Wendell Berry and Washington, DC

So, you know April is National Poetry Month.  But did you also know April is the month Wendell Berry will give the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities in DC?  And did you also know that I have tickets?  I'm working feverishly to make the schedule and the work stuff and the family and the money shake down because I am committed to getting myself to this monumental event in the life of one of my heroes.  If you live in DC, give me a shout!  I'll be there the 23rd of April.

Perhaps you know Berry for his essays.  That's where I first met him formally.  His Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community collection was a watershed read for me a few years ago.  Perhaps you know him from his novels?  It was just last spring that I first visited Port William in his The Memory of Old Jack and fell in love with the place and the people.  My friend Scott is a huge Berry fan and has a gorgeous new blog going.  Check him out at threeorfourgoodthoughts.blogspot.com.  Or perhaps you know Berry for his poems.  This lesser-known (to me) Berry voice has a long history, and in honor of National Poetry Month, I picked up a few volumes from our Southern Writers Room downstairs.  His 2005 Given and 1985 Farming: A Handbook offer a nice spread of poems and thoughts to ponder.

I cannot express the joy it brings to pick up a new collection of poems and find something to love right away.  It confirms both the power of the artist and of the art form instantly and renews in me a desire to participate in this speaking of truth.  Here is Berry's "The Stones" from Farming: A Handbook:
I owned a slope full of stones.
Like buried pianos they lay in the ground,
shards of old sea-ledges, stumbling blocks
where the earth caught and kept them
dark, an old music mute in them
that my head keeps now I have dug them out.
I broke them where they slugged in their dark
cells, and lifted them up in pieces.
As I piled them in the light
I began their music.  I heard their old lime
rouse in breath of song that has not left me.
I gave pain and weariness to their bearing out.
What bond have I made with the earth,
having worn myself against it?  It is a fatal singing
I have carried with me out of that day.
The stones have given me music
that figures for me their holes in the earth
and their long lying in them dark.
They have taught me the weariness that loves the ground,
and I must prepare a fitting silence.
And from Given, coming on the heels of Mary Oliver's urgings in yesterday's post, Berry's poem "How to Be a Poet (to remind myself)" is a wonderful piece of art and instruction:
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 work,
doubt their judgment.

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.

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.
And one more for spring from the Sabbaths 2001 set in Given:

Ask the world to reveal its quietude --
not the silence of machines when they are still,
but the true quiet by which birdsongs,
trees, bellworts, snails, clouds, storms
become what they are, and are nothing else.
Note the recurrence of silence in all three.  The influence of my choice or Berry's particular interest?  Or perhaps both?


  1. Thanks for the mention! I do not read enough poetry, but I do have a copy of Given and was glad to be reminded of How To Be A Poet. I envy your Jefferson Lecture project and wish you a great trip.

    1. Thanks, Scott, and for the shout-out in return! If I drive up, I may want to crash in Abingdon on the way. Y'all be around?

  2. What a wonderful new-to-me poet! Thanks so much for sharing this. I live near dc, and depending on when you come in on the 23rd, which is a Sunday, I believe, I could be around and meet up with you. Just send me an email if you want to meet up. That weekend is the Bethesda, Md., Literary Festival, but the activities end early on Sunday...

  3. btw, I added this link to the NPM tour.

    1. Thanks so much, Serena! The 23rd is actually the Monday, and I'm not sure what my schedule will be at all. I'm still looking into transportation costs and even considering WALKING if it takes that. Of course, I'd have to leave tomorrow, but hey! It's Wendell Berry. He's worth it. ;)

    2. That's right...it is a Monday...lol But feel free to drop me an email anytime if you make it to town.

  4. another selection of great verse here thanks, here's my tuppence worth

    What We Need Is Here

    Geese appear high over us,
    pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
    as in love or sleep, holds
    them to their way, clear
    in the ancient faith: what we need
    is here. And we pray, not
    for new earth or heaven, but to be
    quiet in heart, and in eye,
    clear. What we need is here.

    1. Parrish, this is gorgeous. What we need is here. I love the resonance, the echo of that phrase.