Wendell Berry Berry, Wendell (Vol. 6) - Essay

Berry, Wendell (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Berry, Wendell 1934–

A Kentucky poet, novelist, and essayist, Berry has been called a spokesman for the rural and natural.

Berry walks farmlands and hills and looks upon the rivers of Kentucky. The poems [in The Country of Marriage] are of Nature, of man's relationship to Nature, of a steady love for marriage, tradition, mankind. These are poems which are endangered by sentimentality, but escape into wisdom. When Wendell Berry (or his persona, The Mad Farmer) speaks, gives advice, the language is steady, quiet, like his rivers and land. (p. 106)

It is the Mad Farmer poems I like best. Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front shows us the statement-making Berry at his most instructive…. I have on the wall of my office lines from the preface to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, in the famous "This is what You Must Do" scroll. Berry's lines touch me equally. It is the ability to make statements out of a life that—via the poetry—we feel is being truly and firmly lived, that we might value. This farmer is, of course, not mad at all. He can see, in The Mad Farmer Manifesto: The First Amendment that "the vision keeps/lighting in my mind, a window/on the horizon of the dark." (p. 108)

Wendell Berry, by this and his earlier poems (especially those in Farming: A Handbook), stakes his claim to being our primary contemporary poet of clarity. In a curious way, The Country of Marriage is similar to A. E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad. It is a book one wants to carry with him, a wise book, in which one man, at least, convinces us that out of the overwhelming one may still, risking sentimentality, wrest great and good simplicities. I think of the Shaker song: "Tis a gift to be simple." (p. 109)

Dick Allen, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), May, 1974.

Wendell Berry is a dubious case. He too much resembles Shenstone. He is mainly genre. Genre is magic, and magic is money. Berry has the magic. He is a Farm Poet (species: Organic). Consider a great opening line: "Beneath this stone a Berry is planted" (rhymed with "wanted"). How am I, a mere Californian, to pronounce the proper name? Is there a pun on "berry" or "bury" or both? Must I associate to Stetson? Can it be true? What does it all mean? How can I get such nonsense out of my head? On the tape deck, Martha Tilton, singing from the heart of the New Deal, wafts it away.

Throughout [The Country of Marriage], Berry precesses his death, a curious activity for an organic farmer. He does not, at all, envisage death as a fact. Despite his pretty title, he has little or nothing to say about marriage. He appears quite innocent of divorce, now approaching 70% in academic suburbia. (Yes, the figure is horrifying, both in itself, and in what it suggests, and a real poet would have at it.) I am informed that Berry "makes his permanent home" on the Kentucky River, with, I presume, the ghost of Stephen Foster. He is thus a River Poet. He is also an English Faculty Poet. Best of all, he is a Dust-Jacket Poet, a not uncommon apparition these days. (p. 26)

[In this volume there are] 53 (actually 51) pages … and a lot of the paper is white. In this space imaginative readers may draw diagrams attempting (they will surely fail!) to clarify the "expansive metaphor" that purportedly unifies the collection. The metaphor is tripartite, videlicet (a) the farmer and his land, (b) the farmer and his wife (and if the farmer were a woman? How unspeakable!), (c) the farmer and his God, neatly fenced for the happily lapsed as "the sustaining mysteries and powers of creation," i.e., the poetry of Wendell Berry. "Did I believe I had a clear mind?" "What I thought/was the light is part of the dark." Most wasps pray (and very poorly, too) before eating. Not Berry. He prays after. "May I be worthy of my meat." Another classic line in search of an up-dated Stuffed Owl.

(Interpolation.) Writing hostile reviews is not the ego trip that stupid readers think. I shall launder my conscience by giving my pay to the United Farm Workers. (Memo to self.) Do just that, and don't forget.

One Berry line I once thought good (it wore out): "Practice resurrection." The end of a Mad Farmer Poem (another Berry genre). I also find a flicker of recognition:

            To be sane in a mad time
            is bad for the brain, worse
            for the heart.

It may not be poetry, but it's true. Sadly, there is no way for Berry to know if he is sane, except in the quality of the verse, which is not reassuring. (pp. 27-8)

Berry appears to have no politics, except implicitly. I am bored, annoyed, angry (by turns), with his male chauvinism, obsessions with male primogeniture, and all the blather about marriage with virtually no reference to women. I like even less statements that the Berrys have labored this land six generations, meaning, I suppose, that a Californian can't understand either the land or the Berrys. (p. 28)

Edwin Fussell, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1974.

Wendell Berry … is a Kentuckian, and most of his work deals with the people and land of that state, but one would be hard pressed to dismiss him as a mere regionalist. Perhaps his problem is that he is quite old-fashioned: his work is rooted in the land and in the values of an older America, and though nostalgia is much in vogue these days, the same cannot be said of the morality to which Americans of a half century ago clung. (p. 542)

Place … is one of the sturdiest themes in southern fiction, but Berry brings a new dimension to it…. In his exceedingly quiet way Berry [in The Memory of Old Jack] makes a penetrating observation about the conditions under which black Americans have suffered.

[The novel] is less satisfactory in the final pages. After Jack's death [it] becomes rather sentimental, and the fine toughmindedness of the larger part of the book is thus diminished. But there is so much that is good in it—lovely writing, logical development of theme, and splendid characterization—that Berry can be forgiven this lapse. (p. 543)

Jonathan Yardley, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Summer, 1974.