Wendell Berry is, without doubt, the poetic star of environmentalism. I do not know of any other poet of his stature in the present or past who has taken his stand, as the Agrarians said they did, and stood by it so steadfastly into his 60’s. In fact, his farmer-poet representation of himself may be his most impressive creation, perhaps more than anything else the source of the attention he has received. Not a bad thing for such a worthy cause. But what about the poetry?
In the first sentence of “The Apple Tree,” the first poem in Selected Poems, he refers to “the essential prose in things,” and we know immediately that he is not going to proceed along the lines of that great sophisticate, Wallace Stevens, who insisted on “the essential gaudiness of poetry.” An approximation of this dichotomy runs through American prose and poetry, the two sides knitting back and forth, correcting each other’s excesses, and we can be grateful that the fabric of American meaning is so varied and rich in texture and design.
Specifically, there are 100 poems in Selected Poems, taken from nine of Berry’s 14 listed books of poetry. To me, the long poems are the best, for, with some exceptions, the short ones do not give us “the immortal wound from which you will never recover,” as Robert Frost said, and did in such classics as “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” “Fire and Ice,” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
Berry hits his stride with “The Design of a House” and the sequence “Window Poems,” a real tour de force and one of my favorite pieces in the collection. It is a perfect subject for a careful observer like Berry: “This is the mind’s eye, / Wendell’s window. . . . The country opens to the sky / the eye purified among hard facts. . . . The window is a form / of consciousness, pattern /of formed sense / through which to look / into the wild / that is a pattern too, / but dark and flowing. . . . The window becomes a part / of his mind’s history, the entrance / of days into it. . . . The window is a fragment / of the world suspended in the world, the known / adrift in mystery, / and now the green / rises. The window has an edge / that is celestial, / where the eyes are surpassed.”
I respond to these poems as a kind of hymn to the earth, all the deeper for being limited and focused by how much one man at any given time can see from his window—an intense “fragment.” In a way, this sequence is also a paradigm of his poetry: Every window looks out on a small portion of actuality which can be meditated on and explored. Windows can work wonders, the protected, projective process, the gift received and returned. One recalls the brilliant window paintings of Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse, and remembers what a useful metaphor the window is for any artist.
The overall tone of the collection is elegiac and admonitory, and why would it not be for a poet who so loves the land and the historic presence on it and has seen so much of it desecrated and disavowed? I said in an essay (“Donald Davidson and the Dynamics of Nostalgia”) in the Georgia Review that nostalgia is one of the valid ways of looking at life, particularly in the 20th century. Davidson, who was also at his best in his long poems, made a compelling case of how, looking backward, we may be persuaded to change and look forward. Berry, in fact, is more like him, though their styles and techniques are different, than like any of the other Agrarians, Ransom, Tate, and Warren, who abandoned their stand and went on to what they considered more tenable and richer endeavors, wearing their high art and erudition on their sleeves. They can be said, finally, to have been “aristocratic” in their outlook, and the democracy around them, not yielding to their pressures, left them nowhere to go except back to art itself, which they proceeded to analyze, defend, and create with brilliance. But Davidson stayed on, stayed firm about his beliefs, a perfect and poignant example of a fugitive from contemporary America who, in the midst of his regret, had some wise things to say about it. Berry is less plaintive and wistful than Davidson, but the big difference is that he “went to ground,” literally and figuratively, to test his argument in actual experience.
Such commitment takes a good deal of courage when people of your own age are deserting the farms in droves, and it sets up conflict and tension in the poet. The alien world seeps in despite careful screening, and, when it does. Berry can sound curiously like Robinson Jeffers, though he does not have Jeffers’ long, sweeping lines and opulent rhetoric. “Dark with Power” and the poem that follows it, “The Want of Peace,” illustrate that the farmer-poet has something in common with the brooding sage of the West:
Dark with power, we remain the invaders of our land, leaving deserts where forests were, scars where there were hills. On the mountains, on the rivers, on the cities, on the farmlands we lay weighted hands, our breath potent with the death of all things. Pray to us, farmers and villagers of Vietnam. Pray to us, mothers and children of helpless countries. Ask for nothing. We are carried in the belly of what we have become toward the shambles of our triumph, far from the quiet houses. Fed with dying, we gaze on our might’s monuments of fire. The world dangles from us while we gaze.
This deep look into the darkness is heartening in a poet who may seem to those of a different persuasion a bit too confident and “convinced.” Another shock of recognition of the otherness of things comes in a fine poem, “Meditation in the Spring Rain,” about “crazy old Mrs. Gaines” who was kept intermittently in a cage built for her by her family in a “shadowy country / that she knew, holding a darkness that was past / and a darkness to come,” her tragicomic shibboleth, “One Lord, one Faith, and one Cornbread.” Berry identifies with her, and says, “For I too am perhaps a little mad, / standing here wet in the drizzle, listening / to the clashing syllables of the water. Surely / there is a great Word being put together here. . . . For a time there / I turned away from the words I knew, and was lost. / For a time I was lost and free, speechless / in the multitudinous assembling of his Word.”
