I have written several posts here about the novels and short fiction of Wendell Berry. While I treasure these stories and go back to them for sustenance, I also have found great satisfaction in reading Berry’s poetry. This recently published collection is a great place to start if you are new to Berry as a poet.
The themes that Berry explores in his fiction—community, the connections between people and the land, nature, the struggles to maintain a small farm, religion and spirituality, and redemption—are further developed in these poems. The settings for many of the poems are the same Kentucky woods, farms, fields, and small towns that are so present in Berry’s fiction. The poems distill the longer works, offering the reader the essence of Berry’s thoughts. As any great poet does, and he is indeed a great poet, Berry moves from the particular to the universal, illuminating our lives through his own experience. The about two hundred poems collected here reflect Berry’s published works from 1964 to the present.
Here is one of my favorites, “Burley Coulter’s Song for Kate Helen Branch.” Here, Berry’s elegiac tone is conveyed in language that weaves and winds like a fiddle playing in some lonesome hollow.
The rugs were rolled back to the wall
The band in place, the lamps all lit.
We talked and laughed a little bit
And then obeyed the caller’s call
Light-footed, happy, half-entranced-
To balance, swing, and promenade.
Do you remember how we danced
And how the fiddler played?
About midnight we left the crowd
And wandered out to take a stroll.
We heard the treefrogs and the owl;
Nearby the creek was running loud.
The good dark held us as we chanced
The joy we two together made,
Remembering how we’d whirled and pranced
And how the fiddler played.
That night is many years ago,
And gone, and still I see you clear,
Clear as the lamplight in your hair
The old time comes around me now,
And I remember how you glanced
At me, and how we stepped and swayed.
I can’t forget the way we danced,
The way the fiddler played.
If you enjoy Wendell Berry’s fiction, you should give his poetry a try. If you have never read Berry, you could do worse than to start with this excellent collection.
Check the WRL catalog for New Collected Poems