Wendell Berry 1934-
American poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and translator.
In his poetry and prose, Berry documents the rural lifestyle of his native Kentucky. He often draws upon his experiences as a farmer to illustrate the dangers of disrupting the natural life cycle and to lament the passing of provincial American traditions. Like Henry David Thoreau, with whom he has been compared, Berry is also regarded for his pragmatic and even-tempered approach to environmental and ecological issues.
The son of an attorney, Berry was born and raised in a rural area of Kentucky. He attended college at the University of Kentucky, receiving his graduate degree in 1957. After a few years teaching at Georgetown College, he received a Wallace Stegner fellowship for fiction in 1958-1959. In 1961 he was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, which took him to Italy and France. After briefly holding a teaching position at New York University, he followed the five previous generations of his family and began farming in Port Royal, Kentucky. It was not long before he rejected modern agricultural methods and farm machinery in favor of more traditional and conservational means; this concern for the land is a defining theme of his poetry and prose. He began teaching at the University of Kentucky in 1964, eventually resigning his position to work on his farm full-time. He now works as a contributing editor for New Farm Magazine, a periodical devoted to small farming.
In his verse, Berry utilizes conventional stylistic techniques to demonstrate how the ordering and healing qualities of nature should be allowed to function in human life. In such volumes as The Broken Ground, Openings, Farming: A Handbook, and Collected Poems, 1957-1982, he often adopts an elegiac tone to convey his agrarian values and appreciation of traditional moral concerns. Furthermore, he explores recurring themes such as the beauty of the countryside, the turning of the seasons, the routines of the farm, the importance of marriage, the cycle of life, and the dynamics of the family. In his collections Sabbath and Sabbaths, 1987-90, Berry underscores the spiritual connection between man and the wilderness, perceiving nature as a place of meditation and rebirth for man.
Although a few reviewers deem Berry's poetry antiquated and moralistic, most applaud his versatility and praise him for his appreciation of nature and ecological concerns. His poetry and prose appeals to a variety of readers, including environmentalists, but scholars often debate his emphasis on the relationship between “culture” and “agriculture.” Some commentators classify Berry as a regionalist poet, in the sense that his work is deeply rooted in the concerns and cadences of his native Kentucky; however, his interest in ecological conservation and familial values are universal and topical themes. Berry is considered an eloquent and influential voice in twentieth-century American poetry.
The Broken Ground 1964
Farming: A Handbook 1970
A Country of Marriage 1973
Collected Poems: 1957-1982 1985
Sabbaths: 1987-1990 1992
Selected Poems 1998
Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997 1998
Nathan Coulter (novel) 1960
A Place on Earth (novel) 1967
The Long-Legged House (essays) 1969
The Hidden Wound (essays) 1970
The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky's Red River Gorge (essays) 1971
A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (essays) 1972
The Memory of Old Jack (novel) 1974
The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (essays) 1977
Recollected Essays: 1965-1990 (essays) 1981
Standing by Words (essays) 1983
Wild Birds (short stories) 1986
Home Economics (essays) 1987
Remembering (novel) 1988
Harlan Hubbard: Life and Work (criticism) 1990
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SOURCE: “A More Mingled Music: Wendell Berry's Ambivalent View of Language,” in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. XI, Nos. 1-2, 1982, pp. 35-56.
[In the following essay, Collins asserts that Berry's poetry and prose stresses the importance of poetry in a technological world.]
Ever since the appearance of The Broken Ground in 1964,1 Wendell Berry has devoted a considerable portion of his work to the continuing evaluation of language and the function of art, especially poetry. Again and again in his prose, Berry emphasizes the importance of language, not only for the man of letters, but for every individual living in an increasingly technological world. His essay “In Defense of Literacy”2 lampoons those American universities which have begun to teach language and literature as specialities. To teach our language and literature as such, according to Berry, is to submit to the assumption “that literacy is no more than an ornament” (CH, p. 170); but for Wendell Berry, literacy, far from being a mere ornament, is a necessity:
We will understand the world, and preserve ourselves and our values in it, only insofar as we have a language that is alert and responsive to it, and careful of it. [CH, p. 171]
Literacy is all the more important today because in our culture, we no longer have a vital...
