Wendell Berry Reminds Us How To Be A Poet

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A friend of mine knowing that I’ve been suffering from writer’s block for the past several months sent this to me, a poem by one of my favorite authors about the writing of poetry.  I’ll add one thought but otherwise let the work speak for itself.  I remember several years ago listening to acclaimed poet Li-Young Lee read some of his poetry and thinking at the time that his words created silence in me.  In regards to the last lines of Mr. Berry’s poem here, I’ve often thought that the best books, poems, and songs – though filled with sounds and words – create a quiet place in us and give us an opportunity to actually listen to silence.  Now, from Mr. Berry:

“How To Be a Poet”
by Wendell Berry

(to remind myself)

i

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

ii

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

iii

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.


18 Comments

  1. Kyle

    great stuff! add the Holy Spirit to that and you have a powerful combination. be quiet and listen to the poetry of God…and sometimes He gives us something to say too. thanks for pointing us to that.

  2. Hannah

    That’s wonderful. I’m also very fond of Dana Gioia’s “The Next Poem”:

    The Next Poem

    How much better it seems now
    than when it is finally done–
    the unforgettable first line,
    the cunning way the stanzas run.

    The rhymes soft-spoken and suggestive
    are barely audible at first,
    an appetite not yet acknowledged
    like the inkling of a thirst.

    While gradually the form appears
    as each line is coaxed aloud–
    the architecture of a room
    seen from the middle of a crowd.

    The music that of common speech
    but slanted so that each detail
    sounds unexpected as a sharp
    inserted in a simple scale.

    No jumble box of imagery
    dumped glumly in the reader’s lap
    or elegantly packaged junk
    the unsuspecting must unwrap.

    But words that could direct a friend
    precisely to an unknown place,
    those few unshakeable details
    that no confusion can erase.

    And the real subject left unspoken
    but unmistakable to those
    who don’t expect a jungle parrot
    in the black and white of prose.

    How much better it seems now
    than when it is finally written.
    How hungrily one waits to feel
    the bright lure seized, the old hook bitten.

  3. Chad

    A few things that hit me from this poem:

    “Any readers who like your poems, doubt their judgment.” This seems to advocate less accessibility. Honestly, I find that I enjoy the praise of others far too much. Why is it hard to wait/work for a higher reward?

    “. . . stay away from screens. Stay away from anything that obscures the place it is in.” In the age of digitized special effects we often search for realism in unreal environments. Mr. Berry is right to draw inspiration from the everyday encounters because therein lies the parable.

    “. . . make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came.” Too much clamor may turn a few heads, but they usually won’t stay turned very long. It’s often during the silent moments that inspiration comes to me.

  4. Peter B

    Silence.

    I once heard Alister Begg say — quoting someone else — that “you cannot simultaneously impress others with yourself and impress them with Christ”. That’s not verbatim, but the heart of it still comes through.

  5. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Peter,

    I love listening to A. Begg.

    A Joni Mitchell line: “…the times you impress me most are the times when you don’t try.”

    Jason – supreme wisdom and a lot to chew on in few words from Wendell Berry.

    All this talk of brevity lately is giving me the hives.

  6. Travis Prinzi

    Brilliant.

    One line in there reminded me of two other great authors.

    You must depend upon
    affection, reading, knowledge,
    skill—more of each
    than you have

    “more of each than you have”

    L’Engle talks about the need to “obey the story.” The story – or in this case, the poem – is greater than the author, and the author’s job is to listen to the story, and to obey it.

    George MacDonald said that though God’s words can’t mean or say anything more than what He intended (for he has full knowledge and is self-sufficient), human words must mean more than we think or intend. There is something greater than us that we tap into in the creative process.

  7. Mark L.

    I’m going to go ahead and confess that at first glance I had absolutely no idea what this poem was about and had flashbacks to reading Oswald Chambers devotions as a high schooler.

    It was interesting to read the comments with what stood out and interpretations. Could someone help me with the “live a 3-dimesioned life” part. I think I know what he is saying, but I would be curious to hear other interpretations. I bow to the intellectual brainpower in here. You all are wicked smaht.

  8. Chris Slaten

    Mark,
    My interpretation of the “live a 3-dimensional life” bit was that he was referring to interacting with what is immediately in front of you. He follows that line with “stay away from screens” (or a 2D life). Turn off the t.v., computer, etc. anything that is going to interfere with your ability to see what is immediately in front of you in its purest state.

  9. Mark L.

    That makes a lot of sense Chris. In hindsight, I can’t believe I didn’t pickup on that. By the way, I think all the rabbitroom people followed Mr. Berry’s advice. It’s like a holiday ghost town around here.

    I will add all of you to my list of people to be thankful for. Even though I don’t really know any of you, I like what you have to say.

    Now, it is my sincerest hope that other people will make comments soon in order that I don’t sweep the “Recent Comments” section. Thank you.

    The end.

    Sincerely,
    The recent comment dominator

  10. Bill Burns

    I always enjoy, and have a chuckle at this little tidbit:

    “The aim of good prose words is to mean what they say. The aim of good poetical words is to mean what they do not say.” G.K. Chesterton

  11. Peter B

    Ron, yeah; I usually get to listen to him on my way to work (embarrassingly enough I spelled his name wrong, which I attribute to the fact that I’ve only ever heard of him on the radio).

    Hang in there. There is hope, even for those of us brevity-impaired folks.

  12. Kevin E

    Many years ago before I even knew who he was, I heard an interview with Mr. Berry on CBC radio up here in Canada. The depth of his replies and wisdom along with the poetic illustrations he gave were forever burned into my mind. Once again this poem did not disappoint

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