For several decades, from his farm in rural Kentucky, Wendell Berry has written essays, fiction, and poetry extolling the value of local places in nurturing community, sustaining the earth, and deepening human spirituality. He’s been a consistent critic of modern industrial and consumer culture, which he sees as almost invariably hostile to local communities and the natural world.
The writer Scott Russell Sanders, a great admirer of Berry, has said that Berry’s essays combine “a countryman’s knowledge and a deacon’s severity.” Sanders’ observation offers an invitation to Berry’s essays, but also a slight disclaimer. There’s nothing casual or chatty in a Wendell Berry essay. It’s all business, building its arguments brick by brilliant brick, but with an editorial earnestness that leaves little room for flights of fancy or whimsical asides. Not since George Orwell has a writer penned essays with such moral clarity and unflinching urgency.
That’s why Berry’s poems, which sometimes indulge a greater degree of playfulness and personal disclosure, are such a welcome complement to the rest of his work. New Collected Poems reprints nearly 200 pieces from Berry’s long career, including the poems from his most recent collections: "Entries," "Given," and "Leavings." Although his voice proves more musical in these poems than in his prose works, his theme is essentially the same: a reverence for nature, a respect for the near and tangible as opposed to the distant and hypothetical, and a distrust of economies of scale. In “Some Further Words,” one of the later poems in the book, Berry nails his tenets to the door for all to see. Here’s the first stanza:
Let me be plain with you, dear reader.
I am an old-fashioned man. I like
the world of nature despite its mortal
dangers. I like the domestic world
of humans, so long as it pays its debts
to the natural world, and keeps its bounds.
I like the promise of Heaven. My purpose
is a language that can pay just thanks
and honor for those gifts, a tongue
set free from fashionable lies.
Sometimes, Berry’s anti-corporate message can grow hoarse with indignation, as in another later poem, “Questionnaire,” which mimics a consumer survey. Here are the first two stanzas, numbered like items in a form letter:
1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade ? Please
name your preferred poisons.
2. For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do ?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.
Most of the poems in Berry’s new anthology make their arguments more quietly. They’re as important for what they don’t say as for what they do, the spaces between the lines suggesting mysteries that even a poet can’t plumb to their core. That sensibility seems especially profound in poems acknowledging that nature isn’t simply pretty and pastoral, but complex, many-sided, sometimes dark. Like another poet-farmer, Robert Frost, Berry views nature not as a postcard image, but as a window into what endures – and what does not. In “Planting Crocuses,” a poem very much in the Frost tradition, Berry’s gardening reminds him of the grave, and of the cycle of time that binds us all:
My mind pressing in
through the earth’s
dark motion toward
bloom, I thought of you,
glad there is no escape.
It is this we will be
turning and re-
Not all of Berry’s poems are so solemn. In “A Letter,” a poem posed as a note to his friend Hayden Carruth, a puckish Berry smiles at the news that Carruth hates “Alice in Wonderland,” too. Playing on this theme, Berry concludes that the real world is much more fanciful than Lewis Carroll’s invented one:
I prefer skin to anatomy, green grass
to buried rocks, terra firma to the view
from anywhere higher than a tree.
Arranged chronologically from 1964 to 2010, these poems offer a biography of a writer and a place, affirming Berry’s view that for the ideal writer, words and place are inextricably linked. Berry charted out this argument in a prose work published last year, a critical reflection called "The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford." Berry looks to Williams, who drew upon his home place of Rutherford, N.J. for lifelong inspiration, as a literary model. What Berry wrote about Williams’ poetry in that book could equally apply to his own – that his poems deal “most directly and explicitly with the complex cultural necessity of an ongoing, lively connection between imagination in the highest sense and the ground underfoot.”
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of "A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House."