Collected Poems, 1957-1982 Summary
by Wendell Berry

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Collected Poems, 1957-1982 Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Containing nearly two hundred poems from eight previous volumes, Collected Poems, 1957-1982 has helped to establish Wendell Berry as a major American poet. The collection illustrates the ideas Berry develops in his fiction and substantiates in his autobiographical and polemical essays. Unifying his poetry are the principles and rewards of small-scale, hands-on, community-based, multigenerational farming, which Berry has found to be an exemplar of a continuous harmony between people and land. Collected Poems stands as one of the most substantial poetic explorations of the links between family, community, farming, and nature.

Central to Berry’s poetry is the view of nature as the primal and ruling character of place—the genius of the place, to use the phrase he borrows from British poet Alexander Pope. Always particular and not abstract, nature in Collected Poems is often Berry’s ancestral hill farm in Port Royal, Kentucky. This nature—and the ancestors who once lived in and enriched the place—is portrayed as a teacher, a conveyor of knowledge, and a clarifier of truths about oneself and the world.

Many of the poems illustrate the mysteries and lessons Berry has learned as a fifth-generation farmer. At the heart of nature’s teachings, and thus at the heart of Berry’s poetry, is the natural cyclic process of birth, growth, maturity, death, and rebirth. This wheel of life is a controlling metaphor throughout the poetry, especially in The Wheel (1982), in which themes and images hinge on a cyclic balance between use of and care for the land, growth and decay, life and death. The earth in Collected Poems is the source and the destiny of life, and thus life is portrayed as a cycle of departures and returns. In “Rising,” Berry writes:

And that is our story,not of time, but the foreverreturning events of light,ancient knowledge seekingits new minds. The man at dawnin spring of the year,going to the fields,visionary of seed and desire,is timeless as a star.

Related to this theme of cyclic harmony is another of Berry’s central metaphors: the marriage between a farmer and the land. The ingredients of marriage—love, intimacy, understanding, patience, hope, responsibility, fidelity—form the substance of many of his poems. The joy, rhythm, and fecundity of a life wedded to the earth are focal in the volumes Farming: A Handbook (1970) and The Country of Marriage (1973). In Berry’s “The Man Born to Farming,” to the husbandman, “whose hands reach into the ground and sprout,” the “soil is a divine drug. He enters into death/ yearly, and comes back rejoicing.”