9 Apr

Words as fulcrums

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 04/09/21

Wendell Berry on the mediating responsibilities of poets

In a 1974 essay titled “The Specialization of Poetry,” Wendell Berry offered some observations about the then-current state of poetry, observations based on reading interviews with a number of celebrated poets. He regrets that it is all too common for contemporary poets to have made virtually “a religion of their art, a religion based not on what they have in common with other people, but on what they do that sets them apart. For poets who believe this way, a poem is not a point of clarification or connection between themselves and the world on the one hand and between themselves and their readers on the other, nor is it an adventure into any reality or mystery outside themselves. It is a seeking of self in words, the making of a word-world in which the word-self may be at home. The poets go to their poems as other people have gone to the world or to God — for a sense of their own reality. Louis Simpson, for instance, says to an interviewer: ‘I have a very funny sense of myself in the poem — I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about how the poems make a self for me.’ Later he says of himself and some of his contemporaries: ‘We had to be devoted to poetry for its own sake.’ And Mark Strand says: ‘I have the feeling that I am a metaphor for my own being.’ . . .

“The world that once was mirrored by the poet has become the poet’s mirror. This explains, I think, the emphasis upon personal terror and suffering and the fear of death in much recent poetry. When the self is one’s exclusive subject and limit, reference and measure, one has no choice but to make a world of words. And this gives to one’s own suffering and death the force of cataclysm.

“But the difficulties are more than personal. For one thing, the subject of poetry is not words, it is the world, which poets have in common with other people. It has been argued that modern poets were forced to turn inward by the disposition of their materialistic societies to turn outward. But that argument ignores or discounts the traditions that have always bound poetry to the concerns and values of the spirit. This ancient allegiance gives poets the freedom, and perhaps the moral imperative, to turn outward. It is certainly no accident that Yeats, perhaps the most spiritual poet in our language in our era, was also perhaps the most political. As regards this connection between humans and the world, the specialization of poetry is exactly analogous to the specialization of religion. Putting exclusive emphasis upon a world of words has the same result as putting exclusive emphasis upon heaven; it leads to, and allows, and abets the degradation of the world. And it leads ultimately to the degradation of poetry and religion. Renunciation of the world may sustain religious or poetic fervor for a while, but sooner or later it becomes suicidal.

“This exclusive emphasis upon language leads also to the degradation of general literacy. Not so long ago it was generally thought that in order to be a writer a person needed extraordinary knowledge or experience. This, of course, frequently led to some willful absurdity in the life of a young writer. But it also suggested a connection — even a responsible connection — between art and experience or art and the world. What we have too frequently now, in the words of hundreds of poetry reviews in the time of my own coming of age, is the notion that what distinguishes a writer from a nonwriter is, first and last, a gift and a love of language. Writers, that is, are not distinguished by their knowledge or character or vision or inspiration or the stories they have to tell; they are distinguished by their specialties. This is a difference not of degree, but of kind. And the resulting absurdities are greater than before, and more dangerous. The power of such notions among the college-bred is suggested by a statement of Mr. John W Dean III: ‘I would still like to be a writer. Maybe I will write a book. I love to play with words and twist phrases. I always play Scrabble.’”

“If both writer and reader assume that the writer’s gift makes him or her a person of a radically different kind, then it seems that the relation between writer and reader must be radically reduced. Reading a book becomes merely a diversion. A writer such as Shakespeare is of course distinguished by his language, which is certainly his gift and his love. But his language is, after all, the common tongue, to which his gift is uncommon grace and power; without his commonness we could neither recognize nor value his distinction.

“One of the first obligations of poets is certainly to purify the language of the tribe — but not merely to write poems with it. The language of the tribe used by a specialist-poet to produce a poem ‘for its own sake’ can only describe the boundaries of an imprisoning and damning selfhood. Joyce Carol Oates says, writing of Sylvia Plath: ‘When the epic promise of ‘One’s-self I sing’ is mistaken as the singing of a separate self, and not the Universal self, the results can only be tragic.’ There is a sense of balance that is missing from the atmosphere that now surrounds much of the writing and much of the criticism of poetry. This sense of balance would lead and lead again to the poet’s place of responsibility between the poem’s readers and its subject — which is also the reader’s subject. It would see words as fulcrums across which intelligence must endlessly be weighed against experience.”

— from Wendell Berry, “The Specialization of Poetry, ” in Standing by Words: Essays (Shoemaker & Hoard, 1983). On Volume 148 of the Journal, Jeffrey Bilbro (Virtues of Renewal: Wendell Berry's Sustainable Forms) offered some thoughts about how — in his poems, novels, and essays — Berry fosters a sense of propriety or fittingness, a manner in which we ought to act with the world around us.