Farm policy falls away in the depths of such “shadowy country.” As we all try to synthesize our lives, we are called on not to be too sure, remembering Goethe’s “Gray is all Theory, only the Tree of Life is green.” Berry understands this too, and not infrequently his point of view, free of the programmatic, flourishes, deepens, into love, passion, even a quiet ecstasy, and this is when his poetry is most vital. It is hard not to go along with his credo as he states it in “The Man Born to Farming,” one of the best short poems:
The grower of trees, the gardener, the man born to farming Whose hands reach late into the ground and sprout, to him the soil is a divine drug. He enters into death and comes back rejoicing. He has seen the light lie down in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn. His thought passes along the row ends like a mole. What miraculous seed has he swallowed that the unending sentence of his love flows out of his mouth like a vine climbing in the sunlight, and like water descending in the dark?
It is not easy to quote from Berry since, as I have said, most of his best poems are long, and it is the whole performance that counts. Consequently, I should at least mention for the reader’s interest and delectation those long poems I particularly admire in addition to “Window Poems”: “To a Siberian Woodsman,” “History,” “The Country of Marriage,” and “Testament.”
For a poet who often reminds one of a character in an old-fashioned novel. Berry’s prosody, by contrast, is modern, even of the moment, employing mainly short lines, and with capitals only at the beginning of sentences that have suppleness and grace, only now and then stubbing their toes on the too prosaic. He owes a good deal of his rhythm and movement to William Carlos Williams, who seems to have fathered this kind of verse in many of today’s poets, and, in fact, late in the book there is a poem (which was, incidentally, originally published in Chronicles) entitled “In a Motel Parking Lot, Thinking of Dr. Williams.”
By contrast, and helping to balance this effect, several poems, notably “Testament,” “The Clear Days,” and “Requiem,” show that Berry can handle rhyme and meter. These are welcome if for no other reason than that they vary the tone of the book, reminding us that Robert Frost said one of the reasons for writing poems was to make them “all sound different.” Frost, not only in prosody but in persona, is an interesting contrast to Berry.
Frost was my teacher at Harvard and a friend until his death, and I had an opportunity to observe him at close quarters. He lived on a farm off and on and was, in his words, “versed in country things,” but he was not immersed, the impression given by Berry in his poetry and in biographical accounts. As a matter of fact. Frost told me that he had hated doing the chores and fled the country as a working farmer as soon as he could, using the countryside for the rest of his life as a storehouse of subjects and metaphors. Even early on, he must have realized that the future did not belong to the small farms and that the artist must perhaps satisfy himself with “a lover’s quarrel with the world.”
As to the final import and impact of the book, I find Berry a kindred spirit. I believe in his agricultural, which is really also a cultural, agenda: the traditional values of love of the land, marriage, family, ethical behavior, etc. Alas, if it were only shared by America and the world, or implied in the future. In “Horses,” a remarkable poem near the end of the book, he gives us a picture of himself as a boy when horses were still used in farming and he learned with delight “the other tongue / by which men spoke to beasts,” but by the time he had learned the older kind of farming,
new ways had changed the time. The tractors came. The horses stood in the fields, keepsakes, grew old and died. Or were sold for dogmeat. Our minds received the revolution of machines . . .
Nevertheless, coming to manhood, the boy remembers and, almost in ecstasy, begins to farm with a team-drawn plow on his difficult, sloping land: “A dance / is what this plodding is. / A song, whatever is said.”
But the tractors did come, and they have never left. This is the essential tragedy of Berry’s life encapsulated, and one sees him as a special case, a unique kind of farmer-poet who may never come along again. His faith is a romantic, nostalgic vision with the startling difference that he has somehow put an invisible wall around that farm in Kentucky and lived his dreams. Berry looks out of his window and sees a great deal accurately and beautifully, but as to its implications for actual, modern America, he sees what he wants to see. I am reminded of Flaubert’s ironic commentary that he had always tried to live in an ivory tower, but une marée de merde kept beating at the walls, threatening to undermine them. It is fine, noble, and appealing to argue the cause of the farmers, but how many of them can live the life of Wendell Berry in a world that is more and more awash in Flaubert’s oceanic invasion?
Still, the farmer-poet in Kentucky holds our attention and respect. “Lost causes” are never lost if they are good in themselves. Berry’s basic devotion to the earth could, and should, be followed in whatever modest manifestation the individual can muster—a garden plot if need be, where he, too, can feel “the current flowing to him through the earth,” and imagine that the hand he thrusts in the soil is grasped in communion by the hand of the earth.
[The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, by Wendell Berry (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint) 178 pp., $20.00]