"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 ? …