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SOURCE: “Wendell Berry: Love Poet,” in The University of Mississippi Studies in English, Vol. V, 1984-1987, pp. 100-09.
[In the following essay, Hiers asserts that Berry “both inherits and creates an agrarian ethos which sustains poetic visions of love unique among contemporary poets” and compares his poetry with that of Theodore Roethke and Anne Sexton.]
Wendell Berry—poet, novelist, essayist—has produced an impressive canon since his first novel, Nathan Coulter, appeared in 1960. In two decades he has published three novels, several volumes of verse, and five volumes of essays. Two interrelated themes unify all of his mature work: man's proper relationship with the land and, a corollary, his harmonious relationship with his neighbors. These concerns place Berry squarely in the agrarian tradition of Southern literature, a position he finds both intellectually satisfying and aesthetically essential. Unlike many of his agrarian predecessors, however, Berry actually farms as well as writes and teaches.
Although Berry is a former Guggenheim fellow, a former Rockefeller Foundation fellow, the recipient of two prizes from Poetry Magazine and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, he has not attracted widespread critical and scholarly attention. The few scholars with critical interest in Berry have concentrated on his regional agrarianism, his...
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SOURCE: “Moving the Dark to Wholeness: The Elegies of Wendell Berry,” in The Literary Review, Vol. 31, No. 3, Spring, 1988, pp. 279-92.
[In the following essay, Triggs underscores the importance of Berry's elegiac verse.]
With each year, Wendell Berry claims a more significant position among contemporary American poets. From his common beginnings as one of a generation of poets trained in the precepts of the New Criticism, he has pursued his own “path,” as he calls it, with uncommon intellectual rigor and poetic sensitivity. In our age of weak religious faith, many poets, faced with death and the threat of nuclear devastation, have fallen into sterility or despair. Berry, however, over the course of his career, has come to terms with death and made its acceptance central to his philosophy of affirmation. For him, acceptance of death makes possible human love, fidelity, and the perpetuation of the community of men on earth.
Like so many poets of his generation, Berry has developed as an artist by escaping the ubiquitous enchantment of Understanding Poetry. Under the influence of Brooks and Warren, Berry began his career writing individual, “well-made” lyrics that emphasized paradox and irony, and drew for inspiration from the Elizabethans by way of Yeats and T.S. Eliot. A former Kentucky farm boy “exiled” to the freshman writing department of New York University,...
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SOURCE: “Wendell Berry: The Mad Farmer and Wilderness,” in The Kentucky Review, Vol. VIII, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 40-52.
[In the following essay, Gamble explores the relationship between wilderness and agriculture in Berry's poetry.]
Wendell Berry envisions a moral agriculture that transforms the farmer from the enemy of wilderness to its most devoted guardian. This is one of Berry's most paradoxical themes, for traditionally the farmer's role has always been to destroy the wilderness; he clears away the forest with its vegetable and animal life to plant the crops and produce the agricultural abundance that makes civilization possible. Further, anyone with a rural background knows that farmers traditionally seem stubbornly blind to the virtues of the wild.1 On a farm, wildlife is most often seen as a pest, and nature in general as an obstacle to be removed. Yet in both his poetry and his prose, Berry argues that all enlightened farmers must find room on their farms for wild areas, and that these pockets of wilderness must be tended as carefully in their own way as any cultivated field.
On this point, Berry calls for more than simply a change in agricultural practice; his work demands a revolution in thought about agriculture that would extend the responsibility of the farmer beyond his fields and into the wilderness. His rationale for this extension of agricultural...
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SOURCE: “Tangible Mystery in the Poetry of Wendell Berry,” in Wendell Berry, edited by Paul Merchant, Confluence Press, 1991, pp. 184-90.
[In the following essay, Johnson contends that Berry's poetry affirms the sacred in the land, creature, and community, offering the reader “an ecology centered in spirit.”]
