Collected Poems, 1957-1982
It is often true that we do not know if a writer living among us, publishing a book every three to five years, is “good” or not. Certainly the books are reviewed and readers have opinions that can go up or down, depending on the author’s latest book, like the stock market. If the author is lucky he will have a small yet determined, consistent following that shares some of his central concerns. When Wendell Berry’s collection of poems Openings was published in 1968, and when Farming: A Hand Book appeared in 1970, there appeared some fine individual poems, profound themes—opposition to the Vietnam War, ecology, an intimate relation, or “marriage,” to the land, a sense of history—enough to put his work on the same level as that of the leading contemporary poets. On the other hand, some poems were weaker than others, as with any poet, and Berry’s themes found a sympathetic response in some readers but not in others. His Collected Poems, 1957-1982 comes at what is perhaps a perfect moment. His finest past collections are out of print, and now they can be read again; one can trace his development—growth is the best word—from the time when he started to write until the present. This is important: Despite certain critical doctrines stressing the individual text and devaluing the personality of an author, in practice all readers react to the presence of a “speaker,” whether for better or for worse. Sometimes a writer’s personality has its own form quite different from that of individual works or short poems. Finally, there is the delicate question of whether he is still actively writing his best work. If he is not, there is a special obligation to rescue this work and make it available to readers.
Berry is a poet, a novelist, and an essayist—but he is, above all, a poet. His Collected Poems is particularly interesting because of the vivid presence of the author. This is more than a collection of well-made, individual poems—the author and his biography standing behind them provide a coherence and philosophical framework often lacking in poets judged superior to Berry. Literary fashions come and go; there was a great dividing line around 1958 to 1960, when tastes changed and many older poets active in the 1950’s changed their styles to accommodate the concerns of the 1960’s. The opposite problem has occurred since 1970—the attitudes formed during the 1960’s often seem shrill, narrow, irrelevant to the present. What is an older poet to do when preparing a volume of collected poems? If he leaves out everything that is topical, he is also likely to leave out what is fresh and immediate.
Berry largely avoids this problem because of the particular shape his life has taken. After teaching and writing in California and New York for a brief period when he was young, he returned to the Kentucky River country where he was reared and has farmed there ever since. The Collected Poems has a compelling unity—it is the story of Berry’s “marriage” to his seventy-five acres in Henry County, of the origins of this bond and its succession. It is an intimate story about land, a family, and other people, told in poems. Although the poems were written to stand on their own, the framework and continuity of purpose is one of the most fascinating features of the collection. One sees Berry develop as a poet, and, at the same time, one can see his relationship to his farm, land, and family also developing. This is the most moving part of the book. There is a quest for language, and for form, that is only gradually fulfilled—and the form and language of his poems come to be that of the land he farms and its people. The marriage of form and place is striking, reaching its fulfillment in the collections Farming: A Hand Book, The Country of Marriage (1973), and Clearing (1977). This achievement is above all one of successful form and language—its importance is poetic. It would be a mistake to let interest in a picturesque farmer-poet detract from what is most important, his poetry.
In the first volume represented in this collection, The Broken Ground (1964), one sees a poet whose craft is already relatively accomplished, intellectual, and literary according to the fashions of the 1950’s. If there is a problem, it is neither naïveté nor a lack of literary background—on the contrary, there might be too many influences. In Berry’s first three books, The Broken Ground, Openings, and Findings...
(The entire section is 1849 words.)