Classic review: Standing by Words
Wendell Berry makes a fervent plea for poetry with a sense of community and place.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.