Wendell Berry's writing affirms the intimate partnership between earth and spirit, a bond whose roots are at once biblical—“The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord” (Psalm 33)—and practical, since Berry writes out of, and back to, his long experience of working a Kentucky farm. He is sensitive to the world's body, the deep reserves of meaning growing from the earth into the human mind, heart, and community. His poetry enjoins mystery through a ritual of loving observation, in which work and play are part of the earth and its (human and non-human) creatures. The meaning of ritual can be felt and understood as living energy informed and bounded by sacred mystery.
The bond between creature and place is sacred. Earth gives life; tradition teaches habits of responsibility for life. But as Berry has reminded us, “the great disaster of human history” has been “the conceptual division between the holy and the world” (A Continuous Harmony 6), so that, in turn, “the history of our time has been to a considerable extent a movement of the center of...
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SOURCE: “On Devotion to the ‘Communal Order’: Wendell Berry's record of Fidelity, Interdependence, and Love,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Fall, 1994, pp. 9-28.
[In the following essay, Whited views Berry's work as a repudiation of consumer culture in favor of an appreciation and understanding of a value system based on spiritual, communal, and familial concerns.]
For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plenteous redemption.—Psalm 130
From my first reading of Wendell Berry's polemical essay The Unsettling of America (1978) and on through his other essays, fiction, and poems, I have been amused by the contradiction between my admiration for Berry's precise observation of the nature of things and observations by critics who object to his work as anachronistic, romantic, sentimental, naive, elitist, or merely foolish. Often in my classes, I have been surprised by non-traditional students with families and careers who read his work and are offended by its “negative” tone or by what they perceive to be an easy dismissal of the truths and values they claim to live by. In both cases, readers' problems with Berry's ideas are more complicated than merely misreading or philosophical disagreements; they are better explained in Berry's own terms as a cultural forgetfulness brought on by the consumer values of an industrial economy....
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SOURCE: “Into the Woods with Wendell Berry,” in Essays in Literature, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 124-40.
[In the following essay, Knot examines the role of wilderness in Berry's work.]
Wendell Berry commands attention as a passionate and eloquent defender of sustainable agriculture on a human scale, a morally as well as economically viable farming that implies respect for the land, for family and community, and for the wisdom embodied in local culture. Through his fiction, his poetry (including Farming: A Handbook), and especially collections of essays such as The Unsettling of America and The Gift of Good Land, Berry has become widely known as a persuasive defender of life and work rooted in a particular, rural place (in his case a hill farm in Henry County, Kentucky) and as a trenchant critic of agribusiness and of what he would call the industrial as opposed to the natural economy. Yet one of the most striking things about Berry's work is his attraction to wilderness, particularly in the form of the forests from which the cleared fields of the farmer were wrested and to which he imagines them eventually returning.
Berry resists the common tendency to oppose nature and culture, the wild and the domestic, and finds meaning and health in their interaction. In his later essays, beginning at least with A Continuous Harmony (1970), Berry stresses the...
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Berry, Wendell. “The Art of Place.” New Perspectives Quarterly 9, No. 2 (Spring 1992): 29-34.
The poet emphasizes the relationship between culture and agriculture in his work.
Carruth, Hayden. “Human Authenticity in the Age of Massive, Multiplying Error.” Parnassus 13, No. 2 (Spring-Summer 1986): 140-43.
Explores Berry's philosophical concerns.
Decker, William. “‘Practice Resurrection’: The Poesis of Wendell Berry.” NDQ 55, No. 4 (Fall 1987): 170-84.
Surveys the major themes of Berry's verse.
Fields, Kenneth. “The Hunter's Trail: Poems by Wendell Berry.” The Iowa Review 1, No. 1 (Winter 1970): 90-100.
Considers Berry's poetic themes limited and repetitive.
Lang, John. “‘Close Mystery’: Wendell Berry's Poetry of Incarnation.” Renascence XXXV, No. 4 (Summer 1983): 258-68.
Analyzes Berry's treatment of nature in his poetry.
Merchant, Paul, ed. Wendell Berry. Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, 1991, 223 p.
Collection of critical essays.
Murphy, Patrick D. “Penance or Perception: Spirituality and Land in the Poetry of Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry.” In Earthly Words: Essays on Contemporary...
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