Classic review: Standing by Words
Wendell Berry makes a fervent plea for poetry with a sense of community and place.
[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on March 2, 1984.] I am endlessly in need of the work of poets who have been concerned with living in place, the life of a place, long-term attention and devotion to a settled home and its natural household, and hence to the relation between imagination and language and a place. The work of these poets suggests the possibility that action can again become the subject of poetry. - Wendell BerrySkip to next paragraph
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In his new collection of essays, we find Berry adamant, didactic, and unabashedly partisan. The purpose of his assault is to resurrect the essential values of clarity, responsibility, and commitment to the living tradition of poetry. As the argument progresses, his rhetoric rises to a near-religious fervor that is hardly orthodox for literary criticism. And the result is nothing short of splendid.
Wendell Berry is a poet, essayist, novelist, and Kentucky farmer. It is at the confluence of his two major concerns - care for language and care for the land - that ''Standing by Words'' has it source. In six essays with interlocking subjects, Mr. Berry explores the correspondence between the breakdown of our language and the isolation of individuals from their communities. One might be put off by the intensity of his style if it were not so immediately apparent that his debate is not that of an intellect dueling with opposing opinions but that of an individual working to prevent the destruction of his culture.
It is the comprehensive scope of Mr. Berry's discussion that makes his conclusions so compelling. Rather than confine his examination to current trends , he explores the origin of the modern literary imagination in poets like Wordworth and Shelley. Returning to the age of scientific empiricism and the first stages of the technological revolution, the essays depict the poet either drifting or being driven, with all the other professions, into a narrow specialization. Once the keeper and transmitter of traditional understanding of human nature and the natural world, the poet became exiled to the imagination, champion of the ''unlimited'' province of the mind where (as Shelley put it) ''we might be all/ We dream of, happy, high, majestical./ Where is the love, beauty and truth we seek/ But in our mind?'' The unforeseen danger in all branches of specialization was that the individual was allowed to forsake all responsibility or even understanding for anything beyond the scope of their specialty. (The broader concern for harmony between the human and natural orders was sacrificed.)
With unrelenting zeal, Berry picks apart the grandeur of this egocentric conception of knowledge and shows how it led, not only to the solipsistic treadmills of much contemporary verse, but to the economic and social policies of the ''technological romantics'' who would exploit the world's resources to achieve the universal control they perceive as mankind's destiny.
In the essay ''The Specialization of Poetry,'' Mr. Berry sounds a warning against the devastating self-absorption and isolation his fellow poets are choosing for themselves under the banner of pure creativity and the ''autonomy of the poem.'' The subject of poetry, he reaffirms, is not the word but the world that people share in community. Berry is thus turning 180 degrees from the fashionable concept that poems are self-referential, describe only themselves and the nature of thought and language. ''They have virtually made a religion of their art, a religion based not on what they have in common with other people, but on what they do that sets them apart. For poets who believe this way, a poem is not a point of clarification or connection between themselves and the world on the one hand and between themselves and their readers on the other. . . . It is a seeking of self in words, the making of a word-world in which the word-self may be at home.''