Wendell Berry Berry, Wendell - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

The Broken Ground 1964

Openings 1968

Farming: A Handbook 1970

A Country of Marriage 1973

Clearing 1977

Collected Poems: 1957-1982 1985

Sabbaths 1987

Sabbaths: 1987-1990 1992

Entries 1994

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

What are People For? (essays) 1990

Fidelity (short stories) 1992

Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (essays) 1993

Watch with Me (short stories) 1994

Another Turn of the Crank (essays) 1995

Two More Stories of the Port Williams Membership (short stories) 1997

Robert Collins (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

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 and coherent oral tradition as primitive peoples and folk societies had; yet we are constantly bombarded by a kind of language, what Berry calls “prepared, public language” (CH, p. 171), which is trying to compel us to do something, usually, in his words, “to buy or believe somebody else's line of goods” (CH, p. 171). In Berry's view, our only defense against such a use of language as power is to know a better language, that is, we must know our literature, for “The only defense against the worst is a knowledge of the best” (CH, p. 172).

For Wendell Berry, the abuse of language is largely responsible for the cultural, physical, and spiritual wasteland in which Americans are living today. In The Long-Legged House,3 Berry acknowledges both the importance of language—“men fight when arguments fail” (LLH, p. 68)—and the way in which Americans have abused language. Our future is in jeopardy because we have lost our idealism, and ideals are the only real guides to the future. That loss of idealism has resulted in a loss of reality, for “Each is the measure and corrective of the other” (LLH, p. 48). While Berry views the constant migration of Americans from one part of the country to another or from part of a city to another as partly to blame for our loss of idealism, a cause just as significant is the abuse of language:

Much of the blame for the erosion of our idealism must be laid to the government, because the language of ideals has been so grossly misused by the propagandists. [LLH, p. 51]

Again and again, Berry notes how our language has deteriorated, largely because of the wide gap between what governments, churches, businesses, and individuals say and what they do, what he calls “a radical disconnection between our words and our deeds” (CH, p. 128).

Berry doesn't confine himself, however, to commenting upon the importance and the abuse of the everyday language we speak and write or upon the prepared, public speech of politicians. He also has much to say about poetry, about its importance and its abuse. Berry derives one of his definitions of poetry from Thoreau: “Poetry is nothing but healthy speech” (CH, p. 14). He borrows another one of his definitions from R. H. Blyth: “Poetry is not the words written in a book, but the mode of activity of the mind of the poet” (CH, p. 15). For Berry, at least in his essays, as for Thoreau and Blyth, poetry, in addition to being the sacred tie which binds all things, is a power which can help to change the world insofar as it is “conducive to the health of the speaker, giving him a true and vigorous relation to the world” (CH, p. 14).

While poetry could be one of the most important means of restoring life and health to the world, of making the wasteland bloom, the poetry of this century, according to Berry, has failed to do so. It “has suffered from the schism in the modern consciousness. It has been turned back upon itself, fragmented, obscured in its function. … It has often seemed to lack wholeness and wisdom” (CH, p. 15). Berry finds hope, however, in the work of a number of contemporaries, most notably Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, and A. R. Ammons, in whose poetry he finds “a sustained attentiveness to nature and to the relation between man and nature” (CH, p. 1). Their poetry appeals to him particularly because it is not turned self-consciously back upon itself, but rather toward the external world. “It seeks to give us a sense of our proper place in the scheme of things” (CH, p. 16).

Of all the poets of this century, however, Berry most admires William Carlos Williams, primarily because Williams' poems are so much concerned with the importance of place:

His poems and stories and essays record the lifelong practice, the unceasingly labor of keeping responsibly conscious of where he was. He knew, as few white Americans have ever known, that a man has not meaningfully arrived in his place in body until he has arrived in spirit as well. [CH, pp. 56-57]

Berry also admires Williams for his insistence upon the concrete (“No ideas but in things”) and for his insistence upon the necessity and usefulness of poetry. What Berry finds in Williams as well as in the work of the other poets mentioned above is, again, a power which moves toward the world and toward “a new pertinence of speech” (CH, p. 35).

As we have seen, for Wendell Berry, poetry, more than the words written on a page, is a power which has a good deal more to do with the way a person lives than with anything he might write. This definition, suggesting a kind of poetry other than that which takes the form of language, is the first hint in Berry's work of a growing ambivalence about the value and power of language, especially poetry. As we might expect, the view of language and poetry which we find in Berry's poems is both similar to and different from that which we find in his essays. At least early in his career in his essays and his poems, poetry is one of the most important means of restoring a world laid waste by men and of ushering in a new era in which there would be new contact between people and the earth; yet, at the same time, we can observe a paradoxical development in his poetry which increasingly emphasizes the importance of silence and increasingly stresses that poetry is not the words written in a book, but “the mode of activity of the mind of the poet.”

