Standing by Words

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Wendell Berry’s third collection of literary essays, Standing by Words, concerns the decline in language and sensibility evident throughout modern life. In a series of six wide-ranging essays, Berry explores the connections between personal and cultural disintegration in the debasement of language by the specialist mentality, which he finds alike in literature and technology. According to the dust jacket of Berry’s book, this degeneration of language is “manifest throughout our culture, from poetry to politics . . . the ever-widening cleft between words and their referents mirrors the increasing isolation of individuals from their communities.” What is so impressive about these essays is the breadth of Berry’s interests as a cultural critic, as he moves knowledgeably from poetry and literature to farming and environmental questions, demonstrating his concern for all that nurtures and enhances rather than destroys human or biological communities. His argument that the technological mentality is equally destructive to the language and the land finds support in a series of examples ranging from the obscurity of much modern poetry to the futuristic megalomania of technological planners such as Buck-minster Fuller. In each case, Berry argues that one finds a mind divorced from the external world of nature, a private sensibility feeding upon itself, lacking any accountability to audience or community.

As the title of this collection implies, Berry’s concern is with society’s fidelity to words and their meaning. The dust-jacket design features the Chinese character “man” standing beside the sign for “word.” This ideogram, borrowed from Ezra Pound, means “fidelity to the given word”; hence, the man is “standing by his word.” Perhaps this concern may seem merely quaint or old-fashioned, but Berry draws convincing examples of the decline of public discourse and its implications for our culture.

In his keynote essay, Berry argues that “we have seen, for perhaps a hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning.” Furthermore, he continues, “this increasing unreliability of language parallels the increasing disintegration, over the same period, of persons and communities.” The tenor of Berry’s remarks closely parallels that of George Orwell’s in “Politics and the English Language.” Each is concerned with the debasement of language that follows from the split between words and their meaning, particularly where there is a conscious effort to distort meaning so as to defend the indefensible, whether it be political totalitarianism, environmental pollution, manipulative advertising, or literary obscurity. In each case, the triumph of propaganda leads to the degradation of language and withdrawal into private sensibilities, with a consequent decline in the quality of public discourse. Orwell was perhaps most prophetic when he warned of the consequence of newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and a generation later, Berry finds that the destruction of public language, like the destruction of the environment, has proceeded apace.

In “The Specialization of Poetry,” Berry questions some of the key assumptions of modernist poetry: that the poem is primarily a self-referential verbal construct and that the poet must necessarily be alienated from his world. He rebukes modern poets for their lack of interest in form and tradition, nor does he agree with the prevailing emphasis on the personality of the poet. In Berry’s view, a largely unrestrained cultivation of self-consciousness and narcissism has resulted in a diminishing of the estate of poetry, as exemplified by the current vogue for interviews with poets, which demean poetry by presenting it as merely another specialization in a culture of specialists. Berry also objects to the celebrity quality of the interview genre, which tends to focus on poets’ private lives and on what they say and do rather than on what they write.

Berry notes that a withdrawal from ordinary life and a resulting lack of responsibility for anything but oneself are evident in much modern poetry. Poets offer no vision of social betterment, he charges, only the refinement of private sensibility. Modern poets have made a private religion of their art, with their small coteries of devoted followers, and in the process, they have lost the kind of general audience that Robert Frost or Carl Sandburg enjoyed. Instead of poetry taking its place in the market of ideas, there is a generation of minor poets writing for an increasingly narrow and academic audience which tends to mirror their own tastes and concerns. This loss of audience and the increasing poetic specialization is dangerous both to poetry and to society because, as Berry observes, “one of the first obligations of poets is certainly to purify the language of the tribe—but not merely to write poems with it.” Instead, advertising and the mass media shape our common language, while poets remain ignored. The so-called practical disciplines—engineering, agriculture, business—ignore ethics and aesthetics in their narrow functionalism, and the general culture suffers from a disregard for beauty, goodness, and truth.

Another of Berry’s concerns is the modern poet’s lack of interest in tradition—particularly the literary traditions that in the past have helped to shape public discourse. He attributes this decline to four false assumptions: that all closed forms are false; that traditional forms are the only forms; that all forms are necessarily restrictive; and that the organization by itself implies order. Open verse, he argues, is not to be preferred to conventional forms, because too often it is not organic but chaotic. Berry in fact suggests that the distinction between traditional and organic form is misleading; better to distinguish between organic and...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Christian Science Monitor. March 2, 1984, p. B4.

The New York Times Book Review. December 18, 1983, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, September 2, 1983, p. 73.