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A Sabbath Vision
Wendell Berry is a greatly skilled, prophetically Christian poet whose poetry, quite apart from his fiction and essays and from his standing as a public figure, deserves a serious reappraisal. These volumes— a retrospective of 35 years' work, and a new series first published here in its entirety—might inspire such a reappraisal, for they show with particular clarity how Berry has worked out the premises of his literary vision.
Berry's poetry has never received its due from academic critics, and one reason is that his premises are not theirs. Berry shows an awareness of this difference when he describes himself, in the preface to A Timbered Choir, as an "amateur poet" "belong[ing] to no school of poetry, but rather to my love for certain poems by other poets." Modest as it is, this is a canonical gesture. In place of a school defined by technique or manifesto, it lays claim to a community of like minds held together by mutual re cognition and by affection. Writing as an amateur implies a use for poetry, and a readership outside the prescriptions of the standard professional career.
This readership does not exclude academics, of course, but it includes many other readers—environmentalists, Christian social activists, small-community advocates, farmers, neo-Luddites—who cherish the art of these poems for its power to render their motives and loyalties. Poems like "The Peace of Wild Things" (from Openings, 1968) and "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front" (from The Country of Marriage, 1973) have be come classics of the green conscience.
Such commitments, in turn, have required a poetic style that academic criticism—which wants to free language to its own poses and innovations—does not know how to value. To convince us that a commitment is right, to make us feel its urgency, you need a style of plain speech and open feeling, sparing and traditional in metaphor; a style that welcomes eloquence and dignity, where the language of belief ...