Imagination in Place
In this first new collection of essays in five years, poet, fiction writer, essayist, and Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry delivers a basketful of ripe fruit, like the symbolic red raspberries on the cover. In prose that is tight and direct and a treatment that is sweet yet tart, he talks straight with us. His subject here is writing itself and the community it breeds. One might see this book as a series of appreciations of the writers who have mattered to him and to the community of writers to which he belongs. And though Berry shuns “literary criticism” of his own works, these tributes to fellow writers and their life work comprise a practical and value-based aesthetic; it is Criticism with a capital C as in the work of Aristotle.
Though Berry could be considered “conservative” in his writing approach, this is only so in that his work holds to values based on a vision of life founded on trust, friendship, love, a preservation of the land and community, and of one’s craft. In our often valueless culture, such an approach is better seen as progressive. Whether writing about land preservation, military waste, agricultural methods and land abuse, or of thoughts on poetry and fiction, Berry is an experienced writer speaking of what he knows best. He works the fields and speaks a deeply heart-felt truth. “What I have learned as a farmer I have learned also as a writer, and vice versa. I have farmed as a writer and written as a farmer.”
The stakes are high, as he declares in praising the work-based poems of Hayden Carruth:
“Our survival, our culture, and our civilization, if they are to be even worthy of survival, depend on our ability to supply to the feeling of reverence the arts necessary for its enactment. Poetry and farming have to be counted equally as two of the necessary arts; and we must understand at last that Hayden’s poem is an appreciation of one fine artist to another: reverent men, both of them.”
The essays and appreciations begin with James Still and Ernest J. Gaines, two writers from different parts of the South. He then acknowledges the model of his teacher Wallace Stegner, who captured the West in his sense of place writing. Deep praise is given to Alaskan poet John Haines for their shared place sense and authentic voice. The essay “My Friend Hayden” proves more personal as he tells of their lasting friendship: “We did not need to tell each other about the happiness of belonging to a place, of loving neighbors who do not read poetry, or ricked firewood, of a garden, of a rough-carpentered shelter for writing, of silence, of the wildness surrounding and suffusing, or handwork outdoors. There are certain griefs and indignations that we have in common also, and have not needed to explain or defend.” The particular becomes universal, as in most of Berry’s writing.
He praises James Still further, Gurney Norman, James Baker Hall, Kathleen Raines, and offers one of the best analysis of Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End long poem and book. But for this reviewer, the finest and most moving essay is one entitled “Sweetness Preserved” on poet friends Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon. In it is this priceless declaration of what poetry is not meant to be:
“Those who are living and writing at a given time are not isolated poetry dispensers more or less equivalent to soft-drink machines, awaiting the small change of critical approval. We are, figuratively at least, members of a community, joined together by our stories. We are inevitably collaborators. We are never in any simple sense the authors of our own work. The body of work we make for ourselves in our time is only remotely a matter of literary history. The work we make is the work we are living by, and not in the hope of making literary history, but in the hope of using, correcting so far as we are able, and passing on the art of human life, of human flourishing, which includes the art of reading and writing poetry.”
Defying New Criticism and the commercialism of art, Berry protests that the poet and the person must be one and that knowing something of their life only deepens our reading of a poem. The essay is part memoir, part literary criticism, part reflection, and certainly a tribute to both fine writers. Interspersed with their poems is the description of who they are as persons.
Perhaps a weakness of this new collection is that it is a collection or a gathering of previous works—essays, introductions, profiles, recollections, elegies—that were not originally conceived as a book. There is a fair amount of repetition and a loose structure, rather like crossing a stream by jumping from one stone to another. Berry can be feisty, but his stubbornness and wit are wed to his compassion and concern. Insight, and yes, wisdom rise from these pages like heat from a campfire, and we can all be warmed by it.