Thom Satterlee on Wendell Berry’s This Day: New & Collected Sabbath Poems
In the mid-1960s, after completing a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the University of Kentucky and traveling across the country to study creative writing as a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford, Wendell Berry made a decision that defined the rest of his life. He would not live in New York or any of the literary or art capitals of the world. He would not pursue a college teaching career or the life of a professional writer. Instead, he returned to his hometown in rural Kentucky, where he has stayed — farming, raising a family, and writing books — for nearly half a century now.
“People I admired told me I was making a big mistake,” Berry said in an interview. “I can’t prove that they were wrong. There is no ‘control plot’ — no life as it might have been with which to compare life as it has been. There is just the fact that at a crucial point in my life I did what I wanted to do.”
Berry, who turns eighty on August 5, 2014, has had a generous amount of literary success: he’s published over fifty books in three genres (essays, fiction, and poetry), received fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, and won prestigious awards, including the National Humanities Medal and, just this year, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
But it’s unlikely that Berry would point to these accomplishments as somehow vindicating the choice he made as a younger man. Perhaps if anything proves that he made the right decision, it would be the work he’s managed to produce — the hillside farm where he’s practiced sustainable agriculture for close to fifty years and the books he’s written out of the life he’s lived there.
His most recent publication, This Day: New & Collected Sabbath Poems, is the perfect window into Wendell Berry’s chosen life. Reading these poems is like taking a privileged stroll with their author — across fields, beside creeks, and into woods. They are, for the most part, short lyric poems written in the personal voice of someone who has dedicated himself to “agrarianism,” a term which Berry once defined as “the desire for an economy that would be careful to the land, just to human workers, neighborly, democratic, and kind to all gifts, natural and divine, on which our life depends.”
This Day is arranged chronologically, from 1979 through 2012. Some years include a dozen poems; some, half a dozen; and one year (1981), a mere single poem. In the introduction, Berry explains the principles behind his “Sabbath” poems. They are rooted, he says, in the biblical notion of Sabbath found in Genesis 2:2 — the command that humankind, following God’s example, should set aside a day of rest. In Berry’s case, this day is Sunday, but his rest is not always found in the same conventional way as his neighbors. “I am a bad-weather churchgoer,” he explains.
When the weather is good, sometimes when it is only tolerable, I am drawn to the woods on the local hillsides or along the streams […]. In such places, on the best of these sabbath days, I experience a lovely freedom from expectation — other people’s and also my own. I go free from the tasks and intentions of my workdays, and so my mind becomes hospitable to unintended thoughts: to what I am very willing to call inspiration. The poems come incidentally or they do not come at all. If the Muse leaves me alone, I leave her alone. To be quiet, even wordless, in a good place is a better gift than poetry.
Over the last thirty-odd years, the Muse has bothered Wendell Berry for approximately four hundred pages of “Sabbath” poems. The poems, titled by Roman numerals followed by the year in which they were written, range from formal (rhymed and metered quatrains, some couplet strings, a sonnet) to free verse of a carefully constructed sort. As a poet, Berry’s strengths are imagery and sentiment (not sentimentality), as illustrated in this love poem from 2002:
The cherries turn ripe, ripe,
and the birds come: red-headed
and red-bellied woodpeckers,
blue jays, cedar waxwings,
robins — beautiful, hungry, wild
in our domestic tree. I pick
with the birds, gathering the red
cherries alight among the dark
leaves, my hands so sticky
with juice the fruit will hardly
drop from them into the pail.
The birds pick as I pick, all
of us delighted in the weighty heights
— the fruit red ripe, the green leaves,
the blue sky and white clouds,
all tending to flight — making
the most of this sweetness against
the time when there will be none.
And you are to me, my love,
as a tree of ripe cherries,
and I am a wild bird high
in your branches, hungry (V, 2002).
Poems of this sort — rooted in natural imagery and showing the poet’s love of his place — make up the majority of the book. Whether the poet admires a bush of bright red berries and, like Robert Frost’s figure in the poem “Mowing,” purposely leaves it undisturbed (XVI, 2012); or compares a river stirred by the breeze to the “quivering … touched skin of a horse” (III, 2003); or calls the trees in his woodland “Patient as stars” (I, 1986); or says of the spring pasture where lambs are grazing that “Nibbles of pleasure go all over it” (III, 1982) — it is abundantly clear that Berry has cultivated a life of beauty and that he recognizes his blessings.
But as he points out in the introduction, “the unintended thought on a Sunday walk, the thought invoked by the Sabbath theme, does not dependably lead to rest.” In this statement he signals another type of poem often found in the collection, sometimes more successfully written than at others. You could call these “mad” poems — angry and at times zany rants against Capitalism, agribusiness, greed, war, and power. In these poems, Berry speaks his mind directly, without the suggestiveness of imagery or metaphor. Here, for instance, he abandons the advice of Emily Dickinson to “Tell it Slant”:
Gloss it how you will,
plaster it over with politic
bullshit as you please,
ours has been a brutal
history, punishing without
regret whatever or whomever
belonged or threatened to belong
in place, converting the land
to poverty and money any
way that was quickest (IX, 2008).
In the best of these mad poems, Berry maintains a lighter — or I should say more “sly” — touch. In one poem from 1997, he creates a dystopic world reminiscent of a George Orwell novel. Berry achieves this effect partly by introducing and repeating the phrase “the objective”: “I came to the city that nobody recognized because it looked like every other city. / I saw the passages worn by the unnumbered / footfalls of those whose eyes were fixed upon the objective” (II, 1997). It’s an eerie poem, as unsettling as the words of an Old Testament prophet. And it shows quite clearly that not all of Berry’s Sabbaths were restful.
Overwhelmingly, though, the poems in This Day reveal the life of a person who cares about his relationship to the earth and the human community. Berry wishes to do more than simply praise that world, and he encourages others join him: “let us suppose / that Nature gave the world flowers / and birdsong as language … / what must we say back? Not / just thanks or praise, but acts / of kindness bespeaking kinship …” (VIII, 2012).
His poems, whether they soothe or jolt, inspire or move to responsible action, aim at keeping “kindness” and “kinship” alive in the world.
That alone makes This Day a book well worth reading, on a Sabbath or any other day of the week.
[Poems copyright © 2013 by Wendell Berry from This Day. Used by permission of Counterpoint.]