Wendell Berry is one of my literary idols. His poetic voice so resonates with my own. (He’s a pretty awesome novelist, too. Hannah Coulter? One of my favorite books.) Below are just some of my favorite Wendell Berry poems.
(My favorite lines will be italicized. If single words are italicized, the stress was originally written by Berry. If it’s an entire line, then that’s my own emphasis.)
How To Be A Poet
(to remind myself)
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill – more of each
than you have – inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your work,
doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensional life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.
What is one to make of a life given
to putting things into words,
saying them, writing them down?
Is there a world beyond words?
There is. But don’t start, don’t
go on about the tree unqualified,
standing in light that shines
to time’s end beyond its summoning
name. Don’t praise the speechless
starlight, the unspeakable dawn.
Well, we can stop
for awhile, if we try hard enough,
if we are lucky. We can sit still,
keep silent, let the phoebe, the sycamore,
the river, the stone call themselves
by whatever they call themselves, their own
sounds, their own silence, and thus
may know for a moment the nearness
of the world, its vastness,
its vast variousness, far and near,
which only silence knows. And then
we must call all things by name
out of the silence again to be with us,
or die of namelessness.
Some Further Words
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.
Neither this world nor any of its places
is an “environment.” And a house
for sale is not a “home.” Economics
is not “science,” nor “information” knowledge.
A knave with a degree is a knave. A fool
in a public office is not a “leader.”
A rich thief is a thief. And the ghost
of Arthur Moore, who taught me Chaucer,
returns in the night to say again:
“Let me tell you something, boy.
An intellectual whore is a whore.”
The world is babbled to pieces after
the divorce of things from their names.
Ceaseless preparation for war
is not peace. Health is not procured
by sale of medication, or purity
by the addition of poison. Science
at the bidding of the corporations
is knowledge reduced to merchandise;
it is a whoredom of the mind,
and so is the art that calls this “progress.”
So is the cowardice that calls it “inevitable.”
I think the issues of “identity” mostly
are poppycock. We are what we have done,
which includes our promises, includes
our hopes, but promises first. I know
a “fetus” is a human child.
I loved my children from the time
they were conceived, having loved
their mother, who loved them
from the time they were conceived
and before. Who are we to say
the world did not begin in love?
I would like to die in love as I was born,
and as myself, of life impoverished, go
into the love all flesh begins
and ends in. I don’t like machines,
which are neither mortal nor immortal,
though I am constrained to use them.
(Thus the age perfects its clench.)
Some day they will be gone, and that
will be a glad and a holy day.
I mean the dire machines that run
by burning the world’s body and
its breath. When I see an airplane
fuming through the once-pure sky
or a vehicle of the outer space
with its little inner space
imitating a star at night, I say,
“Get out of there!” as I would speak
to a fox or a thief in the henhouse.
When I hear the stock market has fallen,
I say, “Long live gravity! Long live
stupidity, error, and greed in the palaces
of fantasy capitalism!” I think
an economy should be based on thrift,
on taking care of things, not on theft,
usury, seduction, waste, and ruin.
My purpose is a language that can make us whole,
though mortal, ignorant, and small.
The world is whole beyond human knowing.
The body’s life is its own, untouched
by the little clockwork of explanation.
I approve of death, when it comes in time
to the old. I don’t want to live
on mortal terms forever, or survive
an hour as a cooling stew of pieces
of other people. I don’t believe that life
or knowledge can be given by machines.
The machine economy has set afire
the household of the human soul,
and all creatures are burning within it.
“Intellectual property” names
the deed by which the mind is bought
and sold, the world enslaved. We
who do not own ourselves, being free,
own by theft what belongs to God,
to the living world, and equally
to us all. Or how can we own a part
of what we only can possess entirely?
“The laborer is worthy of his hire,”
but he cannot own what he knows,
which must be freely told, or labor
dies with the laborer. The farmer
is worthy of the harvest made
in time, but he must leave the light
by which he planted, grew, and reaped,
the seed immortal in mortality,
freely to the time to come. The land
too he keeps by giving it up,
as the thinker receives and gives a thought,
as the singer sings in the common air.
I don’t believe that “scientific genius”
in its naïve assertions of power
is equal either to nature or
to human culture. Its thoughtless invasions
of the nuclei of atoms and cells
and this world’s every habitation
have not brought us to the light
but sent us wandering further through
the dark. Nor do I believe
“artistic genius” is the possession
of any artist. No one has made
the art by which one makes the works
of art. Each one who speaks speaks
as a convocation. We live as councils
of ghosts. It is not “human genius”
that makes us human, but an old love,
an old intelligence of the heart
we gather to us from the world,
from the creatures, from the angels
of inspiration, from the dead –
an intelligence merely nonexistent
to those who do not have it, but
to those who have it more dear than life.
And just as tenderly to be known
are the affections that make a woman and a man,
their household, and their homeland one.
These too, though known, cannot be told
to those who do not know them, and fewer
of us learn them, year by year,
loves that are leaving the world
like the colors of extinct birds,
like the songs of a dead language.
Think of the genius of the animals,
every one truly what it is:
gnat, fox, minnow, swallow, each made
of light and luminous within itself.
They know (better than we do) how
to live in the places where they live.
And so I would like to be a true
human being, dear reader – a choice
not altogether possible now.
But this is what I’m for, the side
I’m on. And this is what you should
expect of me, as I expect it of myself,
though for realization we may wait
a thousand or a million years.
From Sabbaths 1998
This is the time you’d like to stay.
Not a leaf stirs. There is no sound.
The fireflies lift light from the ground.
You’ve shed the vanities of when
And how and why, for now. And then
The phone rings. You are called away.
From Sabbaths 2001
Ask the world to reveal its quietude –
not the silence of machines when they are still,
but the true quiet by which birdsongs,
trees, bellworts, snails, clouds, storms
become what they are, and are nothing else.
From Sabbaths 2003
The little stream sings
in the crease of the hill.
It is the water of life. It knows
nothing of death, nothing.
And this is the morning
of Christ’s resurrection.
The tomb is empty. There is
no death. Death is our illusion,
our wish to belong only
to ourselves, which is our freedom
to kill one another.
From this sleep may we too
rise, as out of the dark grave.
But do the Lords of War in fact
hate the world? That would be easy
to bear, if so. If they hated
their children and the flowers
that grow in the warming light,
that would be easy to bear. For then
we could hate the haters
and be right. What is hard
is to imagine the Lords of War
may love the things that they destroy.
From Sabbaths 2004
I mistook your white head for a flower
down there among the tall grasses
and flowers of the garden boarder.
And then I knew you, your years
upon you like a crown of glory.