on our own.  In addition to humbling us, sin also alerts us to the fact that “something is bad the matter.”  That very realization, however, turns our gaze inward rather than outward, because “Innocence / would never recognize it.”  The poem then concludes with a straightforward assertion of the old theme of felix culpa:

. . . We need it

too, for without it we would not know

forgiveness, goodness, gratitude,

the fund of grace by which alone we live.

I suspect that the agrarian poet Wendell Berry puts together a book of poetry in much the same way that the biblical sower plants a field.  Some seeds fall among the thistles, others by the side of the road.  And even some that are planted end up inextricably bound with the chaff.  But enough ripen to produce a harvest beyond our expectation or deserving.


[Given: New Poems, by Wendell Berry (Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard) 160 pp., $22.00]