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Fall 2011

Light in Darkness: Wendell Berry

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Jim Powell

by Wendell Berry.
Counterpoint Press, 2010,
$23.00 cloth, $14.95 paper.

The Poetry of William Carlos
Williams of Rutherford
by Wendell Berry.
Counterpoint Press, 2011,
$24.00 cloth.

Wendell and Tanya Berry set apart an area of land on the periphery of their Kentucky hillside property, when they settled there in 1964, as a wild preserve permanently removed from cultivation. It was a usage stemming from the agricultural tradition Berry was born into—self-sufficient domestic diversified farming, as practiced in Henry County by five generations of Berrys. Because the industrialized monocrop agriculture that replaced it prefers large uniform fields, progress came late to this intricate terrain. By the time Berry returned there to settle, Henry County’s economically marginalized status in the new scheme of things made it a likely place to find a pocket of land to reclaim for the practice of a new-style old-style agriculture.

On site, up close, paying attention to process and results, learning from mistakes, Berry decided that “gardening is a collaboration between the gardener and nature,” in which “fertility is the survival of natural process in the human order.” “To learn to preserve the fertility of the farm,” he quotes pioneer ecologist Albert Howard, “we must study the forest.” There, nature’s bookkeeping takes everything into account in a diversified system of balanced biochemical exchanges that rise from the soil and return to it in the circulations of the wheel of life. Everything is recycled and everything counts in a system that works by balance, diversification, accommodation, and complementarity, more than by competition, hierarchy, regimentation, and conflict. In this cycle, as in the great chain of being, each link matters. Nature’s economy is not monocrop. Winners lose: madrone repels company; algae chokes the pond.

Industrial agriculture originated during the Civil War. Arising simultaneously from the same nexus of developing technologies and financial institutions as modern industrialized mass warfare, within three generations it propagated a new agricultural economy, self-styled “scientific,” that excluded traditional farming from all but the fringes of American economic life, abolished or stunted innumerable rural communities, and removed millions of families from the land. American farmers were sold on mechanized agriculture as an open-ended series of labor-saving devices to increase cash crop yields for an expanding mass-market and export economy, but the package turned out to entail additional expenses perpetually, including loans to buy it, mechanics and manufacturers to keep it running, petroleum to drive it, fertilizers to replace the manure of supplanted farm animals, and long-distance freight at rigged rates to rigged markets. This wave of progress accompanied extensive centralization of land ownership. Industrial agricultural tools fit factory-size fields. Providing livelihood for a resident population was subordinated to producing cash crops for absentee investors and bounty for speculators in glutted metropolitan and export markets. By 1964, according to Berry, “the tractors and other mechanical devices certainly were saving the labor of the farmers and farm hands who had moved away, but those who had stayed were working harder and longer than ever”—usually for someone else. And the entire American wheat crop was in the hands of three corporations.

Berry’s boyhood immersion in a traditional farming community permits him a view of this immense cultural transformation on both sides of the divide. He was born the year the Dust Bowl demonstrated the capacity of industrial agriculture to mass-produce soil erosion. By the time he re-settled in Henry County, basic research in agronomy, ecology, economics, history, and ethnology was proving that its claims to increase yields and efficiency represented salesmanship, not science. Its productivity in calories per acre per man-hour cannot match traditional intensive peasant horticultures. Its large-scale yields are produced by burning petroleum lavishly and by despoiling land and labor. Its accompanying regimen of fertilizers and pesticides is toxic at large. Pollution, environmental degradation, and rural depopulation are “side effects” which its bookkeeping “externalizes”—that is, dumps on the neighborhood and on society.

Berry set out to learn how to conform his practice to nature’s ways, to “fit the farming to the land,” cultivating an alternative to industrial agriculture, a diversified farming harmonious with natural process and created under its tutelage—necessarily small-scale, since responsive collaboration requires the attentive hands-on stewardship that makes traditional farming sustainable in ways impossible to industrial methods; sustainable because natural limits are respected with care. Stewardship is local. Scale is also a cultural issue.

When he turned aside from a promising career in the literary-industrial complex and settled down to farm in 1964, to some it must have seemed a quixotic backward choice of a marginal discipline, but Berry’s essays show that the subject has scope and vista. No bucolic retreat or zen hermitage, his farm, envisioned in its proper manifold dimensions, is fully implicated in every aspect of the human condition, endeavor, and situation, at the most fundamental level—calories. And Berry’s personal history positions him at a culminating moment and turning point in the evolution of agricultural economies, to which his expository prose is a probing witness and a seedbed and propagator for creative responses. Organic farming, sustainable agriculture, ecofarming, local food, slow food, rural regeneration, deep ecology—these are among the practices and discussions indebted to Berry’s work for original inspiration and steady sustenance. They are slender tiny weeds before the oncoming combine harvester of worldwide frankenfood agribusiness, but they are also animals in an ark that floats. A recent U.N. special report by Olivier de Schutter summarizing a half century of research concludes that “agro-ecological” methods outperform industrial agriculture “in boosting food production in regions where the hungry live.”

