New Collected Poems
by Wendell Berry
Berkeley, California: Counterpoint
391 pp.; $30
Review by Katherine Dalton
Entire contents copyright © 2012 by Katherine Dalton. All rights reserved.
Why read a poem, you ask, you whose days are so full of text and subtext? I will ask you in return: Why stint yourself the solace?
In the place that is my own place, whose earth
I am shaped in and must bear, there is an old tree growing,
a great sycamore that is a wondrous healer of itself.
Some might argue the point today, but poetry has traditionally been considered the highest of the written arts. When well done, it can be a remarkable mix of verbal meaning plus cadence and image, and it wraps up words and song and the pictures conjured in our minds in a way that points to a meaning deeper and more innerly-felt than prose can accomplish.
All writing, of course, uses rhythm and sonority and mental image, but poetry is writing distilled and concentrated and heady – our literary eau de vie.
Poetry can be a drum roll into battle, or an elegy for the dead. It can be a love song or a slap in the face. It can be a whistling in the dark. Wendell Berry has written all of these.
To be sane in a mad time
is bad for the brain, worse
for the heart. The world
is a holy vision, had we clarity
to see it – a clarity that men
depend on men to make.
Mr. Berry has previously published Collected Poems (1985) and Selected Poems (1998). This New Collected Poems contains many of those included before, along with poems written since. It lacks any Sabbath poems – a significant omission. But otherwise, as the dust jacket tells us in tiny type on the front flap, “This book contains all the poems from previous compilations Mr. Berry wishes to collect…”
This is a harvest basket of his own choosing. No complaining, please. The cukes and salsify are too cute, I believe. They grate on a rereading.
The grower of trees, the gardener, the man born to farming,
whose hands reach into the ground and sprout,
to him the soil is a divine drug. He enters into death
yearly, and comes back rejoicing. He has seen the light lie down
in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn.
Now 77, Mr. Berry has reached a degree of eminence that probably makes him uncomfortable. I saw him kick like a mule once at a straightforward compliment on a public stage from his friend Bill McKibben, and I suspect few writers are less interested in being addressed as a national treasure.
He remains in danger of that, however, for several reasons. He is the author of excellent novels and one of the best: Jayber Crow. He has made some of the clearest arguments about public advocacy, civic responsibility, rootedness and the necessity for rural life and wise land use of anybody now arguing. Everything he wrote 35 years ago in The Unsettling of America is only more true today and not less so. And he has lived by his own stated principles in a way few of us can boast.
But he is, I believe, a poet before anything else – a poet of flesh and blood and not a plaster saint. His first book was a book of poetry, and with all the other kinds of writing he has done he has never left poetry alone. Poetry is the way he praises his much-loved wife, and poetry seems to be one of the ways he prays (surely that is part of the purpose of the Sabbath poems). That means, among other things, that these lovely and sometimes intentionally unlovely poems show Mr. Berry working his hardest to witness to what he feels called to say.
All the lives this place
has had, I have. I eat
my history day by day.
Bird, butterfly, and flower
pass through the seasons of
my flesh. I dine and thrive
on offal and old stone,
and am combined within
the story of the ground.