Book Review: What Use is Poetry Really?

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For the last several weeks, we have been pleased to partner with the Englewood Review of Books to bring you some fine book reviews. Today's review of Wendell Berry's The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford is the last in this series. Join us in two weeks for an interview with Guy Kawasaki, the author of our next book club selection, Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions. The book club begins May 9th.

Wendell Berry has written a thoughtful book-length meditation on the poetry of William Carlos Williams titled, appropriately, The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford. But let us be honest with one another: with the United States fighting two wars while governments fall throughout North Africa and the Middle East, with the economy still in shambles and almost one in ten Americans out of work, and with the rising of the oceans and the temperature of the planet, what use is poetry, really? And what is there for us in a book by a farmer-poet from Kentucky about a doctor-poet from New Jersey? In a passage from his poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” Williams writes, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” But what exactly can be found in poetry?

Spirited defenses of poetry have been raised throughout history (of note, Sir Philip Sydney’s in the sixteenth century and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s in the nineteenth), and though he does not claim anything so bold, Wendell Berry has written his own defense for our time. Readers familiar with Berry’s work will not be surprised that Rutherford, New Jersey would be of interest to him. Except for the years Williams spent in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and his subsequent internship in New York City, he lived, practiced medicine, and wrote in the place of his birth. His decision to settle in Rutherford is echoed in the life of Berry, who returned to his native Kentucky after finishing his formal education to live and farm and write. When Berry writes of Williams, “He lived by the terms of a community involvement more constant, more intimate, and more urgent than that of any other notable poet of his time,” he could also have been writing about himself.

By choosing not just to live in Rutherford but to make it the focus of his work, Williams engaged in a lifelong struggle to find a “locally appropriate language.” This led to a distinctly embodied poetry consistent with a philosophy Williams summarized as “no ideas but in things.” Or: flesh made word. Unlike that of his contemporaries T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, Williams’ poetry was not born out of abstractions, but, as Berry writes, from the “details of geography, of daily work, of local life and economy, and of course the details of an imposed industrialism and its overwhelming power to uproot, alienate, and corrupt.” Throughout his own body of work, Wendell Berry has explored how a worldview that generalizes local particularities into abstract principles is able to reduce living, interrelated ecologies into their constituent parts, which may be auctioned off to the highest bidder. For example, what we offhandedly refer to as our need for “energy” provides the emotional and intellectual distance necessary for us to tear off mountaintops for coal and drill into the earth for oil without an honest accounting of how these actions damage the health of the land, our communities, and future generations.

A companion to locality in the work of William Carlos Williams (and, of course, Wendell Berry) is the value placed on limits. Berry addresses this most directly in two chapters in the middle of the book titled “Economy and Form” and “Measure.” By valuing both limits and the local, Berry finds himself at odds with the prevailing culture. We are nation that believes in reinvention through relocation and in a pursuit of happiness that is synonymous with more. But we have found the pursuit unsatisfying and hollow, just as we know—although often only intuitively—that “there is pleasure, and there is beauty too, in any work with an exacting sense of enough.” Berry is writing here about poetry, but he could just as well be talking about a type of life lived, as he could when he writes:

What has been included is brought within measure, made eloquent, even musical, by being freed of the burden of all that has been, has needed to be, excluded.

Yes! We know this to be true, even though we rarely, if ever, practice it. Reading this book makes me want to go through my house with boxes and bags for a trip to Goodwill. It also causes me to examine how I spend my time: how can my life be made eloquent, even musical, by being freed of the burden of things that should be excluded?

Of course this what you might expect from a book by Wendell Berry, but what does it have to do with poetry? First, it is important to recognize you will not find truth or meaning in a poem if you are not willing to stop, be still, and listen to what it has to say. The dynamic between poem and reader is in many ways similar to (though certainly not a substitute for) the relationship between religious faith and the believer. Both require a present and active participation—a partnership—in order to realize their transformative power (although this age of distraction we are losing our capacity to enter into this kind of relationship). Also like religious faith, poetry exists at the “convergence of the eternal and the present;” it provides an opportunity to reach out toward a reality that is just beyond the limits of ordinary language.

Poetry, according to Berry, is “the means of giving to realizations of the fleeting eternal moment a kind of permanent presence, so that amid the confusion of ever-accumulating mass of details they can be returned to, not as ends in themselves…but as reminders of an indispensable possibility, a wakefulness belonging to the highest definition of our humanity.” We need these reminders—each of us. Poetry does not belong to professors in universities or to “high culture,” and it does not exist on the sidelines of life, while the real game of economics and science and politics and education takes place on the field. Poetry is “part of the necessary conversation of a local culture,” and so it matters that William Carlos Williams’ poetry is formed from the language of his own community, a poetry of locality and limits.

Poetry is not a panacea for all that ails us, but I regret that it has been marginalized in our society, along with the importance of belonging to a place and the satisfaction found in enough. Skeptics may question the value of “local arts of poetry, storytelling, painting, and music,” just as experts question the efficiency of a local economics, agriculture, fishing, and forestry. However,

Without such rootedness in locality, considerately adapted to local conditions, we get what we now have got: a country half-destroyed, toxic, eroded, and in every way abused; a deluded people tricked into gauds without traditions of any kind to give them character; a politics of expediency dictated by the wealthy; a disintegrating economy founded upon fantasy, fraud, and ecological ruin.

Again, skeptics may question the usefulness of poetry and the prophetic voice of Wendell Berry. But as we face the rising consequences of our individualism, our displacement, and our exploitative consumption, it seems like the burden of proof is on them.

Book Club Announcement: We are excited to announce that the next book club book is Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions by Guy Kawasaki! The start date is Monday, May 9th. Order your book soon and get ready for some enchanting conversation!

Photo by Elizabeth Weller , used with permission. Wendell Berry image sourced through Google Images. Post by David Johnson.