Wendell Berry: New Collected Poems

By Heitman, Danny | The Christian Science Monitor, April 4, 2012 | Go to article overview

Wendell Berry: New Collected Poems


Heitman, Danny, The Christian Science Monitor


"New Collected Poems" allows the playful, musical side of Wendell Berry's being to shine through.

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.

Poetry quiz: Can you match the poet to the poem?

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 likethe world of nature despite its mortaldangers. I like the domestic worldof humans, so long as it pays its debtsto the natural world, and keeps its bounds.I like the promise of Heaven. My purposeis a language that can pay just thanksand honor for those gifts, a tongueset 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 willingto eat for the success of the freemarket and global trade ? …

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