A number of poems from The Broken Ground, Berry's first volume of poetry, demonstrate the way in which Berry, at least early in his career, values song, especially human son. In “A Man Walking and Singing,” he admires the ability of people to sing not in spite of but because of their knowledge of death, the oppressive climate in which they live. In keeping with what he says in his essays about the importance of place to his own writing, we can observe in this poem how the stuff of the world, what the speaker sees and hears, becomes part of his song, his footsteps, in a phrase Williams no doubt would have admired, “beating the measure of his song” (BG, p. 29). Berry further underscores the importance of human song here by the way he contrasts it with “the mockingbird's crooked / arrogant notes” (BG, p. 30). The man in the poem sings not in spite of but almost because of his awareness of death while the bird sings “as though no flight / or dying could equal him / at his momentary song.” Not only is there a kind of triumph in human singing, but the poem also suggests that it is song which separates men from beasts, an idea which figures prominently in Berry's later work, significantly enough in almost the opposite way.

In “To Go By Singing,” a poem similar to the one we have just discussed, again Berry emphasizes the importance of human song. Here the singer who walks the street is “a rag of a man, with his game foot and bum's clothes” (BG, p. 44). Still, the speaker admires him, for he is not the stereotyped, panhandling wino. He sings neither for love nor money, “his hands / aren't even held out.” This man “sings / by profession,” and, because of the religious connotations song has in other poems in The Broken Ground, most notably in “Canticle,” we must understand “profession” not only as a man's calling or occupation, but also as his declaration or avowal of faith in life.

In the second stanza of the poem, Berry juxtaposes singing with the noise and movement of the city:

To hear him, you'd think the engines
would all stop, and the flower vendor would stand
with his hands full of flowers and not move.

The suggestion is that the man's singing goes largely unnoticed, even though the speaker finds it extraordinary; yet he also finds something admirable in the fact that the man sings even though no one listens to him, that “there's no special occasion or place / for his singing.” The parallels we might draw here between the nature of this man's singing and the function of poetry would seem to be significantly at odds with what Berry says in his essays about poetry. There, in addition to the necessity and usefulness of poetry, he emphasizes the importance of writing out of a deep awareness of place.

Here, however, if we allow that when Berry writes about song he also means poetry, the suggestion would seem to be that poetry derives its importance and its strength precisely because there is no special occasion or place for it, that it thrives and somehow is admirable because it lacks an occasion or an audience or a home. Furthermore, even the usefulness of poetry appears to be in quesstion here, for, aside from its importance to the man in the poem as his way of going, his singing has little impact upon the world: “His song doesn't impede the morning / or change it, except by freely adding itself.” If only implicitly, the power of poetry to change the world would appear to be in doubt.

How can we account for this discrepancy? A number of plausible explanations suggest themselves. First, perhaps we should not draw the connection between song and poetry so readily, a weak explanation, I think, in light of the title of the poem, which suggests, more than a walk through city streets, a way of life, and also in light of the way Berry views song in other poems in the collection as a kind of human design which makes the parallel with poetry unavoidable. Second, Berry wrote the poem earlier than most of his essays which discuss poetry, before he had returned to settle in Kentucky and, perhaps, before he had consciously formulated his view of the function of language, a plausible explanation when we realize as we shall see that Berry's view of the function of language and poetry as he expresses it in his poems, though it has changed and developed, remains ambivalent as recently as A Part,4 his latest collection. Third, Berry is talking about the only kind of song possible in the city where it is impossible to sing out of strong sense of place, a kind of song which he finds admirable, but inferior to poetry rooted in place, a possible but unlikely explanation, given Berry's admiration for the author of Paterson. Fourth, the poem suggests that Berry has doubts about the function of poetry and about his own poetry having any effect upon the world, an idea which appears significantly in Clearing,5 his sixth collection. A combination of these last three explanations, with reservations about the third, helps to account for the view of song this poem expresses.

Two other poems in The Broken Ground in which Berry asserts the importance of song are “An Architecture” and “A Music.” In each, he further suggests in different ways that song functions as a kind of design which can provide order and meaning. In the former poem, it is the song of a bird opening “Like a room … among the noises / of motors and breakfasts” (BG, p. 36). The obvious suggestion here is that the bird's singing creates the world in which it lives: “Around / him his singing is entire.” Again, the parallel between the power of the bird's song and hence the power of poetry to create order and meaning, and even a world in which one can live, are all but obvious. Song is an architecture, both a plan or vision and the enactment of that vision. Rather than being created out of an awareness of place, the song, or poem, creates the place in which one lives, although one could argue that the bird's song certainly originates in the place in which it is sung.

