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 and attachment is at home.
What is remarkable about Berry's Selected Poems, as one rereads them, is precisely their openness of feeling. They are frankly about wonder, grief, anger, friendship, conjugal love, the fear of death, the love of place and creature. Sometimes they are simply personal and literal. Sometimes they frame an impulse in both simple and complex forms: "Another place! / it's enough to grieve me— / that old dream of going, / of becoming a better man / just by getting up and going / to a better place." This verse is so relaxed you almost miss the repetitions that make its music. But then, almost immediately—in "The Sycamore," one of Berry's keynote poems—the same dream of belonging has taken on tragedy and nobility: "There is no year it has flourished in / that has not harmed it. … It bears the gnarls of its history / healed over."
Joyful in his commitments, Berry knows nonetheless that they provoke unease and suspicion in the literary world and in its sponsoring culture. When he writes (in A Timbered Choir) "I am not a modern man. / In my work I would be known / by forebears of a thousand years / if they were here to see it," he is dramatizing his alienation from the world of machines and profit margins. In the modern world his "ancient happiness" is imperiled. Yet the dramatization itself—that is, the rhetoric of this poem—challenges us to ask if Berry's sense of cultural crisis is accurate. And to be offered that challenge by a poem is unique.
Unique is a misshapen word nowadays, but in its original meaning, one of a kind, I think it appropriate to Berry's experiment in living and thinking. He gave us the key to that experiment by writing (in The Long-Legged House, 1969) that "whereas most American writers—and even most Americans— of my time are displaced persons, I am a placed person." For the many who take Berry's work as exemplary, this is the defining motive.
It could be so because by place Berry means more (though never other) than his northern Kentucky river valley. Place means, also, the farming economy invited by and (to some extent) imposed upon this landscape, and then the social community shaped by this economy. Place means the natural and human history of this place, and finally the inheritance of belief that has interpreted this history for its participants.
This inheritance is religiously Christian and politically Jeffersonian. Lawrence Buell has pointed out that Jefferson adapted his vision of the American yeoman from old-world precedents. But this was unavoidable, and a similar process of adaptation holds for Christianity. Berry's place—in his name for it, Port William—be comes Christian as any community does, by accepting the stories and principles of a tradition and confirming them in its own practice.
The way Port William is Christian helps to define Berry's own stance and proceeding. He is a Christian by long conviction and intellectual trial, but also (as he has written) because Christianity was Port William's "native religion." He did not have to go looking for it; he had instead to renew it in his own mind and life. Christianity is the faith of this parish, placed around the individual by communal understanding and expectation.
In all this the fundamental premise has been that practical culture has spiritual meanings and that spiritual vision has practical effects. We live by what we believe, and we believe—this is the more original and dangerous point—according to how we live. Hence Berry's criticism of institutional Christianity for its complicity in the industrial economy that is ravaging all the "places" of creation. When he warns that a "postagricultural world" will also be "postdemocratic," "postreligious," and finally "posthuman," the surprising claim is not that our world is "postreligious" but that the loss of faith has to do with how we grow our food.
Similarly, when Berry calls for a "long work of true criticism" of the Scriptures, with the implication that we are not pursuing such work, he means a criticism that reasserts the practical, political, and economic implications of the Christian vision. In both these unexpected claims—the practical culture is crucial to faith, and that this is the scriptural vision—I think Berry is right.
"That is the vision, seen / As on a Sabbath walk," Berry writes in A Timbered Choir, "The possibility / Of human life whose terms / Are Heaven's and this earth's." This new series proposes an understanding of the commandment to keep the Sabbath—but it is more concerned to discover what a full acknowledgement of the Sabbath would feel like, how it might be enacted. These poems are meditations, which is to say reminders of spiritual fact that lead to renewed and changed lives.
For Berry, the Sabbath is that mandated pause from human preoccupations that reminds us of grace; and it is the presence of that grace in the world. "We live by mercy if we live," he writes; and—"To that we have no fit reply": the Sabbath transcends our understanding and language (and poems) as well as our work. All we can do is to remember the Sabbath—and how evocative a word "remember" is in the context of Berry's whole writing—by holding ourselves in its presence: "make your land recall / In workdays of the fields, / The sabbath of the woods."
What is at issue here, philosophically, is theophany, the Creator's self-revelation in creation: "O light come down to earth, be praised!" The scriptural texts Berry returns to are Job 14 and Psalm 104, the texts of the Spirit's intimacy with the world, "made to live by breath / Breathed into it by love." The measure of human thought and work—that is, of culture as a whole—is its willingness to be present to this Presence.
Hence there is a dark border even to Berry's sabbath vision, an irony and protest. "This is the promised burning," he writes in one evocation of our manic consumption, which leads to a striking, unsettling paraphrase of Revelation 14:13: "and blessed are / The dead who died before this time began." You must believe, as I do, that Berry's estimate of our danger is accurate not to feel that this biblical allusion is disproportionate. Yet even this darkness gives way to trust: "I said, I will grieve no more / for death, for what is death to me / who have seen thy returns, O / Lord of love, who in the false are true."
Lionel Basney was professor of English at Calvin College at the time of his accidental death in 1999. His essay, "Immanuel's Ground," published in the Summer 1999 issue of The American Scholar, was honored as the best essay published in the journal that year.
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