Farmer, poet, novelist, and social critic Wendell Berry has offered a unique voice in contemporary American letters as a populist social critic, a defender of traditional family values, a spokesman for renewable agriculture, and a regional Kentucky writer. Though he began as a novelist and short-story writer, he first gained notice in 1963 for his Kennedy elegy, “November Twenty-six, Nineteen Sixty-three,” and followed that with seven volumes of poetry and then Collected Poems: 1957-1982 (1985). Since then, he has published Sabbaths (1987).
Though Berry began his career for the most part as a free-verse poet, his later work has shown more structure, particularly in Sabbaths, with its series of formal, rhymed meditations. There are forty-three new lyrics collected in Entries, arranged in four sections. Many of the poems are about his family—his wife, daughter, father, mother, and grandmother—and others are about friends. Entries has a distinctly regional, traditional tone, with a mixture of conservative and populist sentiments. Family, religion, and place are the cornerstones of Berry’s work, here as elsewhere. There are a number of subtle but pervasive religious allusions, including epigraphs from Genesis and the Gospel of John and capitalizations of Heaven, Paradise, Kingdom, God, and Father, lending a meditative quality to what are otherwise personal lyrics.
Aside from “In Extremis,” a series of poems in part 4 dedicated to Berry’s father, there is otherwise little apparent formal structure to the arrangement of the poems. Part 1, “Some Differences,” contains fifteen mostly personal lyrics; part 2 contains eleven mostly didactic occasional pieces; part 3 contains fourteen more short lyrics, including some delicate love poems addressed to the poet’s wife.
Stylistically, Berry seems to be working toward a subtle and informal poetic structure with regular stanzaic form but little formal rhyme scheme, the occasional use of refrain, a regular rhythmic pattern, and a preference for slant or near-rhymes. Some of his didactic prose-poems use a verse-paragraph structure and resemble verse essays. Berry also returns to the elegy and experiments with a contemporary adaptation of the epithalamion, a classical and Renaissance verse form that he uses, without mythological allusions, in “A Marriage Song,” a poem dedicated to his daughter Mary. Other pieces are as short as haiku and demonstrate an Asian cast. There are also sonnet variants, a verse epistle to a fellow poet, a dramatic dialogue, and a Whitmanesque/ Ginsbergesque free-verse poetic manifesto by Berry’s “Mad Farmer” persona.
Part 1 is given the title “Some Differences” because its fifteen poems were originally published separately as a chapbook by Confluence Press in Lewiston, Idaho. The opening poem, “For the Explainers,” rebukes the factual logic of cause and effect, which cannot answer the teleological question “What curled the plume in the drake’s tail/ And put the white ring around his neck?” Instead, the poet urges a Zen-like acceptance of what is without explanation. “Voices Late at Night” dramatizes the poet’s interior prayer, which may be likened to listening to the still, quiet voice within. In a series of five meditations, the poem contrasts worldly aspirations with the likelihood of poverty, strife, and ruin. Another Zen-like meditative lyric, “A Difference,” contrasts the noise of heavy machinery that shakes the leaves on a young beech tree with the quiet tranquillity of ripples on the Kentucky River, below the road, which reflects the rustling leaves.
Three other poets are mentioned by name in the book: William Carlos Williams, Hayden Carruth, and Geoffrey Chaucer. The relationship suggested in two of the poems, “In a Motel Parking Lot, Thinking of Dr. Williams” and “To Hayden Carruth,” is that of mentor and disciple. In an essay in A Continuous Harmony (1972) entitled “A Homage to Dr. Williams,” Berry praised Williams’ evocation of place, humble exactness of description, and sense both of the usefulness of poetry and of twentieth century culture’s particular need for the voices of American poets. A person is most a poet, most a citizen, when he or she is most humanely exact in use of language.
“In a Motel Parking Lot, Thinking of Dr. Williams” extends this tribute in a two-part poem of seventeen three-line stanzas, written in Williams’ characteristic accentual-syllabic verse. The poem seems to echo Williams’ “Elsie” in its insistence that poetry dignifies cultural life by uplifting people’s minds and reminding them of what is worth preserving: the human capacity to distinguish the permanent from the ephemeral, to cherish ordinary moments of transfiguring truth and beauty such as “the weighted/ grainfield, the shady street,/ the well-laid stone and the changing tree/ whose branches spread above.” Berry, like Williams, complains of the...
(The entire section is 2048 words.)