In the latter poem, the song is that of a blind mandolin player whom the speaker employs by proffering a coin. The song of the mandolin player, like the song of the man in “To Go By Singing,” becomes all the more significant because of the place in which he plays—the subway station where all is transient. Here again, song is a unifying principle. It connects the speaker with the mandolin player and each of them with the place. And again, perhaps because of the nature of the place or perhaps because of Berry's view of song at this point in his life, the music of the mandolin player clearly supercedes the place in which it is played. “Nothing was here before he came,” the speaker tells us, and “The tunnel is the resonance / and meaning of what he plays” (BG, p. 43). The tunnel enriches and intensifies the music, but it is supplementary, not its source. The speaker further emphasizes the value of human song when he declares in the last line of the fourth stanza: “It's his music, not the place, I go by.”

The importance of music as a human design and as a means of perception is underscored in the last two stanzas, where the speaker calls the blind man's mandolin, “the lantern of his world,” where “his fingers make their pattern on the wires” (my emphasis). Berry suggests, as he does in “A Man Walking and Singing,” that song is a kind of triumph, for it takes shape in an alien clime, in a twofold darkness. In fact, the song lights up the stranger to the city and to the darkness of the subway. The song becomes a means of perception: “This is not the pursuing becomes a means of perception: “This is not the pursuing rhythm / of a blind cane pecking in the sun, / but is a singing in a dark place.” That Berry finds human song all the more important in the city is borne out by the last phrase of the poem, for the metro and the city are symbolically dark places in Berry's scheme of things. It is borne out as well by the generally negative view of the city which Berry expresses in The Broken Ground and by the way in which he admires how nature, that is, anything living, manages to hang on there despite waste and ruin.

Nevertheless, Wendell Berry does not always view song in such a positive light in The Broken Ground. In “Canticle,” for example, he distinguishes between different kinds of song of which humans are capable. Here he values the concrete song of the coal merchant over the abstract, spiritual music of the moribund priests, precisely because the former consists of the stuff of this world:

He mentions the daily and several colors of the world.
His song is part of a singing into which the trees
move, and fill themselves with all their living
and their sounds. Dirt and offal assail the dead
with music, and they vanish out of their bodies

(BG, p. 39).

This distinction makes the title of the poem all the more significant, for it provides insight into Berry's sense of the sacred and it emphasizes what Berry believes the proper focus of religion should be—the things of this world, not of the next.

Probably the most ambivalent poem about the value of song in this collection is “Nine Verses of the Same Song,” a group of loosely connected lyrics of which a number are concerned with song, speech, and the possibility of perfection in a finite world. Here Berry distinguishes not only between the different kinds of song of which humans are capable, but also between human song and the song of the world, between the world as humans know it and the world as it is. In the first section, Berry presents these themes in only seven lines. The ear, he tells us, is finely attuned “to the extravagant music / of yellow pears ripening … as if the world / were perfect” (BG, p. 19); but the ear also hears the sound of a cicada bursting its shell, breaking in upon that extravagant music. The distinction is between two kinds of music which humans are capable of hearing: the ideal, perfect music which the ear prefers; and the real, imperfect music which the ear cannot avoid. Berry's suggestion appears to be that in order to have perfection, humans must ignore reality, or at least pay attention only to certain parts of it, but the image of the whirring cicada in the last line suggests that the real will always break in upon and destroy that illusion of perfection.

Section two, which appears to be little more than a loose collection of images, distinguishes between human music and the music of the world. Here the human music, consisting of trumpets on a phonograph, which “hold the globed gold light / belling in the mirror's corridor / time out of time” (BG, p. 20), is juxtaposed with “the morning-red cockerel's / burnished crowing.” Whereas the former is a human design which gives the illusion of stopping time, the latter is “counter-measure / to clocktick,” that is, to another man-made, artificial way of measuring time. The crowing is heard by the quiet man of stanza one not merely with the ears, but “loud / in the quick of his wrist.” The trumpets, like the yellow pears of section one, produce an extravagant, ideal music which contrasts with the sparer music of the cock, a kind of music of which the man is capable because it flows in his own veins. It is the real stuff of the world and as such it does not seek to impede the flow of time as human music does.

One other section of the poem is pertinent here. In section four, Berry juxtaposes two kinds of music in order to show which is most appropriate for humans. Here music is clearly analogous with speech. The two kinds of music are that which is all flesh and that which strives to be all soul. Berry finds both kinds unsatisfactory:

it is a more mingled music
we are fated to
a speech breaking categories
to confront its objects

(BG, p. 22).

This part of “Nine Verses of the Same Song,” along with “The Apple Tree,” in addition to suggesting the fundamental importance of music and speech, also provides a definition of poetry which applies to Berry's own...

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John T. Hiers (essay date 1984-1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Jeffery Alan Triggs (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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David E. Gamble (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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William C. Johnson (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Stephen Whited (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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John R. Knott (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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...

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