Berry’s essays, collected into nearly twenty volumes over the years, retain urgent relevance, and to books like Home Economics (1987), Another Turn of the Crank (1995), and Citizenship Papers (2003), time adds the demonstration of Berry’s prescience, the proof of his premises in subsequent events. Many are still in print, and his publisher, Jack Shoemaker of Counterpoint—who has done for Berry’s work what Laughlin did for Pound and Williams—is republishing others in a uniform edition for a Collected Essays.

Poetry is a scarce subject in Berry’s prose—the important exception being the six essays in Standing by Words (1983). To these, Imagination in Place (2010) adds several, among them appreciations of the poetry of Hayden Carruth and of Kathleen Raine, and one on King Lear which is a genuine masterpiece of the field Berry passed up for farming. The Way of Ignorance (2005) centers on a half dozen texts developed from conference talks that treat basic concerns with the directness the occasion of public speech invites, and without the vices; they are modest, summary, lucid, pertinent. In the voice of these talks, but with a readerly warmth, at ease, intimate, speaking from love, The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford meditates on a local poetry “interested in the power of art to place us imaginatively, and therefore effectively, in our lives and in our local whereabouts.” Williams’s absorption as a doctor in the life of Rutherford, and his attention to local idiom, as well as to the play of syntax across verses as a formal element, ensue from the same drive to encounter in imagination and poetic invention the minute particulars of his world, without preconceptions. Berry mentions Williams’s epic Paterson frequently, a timely exemplar for the possibility of an American poetry intent on speaking from a specific place and culture, true to the local and wide awake to the world at large, free of the huckstering imperious narcissism of the center and without sentimental provincialism. It is a Jeffersonian poetry—a poetry like Berry’s sycamore, which “stands in its place, and feeds upon it, / and is fed upon, and is native, and maker.”

In this sense Williams is a presiding presence for Berry’s Collected Poems 1957–1982, although its most achieved poems, formally, differ from Williams’s in being occasional. That is, their occasions—a tree planting, a dance, a graveyard, the fear of love, an anniversary—open the experience that evoked them into a ceremonial dimension of recurrence whose formal traditions, like ethnobotany’s, are shaped by many minds to channel perennial understandings. This can either overwhelm and falsify the poetry with preconceptions, or lift it into the light of the form evoked. All Berry’s poems to Tanya—taken together, an incomparable poetry of married love—stand in this perennial light. His Vietnam War poems survive (like Robert Duncan’s) by balancing the gravity of their matter against the evoked weight and pressures of formal tradition.

Over time, Berry chose his farm’s designated wilderness area as a fit place for Sunday meditation. The seamlessness and infinite depth of detail and perspective in pristine nature conduce to trance. The least human artifact stands out for lack of nuanced gradation—it interrupts; it fails to fit. Set aside to allow the natural succession of forest and undergrowth to reassert and maintain its gradual sway, as a model ecosystem Berry’s wild enclave resembles a botanist’s “control plot” of virgin growth marked off for a criterion by which to gauge experimental results. Here, “the farm reaches one of its limits / …and finds its example”—its “indispensable pattern and measure of sustainability” and “the paramount standard by which the work is to be judged: the health of the place where the work is done.” The grove evidences nature as a form of order (not an anarchic chaos of raw material upon which haphazard human contrivance imposes shape). To contemplation, it asserts an inclusive trans-human order and opens an extra-human perspective where practical deference and awe converge toward Erasmus’s view that the distinction between matter and spirit gives way in the perfect harmony of the laws of nature due to their common maker.

In 1979 Berry began a series of poems spoken from the spot, and made a first gathering, Sabbaths, seven years later; its last poem begins:

Slowly, slowly they return
To the small woodland let alone:
Great trees, outspreading and upright,
Apostles of the living light.

Patient as stars, they build in air
Tier after tier a timbered choir.

As an occasion for poetry, sabbath meditation compounds the sense a poem can give of putting everything in one place, centered, encompassing all the ripples outward—in contrast with the discursive dispersion of prose. Like a grove, a sabbath is set apart for rest and thought, removed from worldly claims and distractions, a place outside the box that affords other views—including a look back at the box. To grasp a question requires a place to stand outside it. The occasions Berry engages in Collected Poems cannot formally accommodate the matter of his essays. The Sabbath Poems create an occasion able to include and integrate the entire range of his concerns—with the grove as their focal point and his center. He speaks from the ground of understanding his essays underwrite, cohering on the spot. The grove mirrors his situation—an enclave preserving perennial traditions of vital renewal, native and yet strange to present surroundings, “on the periphery,” remote from the summit of power, marginal. “Outsider,” “crank,” “embattled farmer”—Berry knows where he stands: in a back corner of a farmstead near Eden, at the center of the earth. The transformation in the view of nature is fundamental and profound: alive, not inert; orderly, not anarchic; embracing, not subjected.

