Classic review: Standing by Words

Wendell Berry makes a fervent plea for poetry with a sense of community and place.

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[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 Berry

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.

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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.''

In the title essay, Mr. Berry explores the precision and accountability that must be at the heart of language. As examples, he uses such varied sources as Milton, Spenser, and Shelley; college English textbooks, trade journals on dairy cattle, and the transcript from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's investigation of the Three Mile Island accident. When language is used exclusively to refer to states of mind, when it loses it power to designate accurately elements in our shared experience, it becomes impossible to say what you mean or to stand by what you say. The basic assumption that ''language is communal and that its purpose is to tell the truth'' is destroyed and words become conscious or unconscious tools of deceit. Ask yourself this: If you found yourself midway in life's journey lost in a dark wood, whose advice would you follow to find your way out - the local poet or a nearby farmer? At one time, it was the poet who possessed the proper way back home. Most individuals I talk to (including teachers of English) would put more faith in the carpenter or auto mechanic than in the resident versifier to speak rightly about the world.

The central support for Mr. Berry's critical framework is the longest and most detailed essay, ''Poetry and Place.'' In it, he offers a modern restatement of the medieval chain-of-being concept, presented here with clear overtones from our environmental movement. In this view, there is a definite hierarchy to creation, from God on down to the microbes, and it is our failure to act with decorum (or in fact with any understanding of order whatsoever) that has created our chaotic and self-destructive culture. For Mr. Berry, one of poetry's primary aims is to convey a ''sense of place'' - meaning both where we are on earth and where we belong in the harmonious order of things. These are some shockingly traditional pronouncements to arise in a literary scene that prizes originality, power, and pure sensation. But rather than take these as the dictums of an arch-conservative, I find them the guiding principles of a passionate conservator of the forms and forces that shape and vitalize human culture. Compared with the innate propriety and utter common sense of Mr. Berry's observations, the cult of ''the new'' and the contemporary versions of ''poetic genius'' are revealed for the thin and desperate propositions they are.

These essays aren't perfect by any means and, surprisingly, the greatest difficulty lies in the tone of their language. Frequently the most convincing arguments reach their pinnacle couched in phrases drawn directly from the canon of the ecological movement, or else imply a clear theological foundation. This will do no harm to readers who already agree with these principles, but will do little to sway those whose beliefs lie elsewhere. There are also strictures Berry would place on purely imaginative creation that might rob new poetry of some of its most innovative discoveries. But even if I don't agree completely, I would recommend ''Standing by Words'' to all those who care about the life of our language and our culture. And if these essays were required reading for all our poets, we'd probably find fewer volumes of verse reaching publication but a wider, more appreciative audience for those that did.

Steven Ratiner is a poet and educator.

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