Poems to summon the heart

(c) 1967 by Wendell Berry. Reprinted from his volume Openings by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.m

This is tale of two poems -- or rather of one poem encountered in two very different ways.

The first encounter came in an English class several years ago, when a professor of mine was handing out poems by relatively unknown authors whose work we might want to investigate. One of the poems, by Wendell Berry, was called "Grace": The woods is shining this morning. Red, gold and green, the leaves lie on the grounds, or fall, or hang full of light in the air still. Perfect in its rise and in its fall, it takes the place it has been coming to forever. It has not hastened here, or lagged. See how surely it has sought itself, its roots passing lordly through the earth. See how without confusion it is all that it is, and how flawless its grace is. Running or walking, the way is the same. Be still. Be still. "He moves your bones, and the way is clear."m

"A nice poem," i thought. I didn't have any special reaction to it; I read it over and filed it in may notebook.

The second encounter came about a year after the first, and 3,000 miles away. I'd reached a particularly aimless period of my life, and had tried to find some purpose by enrolling in a new school in a new location. It didn't work: the school and my studies only reinforced my feelings of aimlessness and lack of purpose.

On one pointless day I wandered into a bookstore I'd heard about that specialized in poetry. Passing along the shelves I came to Wendell Berry's Openings,m which I immediately took down to examine.

"The woods is shining this morning," I read. How simple -- just the one detail, the quiet brilliance of the unexpected scene, began to fulfill my longing for something beautiful. Then came the color, the "red, gold and green"; and the feeling of falling at the end of the third line, changing utterly in the next line, jarring my dulled expectations.

I was hooked on this poem, my mind weaving a full tapestry from its thread of simple, carefully connected images. By the time I reached the later lines, I was feeling the poem as much as thinking it. It spoke to me of a peace so certain that i knew it existed for me as well as the author. In pondering the woods, the author was growing increasingly confident -- confident of beauty and integrity in life, confident of his own ability to embrace it. the opposite of arrogance or egotism, his quiet assurance suffused the closing lines of the poem: See how without confusion it is all that it is, and how flawless its grace is.m

I needed the poem's confidence, and the poem obliged. It invited me to see through my own heart, and I saw: peace, and direction, and an unstated but perfectly real love. This experience with "Grace," in fact, was a kind of small revelation. On the strength of the insight i gained from it, I began to extricate myself from my own confusion.

My second encounter with "Grace" comes to mind when i think of the process of discovering a poem. Clearly not all poetry that we comes to know strikes us this way. I have spent many hours laboring through Milton; and, although i can't say that Paradise Lostm has been much comfort, it has taught me a few things about drama, human feeling, and august discourse. Along with many other poems, it has been a source of knowledge, and therefore deserves some praise.

But discovered poems aren't just sources of knowledge. They are our own voices, brought out from our hearts into the open where we can hear them above the tumult of confused activity. They are the suppressed certainty within us of who we are, and what we are capable of; they remind us of things we have forgotten about ourselves.

It may seem odd that someone else -- a writer, who has never met us or even heard of us -- should make us remember who we, uniquely, are. But the writer, i think, is not primarily concerned with providing such reminders. Rather, he is conducting an initially private exploration of ideas and experiences that have touched him deeply. his tools for exploring are words, which at their best will guide him in a straight line from perception to idea, from feeling to thought to feeling. he is exploring authenticm experiences, as poet William Stafford defines the word in "An Introduction to Some Poems": The authentic is a line from one thing along to the next; it interests us.m

This authenticity -- this ring of soundness, of wholeness -- draws forth our own voice, enabling it to speak confidently of our own soundness and wholeness through the poem.

The discovery of a poem that brings one's own voice to the fore can't be predicted. It depends on whether the reader is prepared to share the experience of the writer. If not, the poem will seem pretty, perhaps, but irrelevant -- as "Grace" did to me the first time I read it. The author and reader must be passing through a similar intensity of fire en route to a potential revelation, redirection, or peace. This "fire" need not be pain, although it may be; but it may also be simply desire -- a desire to learn, to understand, to be fulfilled for a time.

It seems to be a kind of rough rule that a reader with this desire will find the key, the poem through which his or her heart can sing. It is almost as if desire -- often unspoken, undefined -- draws us to the poem that leaves us singing. Divided between pain and longing, we come to a given poem with no particular expectations; and suddenly we hear our own definite voice through another's words, telling us what we already know, what we so desperately need to know: that grace, too, is for us; that our way, too, can be clear.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.