A verse, like a sabbath, is something set apart, repeatedly delimited from the flow, measured. Berry’s poems before Sabbaths (1987) are written in the tradition of free verse stemming from Williams. As hymnody for a timbered choir, the Sabbath Poems invoke the regular stanzas of congregational singing. This is the way of Dickinson, whose several thousand quatrains are all variants of the English hymnal’s three standard forms. Berry returns to the taproot. The forty-six poems (1979–1986) collected in Sabbaths recapitulate the renaissance evolution and gamut of the English stanza from Wyatt to Waller with botanical variety. This formal profusion, expressive of the psalmist’s impulse to make resound each string and measure of praise, configures an ethnopoetic tradition of practice-in-common as a convocation of spirits—inaugural, renewing. Sabbaths includes just five departures back into free verse, each demanded by its case and sense and nature, and each retaining, without set measure, the compression and pace that gives verse proper its unique load-bearing capacity, its native gravity that weighs syllables and sense together, balancing and counterpoising with a deliberation whose pressure drives economy of means and concentration, seamlessness, centering, focus.

As Sabbath Poems proliferate, the proportion of free verse shifts; half the later poems (1987–97) in A Timbered Choir (1998) and three-quarters of the sixty-three added in Given (2005) develop a variety of free verse forms crossbred from Williams and renaissance lyric. At about four hundred unrhymed trimeters—the tallest tree in Berry’s grove—“The Farm” telescopes time to conduct a tour of the yearly cycles of the interplay with nature that compose its diversified economy. The precise and sensuous attention and pragmatic knowledge of the verse are informed from the same sources as the essays: poetry and science seamlessly coupled. This long poem handily sustains reading alongside the exemplars of the tradition it invokes—Hesiod’s Works & Days, Virgil’s Georgics, Columella On Gardening, Marvell’s pastoral. “Some Further Words”—another longer poem, in an unrhymed tetrameter that transmutes the standard American vernacular four-beat free verse line into a measure capable of the definition and directness of blank verse—fuses plain speech into poetry. Under the converging pressures of verse measure, earnest witness, and precise statement, it possesses a matter-of-fact steady force that recalls Ralegh and Jonson:

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 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.”

Leavings—the wry title is to be heard also as leafings—now adds fifty-four further Sabbath Poems (2005–2008), making it compelling reading. Nearly all are free verse in several forms, including a new vein of epigram and spare lyric which trusts entirely to detail precisely placed, a contemplative transparency requiring no emphasis or elaboration:

I love the passing light
upon this valley now green
in early summer as I watch
late in life. And upon the one
by whom I live, who is herself
a light, the light is passing
as she works in the garden
in the quiet. The past light
I love, but even more
the passing light. To this
love, we give our work.

There are poems of losses and leavings, a cluster infused with the piercing simplicity of convalescence, a few (not Sabbath Poems) amiable impersonations of geezer garrulity, a loquacious spate tracing the course of Camp Branch—but these are tributary to a questing current that gathers force as it proceeds, intent, cresting in the Sabbath Poems of 2007–2008. One that begins “It is hard to have hope” finds a resource in the need to “Speak / publicly what cannot be taught or learned in public.” This is key: Berry’s poetry does not address a vanguard or specialist audience but the same one the essays do, only wider—Whitman’s. Like no one since Duncan, he asserts by example the standing of poetry as the discipline that includes all disciplines within the practice of its “responsibility to keep the ability to respond.”

The Sabbath Poems are “a series, not a sequence.” They accrete like annual rings, ramify like branches, as various as leaves—a song, a meditation, an entry in the journal of the heart, a rostrum, a register, a cry—over the years collectively an annals of essential mind and spirit, alive to vicissitude and circumstance, and rooted: distillation, not diary, but tracing over time the course and shape of a man’s life and so with meditation bringing an element of pilgrimage.

…We depend on fire
that consumes the world without
lighting it. To this dark blaze
driving the inert metal
of our most high desire
we offer our land as fuel,
thus offering ourselves at last
to be burned. This is our riddle
to which the answer is a life
that none of us has lived.

…But what is made
by destruction comes down at last
to a stable floor, a bed
of straw, and for those with sight
light in darkness.

Jim Powell is the author of two books of poetry, Substrate and It Was Fever That Made the World, and the translator of The Poetry of Sappho and Catullan Revenants.

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