The Line of Demarcation Series: The Poetry Notebook. Today the Home Forum Continues a Monthly Series That Explorespoetry. We'll Look at the Work of Wendell Berry, Who Has Published 12 Books of Poetry as Well as Numerous Collections of Fiction and Essays. He Is a Past Fellow of Both the Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, and Is a Former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Fifth in the Series. the Previous Essays Ran on March 3, April 14, May 12, and June 9

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AT some point in the creative process, poets must ask themselves if what they've written is poetry or prose broken into lines. That question can be difficult to answer. Poetry makes use of the language of the age - and few people would describe today's American English as poetic.

That may be one reason why so many publications are filled with poems that look like a sea of unbroken text. Visually, there may be nothing distinctive or appealing about them. But talented poets know how to keep the poetry in a poem, along with a strong narrative element.

"For the Explainers," the short opener in Wendell Berry's new book, "Entries," is a good example:

Spell the spiel of cause and effect,

Ride the long rail of fact after fact;

What curled the plume in the drake's tail

And put the white ring round his neck?

On one level, these four lines are very simple. A reader can understand the "point" of the poem after just one reading. The music of the words - "spell the spiel," "ride the long rail," "the white ring round his neck" - is also enjoyable from the first encounter, but not in an obvious way. The poem isn't trying to sound like something from another century.

But like a good folk song from ages past, the poem defies explanation. Its melody and direction may be evident, but something always eludes the reader. Perhaps there is the question of what the poet knows about those forces larger than "the explainers," people who think they know everything. Perhaps the reader feels a persistent sense of awe. One could even respond to what seems to be a "still, small voice" in back of the speaker's own knowing question.

That sense of mystery - combined with rhythm and music - is what distinguishes the poem from simple prose. As with a good folk song, the final product is more than the sum of its parts. The poet's voice - much like a singer's - takes on new shades of meaning because of the accompaniment.

But not every free-verse poem does so much with sound. When poets choose flatter, more mundane language, how do they keep their balance? Berry's "A Difference" offers some insight:

Machines pass on the road, so heavy

that the leaves of the young beech,

spreading in stillness, shake.

But on the river, slow waves

roll under quick waves,

causing the reflections of the trees

to ripple and to sway.

Unlike the previous poem, "A Difference" contains little music and sounds like everyday speech. There doesn't seem to be any structure: Even the number of syllables per line varies greatly. …


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